The BMW i3 has arrived. After years of gazing at concepts and disguised prototypes, we’ve finally got behind the wheel of the revolutionary electric car, ahead of its arrival in UK showrooms next month. And there’s one burning question that needs answering – following years of lacklustre EV sales, can this car turn the tide of opinion and get the cash registers ringing?
BMW describes the i3 as the first premium electric car (although Tesla might have something to say about that), so it should appeal to both the image and environmentally conscious. Designed from the outset to be an electric car (or ‘Born Electric’ in the company’s marketing speak), the i3 is touted as a no-compromise vehicle that is as good to drive as it is technologically advanced.
The engineers claim a huge amount of development time has been spent on making the i3 drive like a proper BMW. The rigidness of the carbon fibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP) shell and the positioning of the batteries below the floor pan give it a head start in this regard, as does the near-perfect 50:50 weight distribution. Yet even though it's rear-wheel drive, those expecting lurid BMW M3-like sideways moments will be disappointed; find the limits of the skinny tyres and the i3 will push on in understeer rather than oversteer. Still, the rear-drive set-up does give the handling a purity.
The steering is surprisingly weighty and full of feel, allowing you to place the car exactly where you want it, while the low centre of gravity means that it remains composed during quick direction changes. To help it cope with city traffic, there’s a tight 9.86-metre turning circle (a black cab’s is 7.62 metres).
BMW’s pursuit of lightweight with the i3 isn’t limited to the carbon fibre passenger cell and aluminium crash structures – there are also aluminium suspension components, hollow driveshafts and standard 19-inch forged aluminium wheels. Even the windscreen wiper has an unconventional honeycomb structure to reduce mass.
As a result, the i3 weighs less than 1,195kg and with up to 168bhp and 250Nm of torque available the moment you select ‘D’ on the gearshift, it accelerates with impressive urgency. A 0-62mph time of 7.2 seconds means it's quicker than a 120d off the line, but more relevant to a city car is the 3.7-second 0-37mph time.
Not that the i3 is out of its comfort zone when you leave town. Top speed is limited according to which of the three modes you choose – so it's 93mph in Comfort, 75mph in ECO PRO and 56mph in ECO PRO+. But should you need full power, you can override the limiter by pushing the throttle to the floor, and get maximum thrust, even while driving in ECO PRO+ mode.
BMW quotes a Comfort mode range of between 80 and 100 miles, and having driven the car for two days in a variety of conditions we suspect this is easily achievable. ECO PRO and ECO PRO+ modes are said to add 15 per cent range each (by limiting the output of the motor and dialling down the power consumption of the ancillaries), up to a theoretical maximum of 125 miles.
While trying to decide between power and efficiency, you're treated to a truly sumptuous interior that's unlike anything BMW has produced to date. Some items of switchgear are carried over from other models in the range, but the cabin is more akin to a designer’s study than a traditional car cockpit. The swooping dashboard and 10.2-inch central display are particular highlights – as is the huge opening created by the rear-hinged back door, although some drivers are sure to be frustrated by the fact you can’t open it without opening the front door.
The equipment count seems generous for a small car – you get climate control, Bluetooth, rear parking sensors and the Navigation Professional system with its large display and smartphone connectivity. But this is a £25,000-plus small car, and can become even more expensive if you specify lots of options. The list includes a sunroof, heated seats, a Harman Kardon speaker system and wood trim derived from sustainable eucalyptus plantations.
The BMW i3 will arrive in the UK in November priced at £25,680 (taking into account the Government rebate) or on a monthly lease that starts from £369 per month based on a 36-month contract. Included in the price are a three-year, unlimited mileage vehicle warranty and an eight-year, 100,000-mile battery warranty. An inclusive service package, which covers the servicing costs for five years or 60,000 miles, is available for just £375.
For customers particularly conscious of range anxiety, the BMW i3 is also available with a range extender engine, which increases the car’s maximum range in day-to-day driving to around 180 miles. The range extended version will cost £28,830, or £480 per month on lease, and like the pure electric car is exempt from road tax and the London Congestion Charge.