BMW i3 review
The BMW i3 makes a great city car - it's relaxing to drive and there's nothing else like it on the road
With its strikingly contemporary looks and that familiar blue and white badge on its nose, it would have been a surprise if the BMW i3 had failed to deliver a new and engaging driving experience. It doesn’t, and the i3 also brings premium design values to the electric car sector, helping make it one of the most aspirational green machines out there. That’s why we made it Auto Express Green Car of the Year twice on the trot.
It’s not just the i3’s efficiency that impresses – the packaging and design make it one of the most user-friendly electric cars on the market.
It may look pricey compared to rivals, but it definitely feels like the smarter choice too.
BMW is one of the most successful brands around, and the company's current success is down to its wide model range encompassing practical family cars, comfortable motorway mile-munchers and spectacular performance models - including the halo M models.
Now though, BMW has its i brand - for the most cutting-edge models in its range, and the i3 is a big part of that. It's truly an industry-leading car, packed with high-tech materials and engineering. Plus, with a punchy 168bhp electric motor and traditional rear-wheel-drive layout, it’s as entertaining to drive as any ‘normal’ BMW – although with its own characteristic feel. It’s also the first mass-produced car to feature a lightweight carbon-fibre composite body structure.
The boldly styled BMW i3 hatchback is available in both pure electric and range-extending guises, the later including an optional motorcycle engine that keeps the batteries topped up on longer journeys.
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.
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There are four distinctive themes to choose from – Standard, Loft, Lodge and Suite – all with bright and stylish seat and carpet trims, many made from sustainable materials.
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.
The i3 and its sister model, the i8 plug-in hybrid sportscar, are the first production cars from the environmentally-focused BMW i sub-brand which was announced in 2011, although neither car reached production until 2013. They are both assembled at BMW’s state of the art facility in Leipzig, Germany, although the i3’s carbon-fibre composite body is fabricated in the US.
Engines, performance and drive
It doesn’t take long behind the wheel of the i3 to realise that it’s infused with BMW’s trademark fun driving experience.
A high-set driving position, excellent visibility and light controls help the i3 take crowded city streets in its stride, while the electric motor’s instant response lets you zip through gaps in the traffic with confidence.
Surprisingly, it’s on twisting back roads where the i3 feels least composed. The steering is quick and well weighted, and there’s more grip than you’d expect from the thin tyres, but hit a mid-corner bump and the tall i3 quickly becomes unsettled.
The short-travel suspension struggles to contain large body movements, plus there’s plenty of roll. It never feels like it’s going to lose control, and the stability control intervenes smoothly, but it’s enough to make you take things a bit easier.
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As a result, the BMW is at its best when being used as a relaxed and refined cruiser, maximising the range in those batteries.
The suspension copes well on the motorway, wind noise is kept in check and the two-cylinder motorcycle engine ‘generator’ emits only a distant drone in the range-extender version– although it’s more intrusive at lower speeds.
As mentioned above, there are two powertrain options for the BMW i3. If you opt for the pure electric version, you get a 125Kw (168bhp) electric motor connected to the back axle via a single-speed fixed-ratio transmission, and a liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery.
They’re neatly packaged – the battery is integrated into the rear cabin floor, while the motor takes up one half of the space under the boot floor. Opt for the 32bhp range-extending two-cylinder petrol generator, and you’ll find it tucked under the boot floor on the opposite side to the electric motor. (Remember the petrol engine doesn’t drive the car directly, it simply provides electricity for the battery or motor).
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With its powerful electric motor and lightweight 1,270kg carbon fibre structure, the BMW i3 is surprisingly fast, too. 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.
Adding the extra weight of the range-extender generator brings the 0-62mph time down a shade to 7.9 seconds, but the difference is barely noticeable on the road thanks to the electric motor’s instant response to a dab on the accelerator.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
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 electric-only range should be plenty. In the range-extender i3 REx 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, even the i3 REx isn’t well suited to longer journeys. The engine is limited by the tiny nine-litre fuel tank, and only adds another 80 miles of range. That means if you go on a long trip using the petrol engine alone, you’ll have to fill up every 70 miles or so if you don’t want to risk running out of juice. With the battery exhausted and running on generator charge alone, the i3 can barely manage 36mpg in the real world – but that’s not really the point, and at least the car will get you home.
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Plugged into a domestic socket, the batteries can be boosted to an 80 per cent charge within seven hours, but BMW’s powerful £315 i Wallbox charger slashes this time to three hours.
As with most electric cars and plug-in hybrids, the price is high even with the Government’s £5,000 Plug-in Car Grant, and 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.
Both versions of the BMW i3 are in group 21 for insurance purposes, which certainly isn’t cheap by city car standards – but then the performance is better than most, and the cost of repairs to that carbon body structure could be significant.
The only disappointment is the BMW’s poor residuals, as our experts predict that the i3 will retain just 30.9 per cent of its original value after three years.
Interior, design and technology
The i3 has been designed from the ground up as an EV – and it really shows. Taking its cues from the BMW Coupe Concept that debuted in 2012, the battery-powered car looks like it’s driven straight off a designer’s computer screen.
Tall and narrow proportions give the i3 the look of an MPV rather than a family hatch, but you could argue it stands in a class of its own. Lightweight plastics are used for the heavily sculpted body panels, while the bonnet and glass tailgate get a distinctive gloss black finish. Other highlights include the angular window line, swept-back headlamps and metallic blue trim for the faired-in grille and lower sills.
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The futuristic feel continues inside. Access is easy thanks to the rear-hinged doors and lack of a B-pillar – although you have to step over the wide sill. Once in, you’ll be able to enjoy the cleverly packaged and imaginatively designed layout that’s easy to use and beautifully finished.
Climb into the high-set driver’s seat and the first thing you’ll spot is a pair of large TFT screens – one ahead of the driver and one that appears to ‘float’ above the centre of the dashboard. These units display everything from speed to sat-nav info, and are controlled via BMW’s trademark iDrive dial. Metallic blue inserts add the final flourish, while the low-set dashboard and vast windscreen create a bright and airy feel.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
You’d expect a cutting-edge machine like the BMW i3 to pack quite a punch in the infotainment stakes, but actually the car offers the same degree of connectivity and control as other cars in the BMW line-up.
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That’s hardly a disappointment though. There’s a sophisticated sat-nav as standard, DAB radio, hands-free Bluetooth plus access to a variety of social media, music and email apps. You can also upgrade with a Harmon Kardon sound system, and the Media Package which gives you a bigger 10ins screen, iDrive touch controller, and the BMW Professional sat-nav system with real-time traffic info.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
Clever packaging means the BMW i3 is quite roomy, and although the car doesn’t take up much room on the road it feels bigger from the inside. That’s largely thanks to an airy interior and a relatively high seating position compared to many city cars, which gives you a great view of the road.
There’s lots of space for driver and passenger, and plenty of adjustment for the driving seat and steering wheel mean getting comfy won’t be a problem. There are neat cup-holders, armrest storage and cargo nets, while the glovebox has a top opening lid. The controls are beautifully laid out too, but one criticism we have is with the slightly dim headlights.
The BMW i3 is a ground-up design that reflects its ‘clean sheet of paper’ origins where other electric cars have played safe with more familiar styling themes.
The i3’s noticeably wheel-at-each-corner stance emphasises its compact footprint – at 3,999mm nose-to-tail it is shorter than both the 4,445mm Nissan Leaf and the 4,100mm Renault Zoe. An upright stance means it’s taller than both too – 1,578mm (i3) plays 1,550mm (Leaf) and 1,516mm (Zoe).
Leg room, head room & passenger space
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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 rear passengers climb in and out through small rear-opening coach doors that can only be opened when its adjacent front door is open too. At least the fact there’s no B-pillar in the middle makes it very easy to get in and out.
The boot has a high floor, thanks to the running gear underneath, but the 50:50 split seats fold flat.
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There’s no loading lip, so you can easily slide things in to the space that mesures 260 litres with all the seats in place. That capacity grows to 1,100 litres with the seats 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.
Reliability and Safety
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. 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.
There aren’t enough BMW i3s around yet for the model to feature in our Driver Power Survey, but BMW’s manufacturer rating slid again in 2015 down to 14th overall. In 2014 it finished 10th.
In a bid to reassure buyers who may be nervous about living with unfamiliar electric drive technology, BMW provides an eight-year and 100,000-mile warranty for the lithium-ion battery pack. The rest of the car – including the electric power system and the motor itself - is covered by a standard three-year guarantee, much like the rest of the BMW range.
By way of comparison Renault covers the Zoe’s entire electric drivetrain for five years and 100,000 miles, while Nissan offers the Leaf with its standard three-year warranty cover plus five years for the battery. Toyota covers its hybrid batteries for up to 11 years, if you satisfy the service schedule.
Buy an i3 and you’ll be offered BMW Service Inclusive (£375) and BMW Service Inclusive Plus (£1,280) packs. The former covers the car’s servicing costs for five years or 60,000 miles, while the latter covers both servicing and maintenance for the same period.