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BMW i3 (2013 onwards)
BMW i3: summary
Electric BMW arrives and redefines what’s possible from a mainstream electronic vehicle (EV) – the i3 is brilliant.
We like: ground-breaking electric car that drives the electric car sector forward, genuinely enjoyable car to drive because of, not despite, the electric motor
We don’t like: driving it well takes practice, it’s as expensive as a 3 Series, 100-mile range (160kms)
BMW i3: first impressions
At last! The BMW i3 is the firm’s first all-electric production car and the culmination of six years’ work. In which time, a new brand has been created, a new design language formed, a new in-house motor and gearbox designed, a new production method invented – oh, and 20 million miles covered by two EV test car programmes. BMW has not taken this step into the unknown lightly…
The i3 itself reflects this ground-up clean sheet. It looks like no other BMW. Like no other car on the road. It is tall, quite narrow, just four metres long, but although it has a monobox silhouette, the styling is unique. It looks high-tech, precision-built, rich, with a clear influence from the technology sector. You may not love it at first but it does grow on you as the detail within the complex surfacing emerges. At the end of two days’ constant exposure, we liked it. Others admit they’ll need more time.
BMW has not taken this step into the electric unknown lightly…
BMW launched it to us as a pure electric vehicle, with a 170hp electric motor in the rear, and a battery pack located underneath the passenger compartment. It’s incredibly space efficient for such a small car, flexibility unchanged in a neat sister car – a range extender variant, with a tiny two-cylinder motorbike engine that keeps the batteries charged (and the i3 running) when they go flat. Both variants go on sale in November, meaning BMW has an instant answer to the question of range anxiety. Clever.
It’s the regular EV that has to be right, though. Particularly at £30,680 (the rage extender is £33,830). That’s BMW 320d money. The i3 wears a BMW badge and is billed as ‘the next premium’, but it will only be a success if its abilities measure up to the hype. But then, surely when BMW invests so much time, money and engineering might into a project, it doesn’t get it wrong? Or are we in for a shock?
BMW i3: performance
The BMW i3 is the first electric car to deliver performance that’s genuinely, refreshingly different. A large part of this is because there’s so much of it. If you get into one with thoughts of lethargic G-Wiz, the G-forces it generates when the accelerator is pressed will stun you. We don’t use that term lightly: this is an EV that accelerates from 0-62mph in one seamless, intense, electric 7.2-second burst. That’s quicker than a MINI Cooper. That’s almost hot-hatch fast. That’s amazing.
The performance is like you’re being pulled along by one intense magnetic force field
The way the power is delivered is also like no petrol or diesel. It’s instantaneous; the single-speed gearbox doesn’t need to downchange and the motor doesn’t need time to get into its power band or spool up its turbos. At any time you want, you can stamp on the throttle and it will surge forward immediately. Go on, try to catch it out; you won’t.
Because electric power is much more precise and easy to modulate accurately than combustion engine power, it makes the drive seem more accurate. This makes the i3 a refreshingly satisfying car to drive quickly; it’s not just very quick but also sensitive and sharp with it. It’s an entirely new type of power delivery that finally delivers upon the promise of electric drive.
Something else that’s completely different is found when you lift off the accelerator: the i3 decelerates, purposefully. This is regenerative braking stronger than in any other EV on sale and it turns the i3 into a ‘one pedal car’. Most of the time, speeding up and slowing down is a matter of modulating the right pedal – it’ll even bring you smoothly to a compete standstill without touching the brakes (creating lots of battery-charging electricity in the process). It takes time to master but is very effective once you do.
Of course, there’s no engine noise. The silence is enhanced over other EVs here because BMW has both put great effort into minimising the whine of the motor, and also mounted it in the rear, out of earshot. There's no vibration either: it's all very space age. Performance is thus like you’re being pulled along by one intense magnetic force field. This is what EVs have promised; finally BMW delivers on it.
BMW i3: ride and handling
Electric cars don’t handle, right? Well, BMWs traditionally do. And, so does the electric i3. Like all good BMWs, it is rear-wheel drive and, like a Porsche 911, it is also rear-engined. This gives it superb traction and thus the best chance of handling the car’s considerable torque.
It gives corruption-free steering and a neutral balance in corners (racing cars drive the rear wheels for a reason). With a very low centre of gravity, centralised mass and 50/50 weight distribution, the i3 is about as pure a modern car as you can get. On the road, it feels it. It’s immediately confident, assured and encouraging, giving plenty of reassurance and not feeling anything like the top-heavy, pitching skateboard its dimensions suggest.
Like all good BMWs, it is rear-wheel drive, and handles twisting road with surprising speed
The steering has nice firm weighting and none of the flimsy steer-by-wire feel that other electric cars offer. Inputs at speed can give a sharp, nervy reaction, though: BMW has fitted a, direct-drive steering system that helps with in-town wieldiness and immediacy. Use the more measured inputs of a sports car and the i3 becomes crisp without feeling over-sharp. It handles twisty roads at surprising speed given the narrow 155-section front tyres and has bags of stable confidence at speed, too.
Some may view the big 19-inch wheels with narrow eyes, given how some other BMWs have ridden. Fear not. The i3 rides well, with firmly controlled absorbency and, importantly, no harshness. It will jitter over bitty surfaces, of course, but even when it becomes stiff, it doesn’t crash and bang. Most of the time, a surprisingly supple and well-judged damping gives a fluid feel that’s enhanced by the big wheels’ ability to ride potholes well. The fact it isn’t soft and soggy gives good riding composure, too.
BMW i3: interior
It's a loft on wheels, accordingn to BMW. By which it means something high-rise and roomy, but it also means something akin to a designer pad in fashionable Soho. The i3 delivers on both. Space first: with the proviso it’s a four-seater, not five, all adult-sized occupants will be swallowed comfortably. Twin rear-hinged doors allow access to the rear and the driver doesn’t need to slide their seat forward in order to liberate space. You don’t even need to tip the front seats forward to get in the back, although you do need to open the front doors before you can release the rear os.
BMW has worked uncommonly hard to make the 100-mile range fully useable
Like all good lofts, the i3 has loads of spaces and cubbies for stuff; like all good loft-style apartments, it’s packed with high-end furniture. The star attraction is the dashboard, low-set and simple in design, with a flowing piece of real wood forming the base and a massive flatscreen monitor. It’s brilliant, smart-looking and packed with functionality. Sculptural seats are another draw, and a top-quality luxury feel runs throughout.
The dash is low, windscreen deep, side windows tall; with the high roof and open-plan, flat-floor cabin layout, it feels very light and airy. A posh studio flat, then; one that enjoys low noise levels too. The key noise generator is eliminated and everything else has been duly refined so they don’t take its place. It’s only wind noise from the door mirrors at speed that BMW hasn’t been able to quell.
There’s a decent boot and fold-flat seats expand it to 1,100 litres. Practical for families? Reasonably, although kids won’t like the fact you can’t open the rear windows. The layout isn’t quite as practical as a family hatchback either – you’ll have to get out and release the back doors if you want to drop off the kids at school. Safety first, counters BMW…
BMW i3: economy and safety
So, the key question: how far can it go on a fully charged battery? A hundred miles. What? Isn’t that what most EVs already do – and hasn’t the Nissan LEAF recently been boosted to more than 120? Yes, on all that. But BMW says the 100-mile total was intentional. Studies show people barely do half that each day before an overnight recharge opportunity; why add more unnecessary weight and expense?
The argument will run and run, so let’s accept the 100-mile range here – because BMW has worked uncommonly hard to make sure it’s a fully useable range. The range indicator updates in real time. The sat-nav is fully connected and shows you where you can go on your remaining charge and where the local EV charging slots are (even, whether they’re available or not) if it’s not enough.
BMW has given us the first genuinely desirable mainstream electric car
There are Eco Pro and Eco Pro+ modes, too, juggling the air con (or turning it off) to give you extra range. You’d never run your smartphone this low but the i3’s systems give you the confidence to go below 10% charge without anxiety, and without any loss of performance.
One more word on the range: if it’s not enough, the answer’s simple. Buy the range extender i3.
The i3 hasn't yet been tested by EuroNCAP but a superb result is expected; made from carbonfibre, the passenger 'life cell' is very strong indeed, and there's no weighty engine up front to harm pedestrians, either. BMW says it has had to redesign its stability control system, mind, to be faster-reacting – the electric motor's response is too quick for standard systems. It's thus one of the most intuitive systems of its type, cutting in and out so fast, you barely notice it.
BMW i3: the MSN Cars verdict
BMW has done what we thought it would: given us the first genuinely desirable mainstream electric car. You’ll buy it for its performance, handling, leftfield styling and interior just as much as its zero emissions, its green credentials and its noise-free drive.
It still only goes 100 miles on a charge and, for many, that will be impossible to overcome. But for electric car evangelists, those who are fully aware of how many miles they actually do in a day, and for plain old car enthusiasts, the BMW i3 deserves your attention. It is a superb car, full stop. With the footnote that it may just help save the planet to boot.
- On Bing: see pictures of the BMW i3
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