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
The new i3 is unlike any other current BMW on sale. It maintains the brand’s rear-wheel-drive tradition, but it uses a 168bhp electric motor under the boot floor, combined with a lithium-ion battery pack. 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
The i3 breaks new ground for BMW, so it’s been given distinctive styling. Its proportions are pure city car, yet the familiar chrome kidney-shaped grille up front (blanked off to cut aerodynamic drag) leaves you in no doubt about who makes it.
In the metal, the i3 is bigger than it looks in pictures. It stands as tall as a London taxi, but is a shade under four metres long, so it has a boxy profile, while those skinny tyres and 19-inch wheels (or optional 20-inch rims, as on our test model) add to the lofty look.
There are plenty of neat details that break up the shape. The front bumper, doors and roof rails are coloured, while the bonnet, roof and rear end are finished in gloss black, with bright blue accents added to the grille and badges.
There are LED running lights up front, and LED rear lights shine through the glass tailgate. Overall the i3 is distinctive, although it remains to be seen whether its novelty value will wear thin over time.
The BMW i3 interior styling depends on which package you go for, with buyers able to upgrade from the standard interior to Loft, Lodge or Suite. These cost between £1,000 and £2,000, offering things like Eucalyptus wood, velour floor mats and stitched leather. Whichever you go for you’ll get a concept car-style interior, featuring two LCD screens, a funky steering wheel and a chunky drive selector.
One of the first things you notice is how high you sit in the i3. The driving position is on a par with a crossover’s – ideal for urban driving, as you get a great view of the road.
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. Once up to speed, the i3’s ride is reasonable on those large-diameter wheels. The skinny tyres feel like they will lose grip sooner than the wider treads on some rivals, while the car is easily unsettled by mid-corner bumps.
On the plus side, a tight turning circle and light steering mean the i3 is a breeze to drive in town, and the regenerative braking is easy to manage. 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 has invested millions in the i3 and forthcoming i8 sports car, and it’s confident that its electric drive systems will last. So as well as the standard three-year unlimited mileage warranty, the company covers the electric parts for eight years and 100,000 miles. Owners also have the benefit of BMW’s iMobile Care scheme, which offers 24-hour roadside assistance.
Euro NCAP gave the i3 a four-star crash test rating, and was critical of the side impact protection in one of its assessments, although the BMW’s percentage scores are similar to its rivals. Because of the strength of the energy recovery when you lift off the throttle, the brake lights come on to let traffic know you are slowing quickly, while there’s an optional rear collision detection system that can cancel energy recovery if it senses a possible impact.
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.
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.