BMW i3 prototype

We drive a pre-production version of the new BMW i3 electric car to see if it’s as good to drive as a BMW should be

Overall Auto Express Rating

4.0 out of 5

The BMW i3 is a very impressive car to drive and a marvel of modern engineering, and we hope it will be a success. However, that will depend on how quickly BMW can install the necessary infrastructure to support it and how much it is going to cost. Also, we think most buyers will pick the forthcoming range-extender hybrid, at least initially, over the pure battery-electric model tested here.

If battery-electric cars really are the future, BMW is taking its first brave steps towards a cleaner tomorrow with its ‘i’ brand – and taking centre stage will be this, the i3 ‘megacity’ car.

BMW invited Auto Express to an airbase outside Munich to drive a late pre-production example of the i3 to see if BMW’s new baby gets off to a flying start.

BMW

Much has already been written and discussed about the i3’s single-minded focus on weight reduction and its cutting-edge technology, so this was an early opportunity to see how BMW’s green i-theory translates on the road.

Although our test car was wearing light disguise, the final production shape of the i3 was clearly visible. A mix of angular creases and suitably futuristic swoops, it’s a pleasing, chunky vehicle, although historic BMW design language is harder to spot.

The Hofmeister kink is absent and, if it wasn’t for some false kidney ‘grilles’ at the front reminding you it’s a BMW, it’s vaguely reminiscent of an Audi A2. Overall, though, it is pleasing on the eye; the large 19-inch alloys on skinny 155/70 tyres at each corner are a nice touch, and help reduce the slab-sidedness of the car.

Inside will be familiar to anyone who has driven a current BMW, with clean, simple switchgear and a well thought-out dash. Although the cabin of our car was not the finished article, the production i3 will feature a column-mounted drive selector for the single reduction gear attached to the motor and a digital display screen behind the steering wheel to show the remaining range – BMW quotes 80-100 miles as the ‘typical’ range of the i3 – and current power usage.

But how does it drive?

BMW is targeting final production specs of 250Nm, 125kW (around 168bhp) and a kerb weight of less than 1,200kg.

And, judging by these near-ready pre-production machines, the i3 is going to be a hugely fun way to go green. BMW’s test course involved slaloms, high-speed corners, rapid direction changes and a super-tight hairpin to fully showcase the i3’s all-round manoeuvrability. It is unlikely prospective owners will ever subject their cars to such rigorous driving but they can be safe in the knowledge that the i3 really does drive like a BMW should.

The steering is incredibly direct and weights up with speed, although it is devoid of true feel and very light around dead centre. However, there’s enough information coming back from the skinny front tyres to ensure you can drive enthusiastically with confidence.

The i3 has a low centre of gravity, thanks to the lithium-ion battery pack being laid between the axles in the bottom of the chassis, and you can feel it in the composed way it enacts quick changes of direction; despite being a high-sided car, it never feels top-heavy. There is understeer dialled in for safety but there’s plenty of grip from the rear-wheel drive chassis.

Naturally, the instant torque of the e-motor means acceleration at all speeds is impressive. Depending on which of the three modes you choose – Comfort, ECO PRO or ECO PRO+ – the top speed is limited to either 93mph, 75mph or 56mph respectively. But, as a safety feature, full throttle in all modes acts almost like an overboost function on a turbocharged car to give maximum urge to avoid dangerous situations.

Like all electric cars, the i3 is eerily silent no matter how hard you drive it, with just a faint whirr in the background. Yet it pulls to 60mph very keenly, maintaining that ultra-smooth power delivery at all times. It rides nicely too – there’s plenty of compliance in the assured suspension – and the brakes are without reproach, so city driving should be comfortable.

Overall, the i3 is extremely impressive and lives up to BMW’s billing of being fun to drive. It is much more entertaining than a green car has any right to be, but whether it will win the hearts of the buying public depends a lot on how much it will cost when prices are finally revealed. That moment will come later this month - but BMW sources are expecting it to cost around £30,000 for the pure EV so once you include the £5,000 government grant than customers should expect to pay around £25,000, with around a £2,500 premium for the range-extender model.

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