BMW i3 review

Our Rating: 
4
4.0/5.0
By Auto Express Test TeamComments

The BMW i3 makes a great city car - it's relaxing to drive and there's nothing else like it on the road

For: 
Relaxed driving experience, economy, sharp handling
Against: 
High price, limited range on standard model, small boot

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BMW is best known for its high-performance petrol and diesel cars, but now the brand is embracing eco-friendly battery-powered models. Its bold i3 is the first in what promises to be an extensive line-up of zero-emissions vehicles, and it’s packed with hi-tech materials and cutting-edge engineering. Yet with a punchy 168bhp motor and traditional rear-wheel-drive layout, it should be as good to drive as any other BMW.

There are four distinctive themes to choose from – Standard, £1,000 Loft, £1,500 Lodge and £2,000 Suite – all with bright and stylish seat and carpet trims, many made from sustainable materials. It is also available with an optional range-extending motorcycle engine that keeps the batteries topped up.

Without the range extender the BMW i3’s range stands at anywhere between about 80 miles and 125 miles depending on how you drive; with the range-extender those numbers could double.

The BMW i3 is about the same size as a Ford Fiesta but it feels higher and larger inside. Compared to many electric cars, like the Renault ZOE or Vauxhall Ampera, it’s also very lightweight thanks to its carbon fibre and aluminium construction – in fact, it’s about 300kg lighter than a Nissan LEAF.

Our choice: BMW i3 Range-Extender

Styling

4.5

You’d struggle to mistake the adventurously styled i3 for anything else. Taking its cues from the BMW Coupe Concept that debuted at the 2012 Los Angeles show, it looks like it’s driven straight off a designer’s drawing board.

The i3’s tall and narrow proportions are more MPV than family hatchback, but in all other respects it sits in a class all of its own. The heavily sculpted body panels are made from lightweight plastic, with a gloss black finish for the bonnet and glass tailgate. Elsewhere you’ll spot the distinctive plunging window line, swept-back headlamps and eye-catching blue trim for the fared-in grille and lower sills. Huge 19-inch alloys add the final flourish.

Happily, the cutting-edge design continues when you climb aboard. With neat rear-hinged doors and no B-pillar, access to the BMW is easy – although you have to step over the wide sill. Once inside you’ll be treated to a neatly packaged and imaginatively designed layout that’s easy to use and beautifully finished.

Climb into the high-set driver’s seat and you’re confronted by a pair of TFT screens – one ahead of the driver and one that appears to ‘float’ above the centre of the dashboard. These display everything from speed to sat-nav information and can be controlled via BMW’s trademark iDrive controller.

There are four distinctive interior finishes to choose from – standard, £1,000 Loft, £1,500 Lodge and £2,000 Suite – and all get bright and colourful seat and carpet trims, with many made from sustainable materials.

Driving

3.9

A high-set driving position, large glass area and direct controls help the i3 take crowded city streets in its stride, while the powerful electric motor’s instant response allows you to make the most of any gaps in the traffic. 

Press the start button and you hear a chime rather than the sound of a starter motor. Turn the column-mounted gear selector to Drive and the i3 pulls away with a whirr from the electric motor and a gentle rumble from the tyres.

When battery capacity drops below 20 per cent, the range-extender model’s two-cylinder bike engine fires up. While it drones rather noisily from the outside, it’s well isolated inside. As it only tops up the battery, the engine stays at constant revs, only increasing rpm under hard acceleration.

Thanks to the electric motor’s instant torque, acceleration is rapid, and it manages a 0-60mph time of 7.2 seconds – 3.2 seconds quicker than the Toyota Prius Plug-in hybrid. 

BMW i3 range extender

Head down a twisting back road and the i3 quickly gets out of its depth. The steering is quick and well weighted, allowing you to place the car with confidence, and there’s more grip than you’d expect from the thin tyres. But hit a mid-corner bump and the tall i3 quickly loses its composure, as the suspension struggles to contain any wayward body movements.

It never feels like the car’s going to lose control, but it’s enough to encourage you to slow down and take it easy. Do this, and the BMW turns into a relaxed and refined cruiser. The suspension soaks up the worst bumps, wind noise is kept in check and the electric powerplant emits only a distant hum, even on the motorway.

There's an array of drive settings in the BMW. You can choose from Comfort, ECO PRO and ECO PRO+ – the latter disables the air-con and limits the top speed to 55mph with the promise of a 25 per cent increase in range.

Lift off the throttle, and the i3 slows quickly as the drivetrain recoups energy back to the battery. Drive like this, and you’ll barely need to use the brakes, and will be assisting the range at the same time. But you can press the pedal slightly to slow more gradually.

Reliability

4.1

BMW is new to electric car technology, but you can guarantee it’s worked hard to make the i3 as reliable as its internal combustion-engined models. Even so, in a bid to reassure buyers, the brand provides an eight-year and 100,000-mile warranty for the lithium-ion battery pack, while the rest of the car is covered by a standard three-year guarantee.

The combination of a strong carbon fibre- reinforced plastic structure, six airbags and standard stability control means the i3 has some decent safety credentials. However, the bluff front end cost it points in Euro NCAP’s pedestrian assessments – resulting in a disappointing four-star score.

You can add a number of hi-tech safety options, though, such as the £790 Driving Assistant Plus. This clever kit brings adaptive cruise control, forward collision alert and Traffic Jam Assist, which will accelerate, steer and brake the car at speeds up to 24mph. A pedestrian warning noise generator is £85.

Practicality

4

Clever packaging means the i3 is quite roomy. The boot has a high floor, thanks to the running gear underneath, but the 50:50 split seats fold flat. When in place, they’re easily accessed via rear-hinged back doors, while the thin front seats also fold forward to boost access.

The BMW isn’t quite a full five-seater – there’s only two seats in the rear – and nor is it quite a five-door car. The back doors are just small rear-opening coach doors but at least the fact there’s no B-pillar in the middle makes it very easy to get in and out.

The i3’s boot sits quite high up but it’s nice and flat, so you can easily slide things in. There’s 260 litres of space with all the seats in place and 1,100 litres with them folded down. 

In the nose, you get a shallow tray for the tyre repair kit, but the cord to open it is hidden behind a panel in the passenger footwell. There’s lots of space for driver and passenger, neat cup-holders, armrest storage and cargo nets, while the glovebox has a top- opening lid. One criticism we do have is with the slightly dim headlights.

Running Costs

4.3

The BMW i3’s economy will depend greatly on the driving you do. Keep the battery topped up and stick to the city, and the 80-mile range means you’re never likely to hear the engine fire up. We got through a fully charged battery and a tank of fuel with an economy figure of 118mpg.

An overnight charge should cost no more than a couple of pounds, while the i3 is currently exempt from road fund licence, Benefit-in-Kind company car tax and the London congestion charge.

There’s a choice of Comfort, EcoPro and EcoPro+ drive modes, and the latter two are designed to save energy, with EcoPro+ going as far as switching off the climate control and limiting speed to 56mph to maximise range.

Unfortunately, the i3 REx isn’t suited to longer journeys. The engine is limited by the tiny nine-litre fuel tank, and only adds another 80 miles of range. And if you go on a long trip using the petrol engine alone, you’ll have to fill up every 70 miles or so. With the battery exhausted and on engine power alone, the i3 can barely manage 36mpg in the real world.

As with the Vauxhall and Toyota, the price is high even with the Government’s £5,000 Plug-in Car Grant, and 34 per cent residuals aren’t great, but company car tax is super-low. BMW also offers fixed-price servicing, plus access to conventional models if you need to make longer journeys.

Disqus - noscript

Oh for gods sake! Climb out the Bavarians rear end will you!!

How on earth can a car with only 4 seats and a tiny tiny boot be 4 stars on practicality! A car that needs charging less than every 100 miles. Yet the Volvo reviewed in the link above gets only 3 stars. You have no consistency to your reviews.

On looks: Almost every comment on YOUR pages about this car say the same thing, ugly as sin yet you give it 4 and a bit stars. Seriously, how much do they pay towards the running of your magazine or have you just taken delivery of a new BMW with a very large discount? It has to be one of those because there isnt a cat in hell's chance its more than a 2 in the looks department.

I'm sure it will be cheap to run even after that high selling price and as most BMW's do, it will handle well and probably ride alright once the run flats are removed but you have clearly over inflated the marks to get it higher on your list.

This is at best a 3 star car over all.

"This is at best a 3 star car over all."

Really? And this is based on your driving experience of the car, is it?

It is so gopping in appearance as to suggest the reviewer who gave it over four stars is so visually impaired that he or she should hand in their driving licence immediately! Sorry to be so blunt but this thing really is appalling to behold.

lol, you mad bro?!

"BMW reckons that an overnight charge should only cost you a couple of quid"

So with the charging losses that makes it around a 8-10kwhr battery.

Lies, damn lies.....

If EV's re so amazing why are they still being subsidised to the tune of £5k by the taxpayer, here is an idea if you want to be a tree hugger or want to appear to be one, buy your own car and dont expect me to contribute

I'll be kind and label the BMW's styling "complex."

As for battery performance, the whole technology is still in beta, so it'll take a few more years of evolution before electric cars become mainstream.

Nearest to an oil challenger so far is the svelte Tesla, which I'd be happy to have in my driveway anytime.

Its an ugly milkfloat

Do the brake lights illuminate when this regeneration system operates, then? Sounds quite dangerous if one could drive around town without using the brakes at all!

Don't need to drive it. Fact is it flies in public opinion of all comments on the looks and practicality of it. Doesn't take a genius to work out that 260 litres of boot space is not practical also to have to charge the car up every 100 miles is also not practical is it? Do you need to drive it to read comments that say it looks like a dogs dinner? No. Did I not say it will probably be nice to drive but having driven plenty of BMW's and knowing this comes with economy run flat tyres like the efficient dynamics models it will ride horrible, don't need to drive it to know that is a common trait of all modern BMW's. Also don't need to drive it to know that it brings nothing new. Again all done by the magic of reading.

God sometimes I wish I didn't have my own opinions like some of the people on here.

If the people who buy this really care about the environment they wouldn't be buying a car at all! Its just to justify their own self of well-being and to make them feel like they are helping while making precisly no differene

Yes it does light up, if the pedal is lifted so much that the breaking effect is to be considered equal to normal breaking (at the given speed). And if you lift the pedal completely, it will generate more than 50kW (that's 70 hp !) of breaking power, which is fed directly back to the batteries - it's just ingenious !!

The technology is not that wonderful, others have been doing regenerative braking (not 'breaking') for years. The back of it looks like an Autobianchi Y10 from the 1985. The whole, just looks a mess. When did the committee that 'designed' it meet, from 2300 to 2305 hrs in the local pub. Once?

Wonky side windows at different levels between front & rear side windows never, ever works (apart from the Mk III Ford Cortina). Styling is disastrous, but I would love to drive one.

The other issue is safety for cyclists & pedestrians. These near-silent electric cars are lethal around town - I was almost run over by a Toyota Prius when on my bike in London - just didn't hear the thing as it came up behind me & overtook. Luckily I saw it just in time. The Govt urgently need to legislate so that some kind of noise generator is fitted to the front of all electric cars, so people can hear them coming.

AUDI A2 DID THIS 14 YEARS AGO! they are still better build quality now

Typical look of a concept car. Actually a very ugly concept car. Not enough range and infotainment is very dated. Definitely NOT for that price tag.

4 out of 5 star? really?

Wow...is that a British outdated outting that I am sensing against a new brave German product? Especially from that Andy guy? The I3 is a great new thing in the automotive world, whereas it sells well or not. You don't like the looks? Come on, that is personal and it may become a looker to you sooner than you expect. Don't jump the gun, give it sometime. Loads of carbon fibre, aluminium frame, smooth ride, roomy, range extender, come on! Don't be so vicious...
Well done BMW!

I find it different but appealing....

Great review. I'm excited about the i3. But to me the range extender isn't worth the decrease in acceleration, so I will be ordering mine without it.

During the month since my last posting on this topic, the vehicle has failed to make the maximum rating in the Euro NCAP test, despite costing £30,000 to buy. This from a manufacturer who does not have a single vehicle in the "top ten" of the 2013 J.D. Power user satisfaction survey. If this does not bring about a dose of reality to potential customers , what will?

Ssangyong must be gutted - this vehicle, in one fell swoop, has knocked both the Odious Rodius and Actyon off their Ugliest Cars in The World pedestals. It looks like a classic cut and shut job, but using five cars instead of the more normal two!! BMW's arrogance knows no bounds - I hope they get their comeuppance on this one.

@shaun Thanks for your part in the purchase of my Leaf even though I'm not a tree hugger maybe you should consider one to take advantage instead moaning.

@Andy and why do you assume people only buy electrics because of the environment?

@Paul Scott...Actually the all electrics do have a warning system, and I think the Govt should require all bike's to have a constant warning system for pedestrians!

Fair comment! Apparently in China, people attach a playing card on the bicycle fork, so that it makes a clicking noise on the spokes, so pedestrians can hear bikes coming. We should adopt something similar here too.

What other reason is there? Not drive-ability or fun value. They are inconvenient and un-practical. Most people would need a 2nd car as well as one of these.

Your comment proves you have no experience driving an EV for they have more drive-ability than ICE vehicles. My 55 years experience of virtually every engine type offered along with owning my first EV I can categorically say your wrong. Yes they are limited in range but used within that limit make far more sense than using a conventional car. In the 3 yr's when these cars came online some 130,000 + have been sold.

@shaun The tax payer subsidise's everything from the national health (UK), to road repairs, motorway system NASA, the military, etc. etc.
does that mean you want to opt out of society?

I have done about only 5k in a Leaf thank you and I can categorically say they are boring, slow and handle poorly and has put me off having one for a long time. Most of my mileage is around Cumbria and on those roads it is terrible, slow to pick up and can not handle the bends in an elegant manor. I generally do over 50k a year in my car, if I used an EV it would also push my over night costs up by a few hundred percent equalling a negative loss for me thats not even to think of all the work time i would loose charging the cars when I have to do a 350 mile round trip.
I would place a fair size bet that from those 130k sold a good chunk is simply to get around congestion charging and tax, not because they want EV.

@Andy, Little confused how you have done 5000 miles in a Leaf, you mean you actually purchased/leased one! Its blatantly obvious your 50k plus needs are not compatible with EV owner-ship so why the long test? Your previous environmental comment and opinion of others seems to me to be your main agenda. The congestion charge is London based the sale figure I quoted is not for the UK. If you want "fun" and range try a Tesla model S but then you won't like the price.

Just to add to the above.. EV owners pay the same taxes as you do so are just being smart and taking advantage of this incentive.

Its one of our company cars that we had on trial to see if it was possible to replace our diesel's and as a confirmed petrol head in the office they thought it would be 'funny' to give it me. I had it for a month so 5k was easy if not drainnig on both me and the cell's. I had to completely reorganise the way I worked meaning more time away for my family just to make sure I could do the journeys required.
My biggest problem with EV's is that they are nothing more than PR vehicles, yes the motor dev that goes in to them will be useful for years to come but in about 10 years time they will be completely replaced by Hydrogen and rightly so. I digress anyway, it helps a company 'look green' that is all and yes I would like to try a tesla (think even the most stubborn gas monkeys would too) but only as a 2nd car and like you say the price wouldnt allow it for anyone but the elite.

Saying they are PR cars may be true to some situations but if the present generation do nothing more than get people to look at their actual needs and alter their thinking then that's a positive. If we have a hydrogen future the present EV will play a big part as the Hydrogen fuel cell will still be driving an electric platform with batteries. Todays EVs will evolve a bit like early computers morphing into smartphones or wearable technology they still use the basics but are otherwise unrecognisable in performance.
Everything in this world evolves and finally after 116 yrs we are witnessing a change in our mode of transport which I embrace and consider myself lucky to see and experience.
If its not for you fair enough but for those Trashing early tech just because they do not embrace change it could delay/halt development and we stagnate.

Oh I agree with regards the drive train, even said so much above this comment. But the batteries will not be as a bigger worry as what they are now. Yes the battery tech may migrate to other sectors, phones, alarm etc but as the car would be capable of refuelling 'conventionally' so to speak the packs need only be a fraction of what they are now thus rendering a lot of what is happening now pointless in automotion at least and firms like BMW, Nissan, Toyota should be focusing much more on hydrogen than battery power.
I am fully fledged geek, the world of new tech is something I embrace, jump on and mount like there is no tomorrow! but EV's are neither new or innovative. I believe it was the 60/70's when the first EV's were actually produced?!

What if battery tech evolves to provide adequate range and quick recharge? Would hydrogen still be attractive with having to crack it , store it and via fuel cell turn it into electrons?
We can never say how things will evolve so don't be hasty in condemning the present early versions. Electrics were around at the dawn of motoring but were displaced by Fords model T flooding the market, and a virtually non-existent electricity network.

I predict they will set new trends with this weird style. Look at how the Nissan Juke has sold.

Yes it would. Hydrogen fuel cells have many more uses than just an EV. For example a fuel cell can be used to run a camp site if you set up, or a caravan or even a home in the event of power cuts something an EV couldn't do (well it could but you wouldn't be able to drive away after). They could assist when bringing aid to war and famine torn countries as they are incredibly portable again something a plug in car could never do.

There was a good reason they were replaced too, they just cant do the job and for the all rounder most people need they are still a long long way off, in fact very little progress has been made when you think about it.

Shame they don't make one that's similar in size and performance to the Ampera - I'm sure that would make more sense and attract more buyers.

Why is the i3 an UGLY car?

Well, the different coloured body panels don't help things for a start. They are reminiscent of a car belonging to an owner that doesn't really care what the car looks like, as long as it functions ok. Any door from the scrappy will do.

The front bumper looks awful. Overly fussy around the fog? lights and its "styling" gives the appearance of the car having two different fronts vying for the same space.

The worst part though, is the window-door-line.
A straight line from the door-mirror to boot would have been better. If curves are to be used, perhaps 3 at the most. Not are frigging step as though the ruler slipped and someones thumb got in the way. Its overly fussy for no reason; a bit like a scribble.

Nothing like it, looks like a fiat ugly nose wotsit???

Having seen one in the flesh the other day it didn't look as ugly as the one at the top of this article -- probably because it was mostly black. It did still have those baby-blue nostrils though, and they did look odd under the BMW badge. I suppose its styling is 'frivolous' done by serious designers who would puzzle over the meaning of the word.

Last updated: 7 Oct, 2014
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