BMW i3: long-term test review

2 Jun, 2015 10:45am Mat Watson

Final report: Love affair is over as our man bids a fond farewell to electric pioneer

Verdict

5
If this is the future of motoring, then count me in. The i3 has it all – strong performance, cutting-edge design, innovative engineering, low running costs and an upmarket interior. In years to come, we’ll look back on this car and mark it out as the model that kick-started a motoring revolution.

Mileage: 8,863
Fuel economy: 145mpg

The picture above pretty much sums up my feelings for the BMW i3, but I’ll make things even clearer: it’s my favourite car ever to feature on the Auto Express fleet. In fact, it’s one of the best cars I’ve ever driven in my entire career as a motoring journalist. 

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One reason is that it fits my lifestyle perfectly. Living and driving in London can be pricey with the Congestion Charge, but the i3 Range Extender model is exempt from the £11.50 daily fee. Plus, my parking space at home has access to a socket for charging, so the car has been ultra-cheap to run. You don’t buy this BMW to save cash, though; instead, it’s more like the Apple iPhone of the car world – there are alternatives, but nothing is as stylish, desirable or as good to use. 

In town, the i3 comes into its own. You sit high and the huge windscreen gives a clear view ahead. Away from the lights, it has the beating of anything, including BMW’s own M cars, then there’s the regenerative braking.

Lift off the throttle, and the car slows as the inverter charges the batteries. It takes some getting used to, but once mastered, you never really use the brakes – I would often challenge myself not to use the left pedal. That’s not easy when running the gauntlet of London traffic, but my little game improved my ability to look further up the road and anticipate traffic.

Obviously, the i3 won’t be for everyone, but its appeal is probably a lot broader than you think. For starters, there’s plenty of space inside, and you get a flat load bay when the back seats are folded. 

Our car had a range of options to make life easier, including the Professional sat-nav with real-time traffic alerts and a charge point finder. I didn’t even have to program it myself, as our car came with BMW’s Concierge service. Simply press a button to contact a call centre, and a representative will add your destination remotely. I even called to find out the football scores! 

These extras are pricey, but the only one I’d do without is the £780 sunroof, as it doesn’t brighten up the cabin much. During my time with the BMW, I managed 145mpg, which is way off the claimed 471mpg, but it’s been so enjoyable to run that I can’t complain.

I also forgive the i3 for developing a fault whereby the car displayed a sinister warning message, although it was tougher to excuse the poor service I received from Spire BMW of Highgate, north London, during the repair. However, it made amends on a second visit.

Plus, I’m not the only person who’s attached to the car. Even though less than 1,000 have been sold in the UK, I’ve had contact with more i3 owners than for any other car I’ve had during my 13 years at Auto Express. Needless to say, it’ll be sorely missed.

BMW i3: third report

Great car…shame about the lousy dealer, though

Mileage: 7,499
Fuel economy: 165.1mpg

We love the BMW i3 here at Auto Express. And so we were very disappointed when we lost our innovative range extender for a month due to a fault not only with the car, but with BMW’s dealer network. 

You’d think the company would be pretty hot on looking after customers of its pioneering ‘i’ brand. After all, these people have been brave enough to invest a large amount of money in a relatively new technology.

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Surely BMW would pull out all the stops to make good any problem to ensure these customers keep faith with its cutting-edge kit? Er, no. 

What happened when a sinister warning light appeared on our i3’s display proves there’s no point spending billions building a brilliant car like the i3 if the dealer service doesn’t match the product’s quality – you won’t get repeat business or word of mouth recommendation.

That’s why only selected BMW outlets are allowed to service ‘i’ vehicles – there’s one not far from where I live. And I was confident I’d be in safe hands with Spire BMW Highgate in north London, having been treated well by its sales outlet when I charged the car a few weeks earlier. So I called the service department, explained the fault message on the display and was told it’d be able to deal with the problem. 

First impressions were good. The service centre was as stylish as an Apple Store and there was free coffee dispensed by a posh machine. So I handed over the car keys, and then trotted off for a two-week holiday expecting the car to be fixed in time for my return. 

While abroad I received an E-mail from Spire stating it didn’t have the equipment to repair the car, so would transfer it to another dealer. I was told everything was in hand. But it wasn’t.

When I returned home, I found out the i3 hadn’t been moved anywhere. Due to a ‘miscommunication’, it had been sat at Spire doing nothing. Needless to say, I was raging. And I was also upset Spire hadn’t arranged for a courtesy car to keep me mobile until the i3 was fixed. Instead, I had to beg for one, which turned out to be an entry-level MINI – and I was told I was “very lucky” to get this, as there’s usually a waiting list for loan vehicles. 

On the contrary, I felt rather unlucky that the i3 had suffered issues after only 7,000 miles, and that after two weeks no one had bothered to get round to fixing it. Over the following days I kept chasing Spire for progress, but got nowhere. Eventually I gave up. Finally, four weeks after first taking the car in, I got the call I was waiting for. The i3 was ready! 

Sadly, the disappointment didn’t end there. While the i3 had been cleaned, the battery hadn’t been fully charged and the fuel tank was almost empty – whereas it was almost full when I handed it over. 

It was the same story with the MINI. I returned it with three-quarters of a tank, while it was only a third full when I took it. So I asked Spire for a refund. The service exec said he’d look into this, plus explain the problem with the i3. But he never got back to me, even after I chased him twice. 

Only when I went to the top did I get a response, from an apologetic Spire MD, Darren Guiver, who said: “We have now owned the business for 12 months and are working hard to turn around a long-standing culture. Our ambition at Spire is to deliver exceptional service at all levels.” Until that happens, it’s five stars for the car, but just one for the dealer…

BMW i3: second report

Second report: It's great in town, but can our BMW i3 lap track faster than hot hatch?

Mileage: 6,554
Fuel economy: 134mpg

Can a BMW i3 beat an old school-style hot hatch round a racing circuit? That’s probably not a question you’ve ever asked before, but there is a reason behind what is undoubtedly the most unusual track battle video we’ve ever filmed for Auto Express. 

While it may be one of the cheapest cars to run, few feel as quick as the i3 in real-world driving. The instant response from its electric motor means it can get from 0-30mph faster than the previous-generation, V8-engined BMW M3.

Our car has even taken the scalps of Porsches, Aston Martins and Ferraris in away-from-the-lights sprints that are a common occurrence on its daily London commute. And this got us thinking...

Seeing as the i3 is such a hoot to drive in town, how would it fare on a track? It’s a BMW, after all, so it should be just as adept in corners as it is on straights. A Suzuki Swift Sport was chosen as the benchmark because, just like the i3, it’s entertaining to drive, yet its naturally aspirated 1.6-litre petrol engine is almost the opposite of the hi-tech electric motor and lithium-ion technology found in the BMW. 

And when we compared their stats, the match-up looked like it could go either way. Our i3 Range Extender is rear-wheel drive, has 168bhp and can do 0-62mph in 7.9 seconds, whereas the front-wheel-drive 134bhp Suzuki completes the sprint in 8.7 seconds. These numbers don’t tell the whole story, and that much was evident when the i3 took to the track.

The BMW may get off the line quickly, but this counts for very little when you are recording a flying lap. Mid to top-end power is more important here, and this favoured the Swift’s high-revving petrol engine. And at 1,390kg, our i3 is also 345kg heavier than the Suzuki. You can blame the batteries for this, although they are mounted low in the car to improve the centre of gravity. So, despite being tall, the i3 doesn’t roll as much as you’d think in corners. 

What it does do, though, is run out of grip pretty quickly. Its 20-inch alloys have a large diameter, but the tyres are very thin to reduce rolling resistance and maximise fuel efficiency. So, while the car responds keenly to steering, the stability control kicks in early to stop the BMW getting out of shape. Like in other BMWs, the safety system can’t be turned off, so you can’t exploit the rear-drive set-up and lack of grip to adjust the car’s line through a corner.

In the end, we weren’t too surprised that the i3 was 8.4 seconds slower than the Suzuki round our track. What we weren’t expecting, though, was that it would still be enjoyable. However, driving it 170 miles back to London from our test track wasn’t so fun. With little charge left in its batteries, the BMW ran most of the journey in range extender mode. 

The paltry nine-litre fuel tank meant we had to stop to fill up four times en route – and that’s part of the reason why we’re ‘only’ averaging 134mpg instead of the claimed 470.8mpg. Also, the car would occasionally restrict power by limiting speed to around 60mph to let the 650cc petrol generator cool down.

Still, the journey wouldn’t have been possible in the all-electric i3. And when we eventually got back to its stomping ground in the city, all was forgiven.

BMW i3: first report

We’re ready to embrace life with groundbreaking electric hatch

Mileage: 4,780
Real-world fuel economy: N/A

Collecting your new car from the dealer is a very exciting time, so it can be hard to stay focused and listen to what showroom staff are telling you about the vehicle during the handover process. 

And in the case of the new i3, there is more to take in than normal. Which charger do you use for what? How do you find the nearest charging station? What is the best way to maximise efficiency? These are all important things you need to know, and currently only 46 of BMW’s 153 outlets are allowed to sell the i3 and its bigger brother, the i8

Staff not only need special training, but workshops must be properly equipped and showrooms need to be in keeping with the new ‘i’ sub-brand. 

BMW Park Lane in London was the first dealer in the world to have a separate ‘i’ showroom, and there’s a whiff of the Apple store about it. Thankfully, unlike with an iPhone, you aren’t sent on your way with the manufacturer mistakenly assuming that its product is so intuitive that instructions aren’t necessary. Instead, BMW’s thorough handover, with one of its dedicated i Genius staff, such as Park Lane’s Ali Khawaja, means you’ll be able to get the best out of your hi-tech set of wheels. 

Our i3 is loaded with a wide range of equipment – although I was a bit disappointed that I’m not able to use ConnectedDrive to its full capability. The technology lets you read text messages and E-mails on the car’s central display. However, if, like me, you have an iPhone, then this function can’t be accessed – apparently that’s Apple’s fault, not BMW’s. 

I also haven’t yet used the park assist auto parking feature, or the active cruise control, which includes auto braking and even auto steering on the motorway.  I have appreciated the Interior World Lodge trim upgrade, though. The Eucalyptus wood on the dash sets the i3’s interior apart, but you have to pay £1,500 for this finish. It also includes a multifunction steering wheel, but even so it’s a little steep.

In fact, with options, our test car is a hefty £42,115, although you can get a £5,000 Government grant towards this. Either way, despite the claimed 470mpg economy, this isn’t a car you buy to save money – yet the i3, with its futuristic interior and BMW badge, has the kind of allure people will pay for, just like Apple products. 

Having said that, thanks to its 100-mile electric range I’ve not had to put a drop of petrol in so far, and I’ve only called on the two-cylinder generator on rare occasions.

It’s genuinely good fun to drive – the instant response from the electric motor means little can touch it in town. The proof came in a story I was told about a wealthy banker who bought an i3, not because it’s hi-tech, or green, but because it kept beating his Aston Martin DBS away from the lights on his drive through the City of London. High praise, indeed...

*Insurance quote provided by AA (0800 107 0680) for a 42-year-old living in Banbury

 

Key specs

  • Model: BMW i3 Range Extender
  • On fleet since: September 2014
  • Price new: £28,830 (inc £5,000 grant)
  • Engine: Electric motor 168bhp, plus 0.6-litre 2cyl generator
  • CO2/tax: 13g/km/£0
  • Options: 20-inch alloys (£1,080), DC rapid charge kit (£560), Driving Assistant Plus (£790) sunroof (£780), enhanced Bluetooth (£340),Information Plus (£215), Harman Kardon audio (£640), Solar Orange metallic paint (£530), World Lodge trim (£1,500), Park Assist (
  • Insurance group/quote*: 21/£383
  • Mileage/mpg: 8,863/145mpg
  • Any problems?: Mystery warning light