Car manufacturers have had a tough time trying to convince buyers to ditch the internal combustion engine in favour of the electric motor, but that hasn’t stopped BMW from jumping on the EV bandwagon.
It’s just launched the battery-powered BMW i3 city car which, sizewise, slots into the line-up below the 1 Series. However, BMW knows the pure electric car fits a very specific brief – namely short trips with easy access to charging facilities.
So it also offers the i3 Range Extender (REx), which adds a two-cylinder petrol engine and provides scope for longer journeys. To find out if the newcomer is the breakthrough electric cars need, we’ve lined it up against a pair of established range-extender rivals.
The Vauxhall Ampera follows the same idea as the i3 REx, with petrol power generating energy for an electric motor, while the Toyota Prius Plug-in uses a beefed-up version of the standard car’s hybrid.
So does the BMW raise the bar for electric cars? Or is it still too much of a compromise to be a true alternative to a conventional car? We drove all three models on a varied test route to find out.
When fully charged, the i3 has an 88-mile electric range. In comparison, the Ampera can go 30 miles, and the Prius around 10 miles.
The BMW and Vauxhall will hold battery charge if your journey consists of motorway miles followed by city driving, although the i3’s longer electric range means you’re more likely to do the whole journey in EV mode. Add petrol ranges, and the cars’ figures rise to 160, 357 and 505 miles respectively.
It's not until you park next to the Ampera that you can see how large the BMW really is. It’s five inches taller and nearly as wide, while the high ground clearance and skinny tyres are in stark contrast to the low-slung, speed hump-scraping Vauxhall.
The biggest problem with these cars is that the electric charging stations required to maximise their battery range are so rare.
Our trip from London to Coventry via Silverstone relied on petrol power, and the charging points we did come across required you to sign up to a local charging scheme – not ideal if you’re on a cross-country trip.
Plus, the different fast-charging leads supplied with these cars won’t necessarily be compatible with the charging points on offer.
The i3 is the best electric car on sale. It’s beautifully built with lots of advanced touches, it’s roomy, drives reasonably well and has a decent range. But this REx model is no substitute for a conventional car. Think of the petrol engine as a safety net for when the batteries run out, and it makes a lot more sense.
If you want to jump into electric car ownership, but only want one car, then the Ampera is still the model to go for.
It performs well, has enough hi-tech touches to make it feel like you’re driving something special, and is a capable and comfortable cruiser for long journeys.
The Prius Plug-in is easily the best model in Toyota’s hybrid line-up, but that’s not saying much. Good points are that it recharges quickly and it’ll be reliable.
However, it trails its rivals here for interior quality, and its plug-in drivetrain isn’t as flexible or efficient as either competitor’s.
|BMW i3 range Extender||Vauxhall Ampera Positiv||Toyota Prius Plug-in|
|On the road price/total as tested (including govt grant)||£28,830/£35,370||£28,750/£29,745||£28,245/£30,240|
|Residual value (after 3yrs/36,000)||£9,860/34.2%||£9,833/34.2%||£10,564/37.4%|
|Annual tax liability std/higher rate||£338/£676||£337/£674||£332/£664|
|Annual fuel cost (12k/20k miles)||£1,089/£1,814||£989/£1,649||£1,402/£2,337|
|Ins. group/quote/road tax band/cost||21/£383/A/£0||20/£459/A/£0||16/£413/A/£0|
|Cost of 1st/2nd/3rd service||£375 (5yrs/60k)||£115/£277/£115||£119/£189/£119|
|Drivetrain||Electric motor/2cyl in-line||Electric motor/4cyl in-line||4cyl in-line/electric motor|
|Peak power/revs||168/0 bhp/rpm||148/5,000 bhp/rpm||132/5,200 bhp/rpm|
|Peak torque/revs||250/0 Nm/rpm||370/250 Nm/rpm||142/4,400 Nm/rpm|
|Transmission||Single speed auto/rwd||Single speed auto/fwd||CVT auto/fwd|
|Fuel tank capacity/spare wheel||9 litres/repair kit||35 litres/repair kit||45 litres/repair kit|
|Boot capacity (seats up/down)||260/1,100 litres||300/1,005 litres||443/1,120 litres|
|Turning circle/drag coefficient||9.9 metres/0.29Cd||10.9 metres/0.28Cd||11.0 metres/0.25Cd|
|Basic warranty (miles)/recovery||3yrs (unlimited)/3yrs||3yrs (60,000)/1yr||5yrs (100,000)/1yr|
|Service intervals/UK dealers||Variable/44||20k miles (1yr)/24||10k miles (1yr)/184|
|Driver Power manufacturer/dealer pos||15th/24th||26th/18th||9th/3rd|
|Euro NCAP: Adult/child/ped./stars||86/81/57/4||85/78/41/5||88/82/68/5|
|0-60/30-70mph||7.2/6.5 secs||9.4/8.2 secs||10.4/10.4 secs|
|30-50/50-70mph||2.3/4.2 secs||3.4/5.5 secs||4.0/6.3 secs|
|Overall Auto Express economy||65.7mpg/14.5mpl||72.3mpg/15.9mpl||51.0mpg/11.2mpl|
|Govt combined economy||470.8mpg||235.4mpg||134.5mpg|
|Govt combined economy||103.6mpl||51.8mpl||29.6mpl|
|Actual/claimed CO2/tax bracket||99/13g/km/5%||90/27g/km/5%||128/49g/km/5%|
|Climate control/leather/heated seats||Yes/£2,000/£260||Yes/yes/yes||Yes/£1,500/yes|
|Met paint/adaptive LEDs/keyless go||£530/£710/yes||£525/no/yes||£495/yes/yes|