What is it?
The BMW i3. Alongside the i8 supercar, it’s the start of BMW’s electric future – or so the company hopes. The i3 combines state-of-the art carbon construction with an electric powertrain, and the option of a ‘range extender’ petrol engine that can recharge the battery pack on the move. There’s no doubting that it’s a truly remarkable piece of engineering, but the bigger question is whether it can justify its hefty pricetag of £25,680 for the entry-level electric only version, and that’s after the UK government’s £5000 electric car grant has been applied. The range extender adds £3150 to the price.
The car’s bodyshell is made from carbonfibre reinforced plastic and exterior panels are polymer. Other weight saving features include all-aluminium suspension, with the rear links mounted directly to the power pack, and hollow driveshafts. So even despite the hefty weight of the battery pack, the pure electric version has a kerbweight of just 1270kg, and the range extender is still just 1390kg. The rear-mounted electric motor produces 125kW (167bhp) and drives the rear wheels via single-speed reduction gearing and there’s no mechanical connection between the range extending engine and the wheels; all power is transmitted electrically. The optional 647cc two-cylinder petrol engine produces just 37bhp and its sole purpose is to recharge the 18.8Kw/h Li-ion battery pack.
The batteries take around 10 hours to recharge from a domestic power supply, or three hours using a fast charging system that BMW will be selling alongside the car.
The claimed range-to-empty figures come in at 118 miles for the electric-only version, and 211 miles for the range extender. The latter car comes with a claimed 470mpg combined figure, though, in the real world – especially with motorway or dual carriageway cruising factored in – these figures will dwindle again.
What’s it like to drive?
Very differently from any other BMW. It’s a good car, but not one that’s going to feel familiar to anyone climbing out of anything else in the range.
You sit high in the finely trimmed cabin, with thin seats that offer decent support and give the sort of eyeline you’d normally find in an SUV or people-carrier. Where you’d expect to find instrument dials there’s just a small display screen ahead of the narrow-rimmed steering wheel . And the gear selector is a feeble two-finger affair on the side of the instrument binnacle.
The motor itself is almost silent. Unlike the vocal Nissan Leaf, which whines like a Tube train under acceleration, the i3 barely whispers, even under hard acceleration. At urban speeds it feels quick – flooring the throttle pedal produces some proper shove, with the motor’s seamless delivery intensifying the sense of gathering momentum. Officially the electric-only version manages the 0-62mph sprint in just 7.2secs, and a quick Vbox run saw us beat the range extender’s claimed 7.9sec.
The ride is firm. Not uncomfortably so, and it handles the UK’s broken tarmac reasonably well. The tyres produce a surprising amount of noise, despite their diminutive 155-section, although that might well be because of the absence of other sound. Wisely, BMW has opted not to give the i3 any kind of electronically produced virtual soundtrack.
The power delivery is the strangest part of the experience, with what BMW calls ‘one pedal’ operation. When you lift off the throttle the electric motor switches to regenerative braking, slowing the i3 down at the rate of a moderate brake application, and it will actually stop the car dead if you let it. The only way to keep rolling is to then reapply the throttle – even if you just want to slow down at a slightly slower rate. This also means that the i3 won’t move from rest until you press the throttle, although – without the ‘idle creep’ of a true automatic – it will roll backwards if you’re not pressing the brakes. It all feels a little unnatural at first, but adapt to it and it makes an awful lot of sense and makes a traditional automatic suddenly feel a little over-complicated.
And travelling faster? Although its clear the i3 is in no way intended for making spirited progress, the chassis does a decent job when you up the pace. Despite the promise of the rear-drive chassis there’s nothing but understeer when the tyres reach their modest limits, but the direct steering combines keen responses with a modest amount of feel. And the i3’s narrow track and excellent turning circle make it impressively good at finding gaps in urban traffic.
Top speed is limited to 93mph to preserve battery life, but acceleration really tails off after about 60mph. And at higher speeds the plummeting numbers on the ‘range’ display serve as a reminder of just how unsuited electric cars are to high-speed cruising – try to keep up with UK motorway traffic and you’d pretty much half the 82 mile ‘real world’ range.
How does it compare?
High-price, high-performance EVs aside (Tesla Model S, Mercedes SLS Electric Drive) this is surely the most appealing electric car currently on sale. It’s a handy size with useable interior space, it ain’t pretty but it looks interesting and there’s certainly premium quality to it. The only issue will be price - even after the UK government’s subsidy is applied, the i3 finds itself priced against some proper talent – the 60mpg VW Golf GTD is just £1000 more, and it almost goes without saying it is far, far less limited in its long-distance flexibility. As a rational, flexible purchase electric cars still fall down. But this is a very promising development for their desirability.
Anything else I need to know?
BMW is offering various bolt-on packages with the car including maintenance and even the option of being able to swap for a conventional car for a certain number of days a year.
Around 80 per cent of UK buyers are opting for the range extender version, but BMW reckons that proportion will fall as people grow to trust the electric version.