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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.