Models Covered: Compact 5-Door hatch - i3 full-electric / i3 Range Extender
BMW were the first of the prestigious brands to enter the mainstream part of this electric vehicle market with this car back in 2013 - the i3.
In size, as you can see, it's not a lot different from the kind of smartly badged small Audi, Mercedes or BMW that, in decently pokey diesel automatic form, would cost you about the same. The concept on offer here though is far more forward-thinking - that of offering zero emissions in a premium package, yet at an affordable price. Such an objective might sound straightforward but the engineering necessary to deliver it is anything but. Hence the reported £2 billion development cost for this, the first in a whole series of alternative drive i-branded models we'll be seeing from the Munich maker.
Like its sister model, the hybrid i8 sportscar, this is a very different take on EV motoring, designed from the ground-up as an electric vehicle and unusual in this segment in its use of rear wheel drive and its emphasis on an engaging at-the-wheel experience. It's groundbreaking too in the lightweight chassis and bodywork solutions that have left it far less heavy than other pure electric rivals. That enabled BMW to fit larger lithium-ion batteries that helped with the operating range, which in real-world terms was around 80 miles with the originally-launched model. Things improved greatly in 2016 when a new 94Ah/33kWh battery unit increased that range by almost 50%. Buyers still not convinced by that can get themselves the alternative 'Range Extender' version with a tiny two cylinder petrol engine out back that almost doubles the length of journeys you can take between potentially quite rapid charges. A facelifted i3 range was launched here in early 2018, complete with an extra, slightly more potent i3s derivative. Here though, our focus is on the original 2014-2017-era model.
In some ways, the i3 is a car of contradictions. An individual choice, yet with mass appeal. And an eco warrior that a petrol head might also enjoy. Ultimately though, it's a BMW born to be electric - which ought to be a very good thing indeed. Let's find out.
What You Get
One thing's for sure - you're not going to mistake the i3 for any other BMW. Interestingly, the German brand elected to first clothe its futuristic eDrive technology with equally futuristic bodywork, rather than simply install it into a familiar existing model, a safer approach that the Volkswagen Group took with its rival eGolf and Audi A3 etron models. Doing something similar would certainly have been less risky than producing a design as wilfully extravagant as this. It would have been easier and cheaper too. After all, prior to the launch of this i3 in 2014, this Munich maker had already developed hundreds of MINI E and BMW 1 Series Active E prototypes that enabled potential customers across Europe to test the new technology.
So why didn't they go that route with this i3? Well, because in doing so, they would have created just another electric car, rather than the definitive EV. Think of two of the main reasons why you might be hesitant to buy a model of this kind - restricted range and stodgy handling. Both have a lot to do with the heavy weight a vehicle of this sort has to carry around. Reduce that weight and the car becomes lithe, agile and able to go a lot further between charges. Sounds simple doesn't it? Problem is, there's only so much you can do to reduce the bulk of the battery pack. What you can do though in developing this kind of car is to reduce the weight of the bodywork that surrounds that battery and the chassis it sits upon. But only if you design the thing from scratch. Simply stick a battery propulsion pack in a vehicle originally designed for a combustion engine and compromise creeps in, with space wasted where components like the fuel tank and exhaust system would normally be housed. Plus you've the original version's heavy steel underpinnings to take into account.
Now you see why a stand alone model like this i3 was necessary. Going from a clean sheet of paper, the BMW eDrive design team could create a lightweight body perfectly balanced to suit the specific needs of its electric powerpack. That weight saving could then be 'invested' in larger batteries to improve the operating range. That was the idea; the i3 represents the reality, with bodywork fabricated from the kind of aluminium and carbon fibre mix you'd find on a McLaren P1 supercar or an F1 Grand Prix racer. Those are the headlines, but the reality is that most of the carbonfibre used is blended with plastic - which sounds far less exotic. Still, what's important is the end result. Without the batteries, what we have here would be easily the lightest car on the market. Even with them, this BMW still only tips the scales at about 1.2-tonnes - about the same as a conventional Ford Fiesta and between 200 and 300kgs lighter than pure EV rivals like Renault's ZOE and Nissan's LEAF.
That's impressive but whether it all justifies a design quite as curious as this one is a judgement potential buyers will have to make. Just about the only car that we can think of that looks anything like it in profile is Audi's old A2, another design thought of as being well before its time. The i3 is much bigger than the A2 though, measuring four metres in length, which means it's a few centimetres longer than a Ford Fiesta but, at nearly 1.6m high, quite a bit taller. Having said that, you don't see too many Fiestas riding on 19-inch wheels like those included here - unless you've got a few old copies of Max Power stashed away somewhere.
We certainly like the front end, which introduced some subtle new vocabulary to BMW's well-established design language. The Munich maker's familiar front kidney grille is present and correct, but it's purely cosmetic as the electrically powered i3 doesn't require any cooling air, even if you do choose one with the supplementary petrol engine out back. Positioned at the same height are sleek, characterful headlamps which sweep back well into the flanks and are framed by U-shaped LED light units. A neat black border connects the lower edge of the apron with these circular fog lights.
Move around the car and the aesthetics get a little more controversial, with the major signature feature being what BMW calls a 'black belt', this made up of darkly-coloured panels that extend from the bonnet over the roof into the rear with its starkly-styled vertical tailgate, a hatch be-jewelled with 'floating' LED light units.
If you're shocked by that, a closer look at the side profile will cause an ever greater double-take. Yes, the familiar so-called 'Hofmeister kink' that characterises the trailing edge of the rear side windows on nearly all BMW models is present and correct but you'll look in vain for anything else to visually connect this extravagant design with anything else you'll find in one of the Munich maker's showrooms. Perhaps the most curious touch is the sudden dip in the pronounced 'streamflow' shoulderline just rearwards of the front doors. It's apparently there to create a larger side window surface for the rear passenger compartment but it looks like a bit of an after-thought.
You'll be glad that it's there though, if you have to take a seat in the rear, which would otherwise be a bit of a black hole. And pretty impossible to get to were it not for the opposing coach-style doors that open to reveal the lack of the kind of central B-pillar that almost every other car in the world has to have. Back seat occupants would be pretty much trapped if this BMW had one but the bodywork and chassis of an i3 are so stiff, it isn't necessary. So it is that, rather against the odds, what we have here is a car that's incredibly easy for anyone of any age to get in and out of. It is unfortunate though that the rear door can't be used until the front one has been opened - which means that you'll always have to act like a chauffeur when dropping the kids off on the school run.
Talk of children brings up a potentially deal-breaking point for a family folk with three offspring. Namely that only two people can actually be accommodated back here, even though three would probably fit at a squash thanks to the lack of the usual centre transmission tunnel. Some kids won't like the fixed side windows either. On the plus side, those passengers you can take will enjoy reasonable rear legroom (thanks to the thin front seats) and plenty of headroom (even with a sunroof fitted), although because there's a battery pack under the floor, your feet and knees are a bit higher than would otherwise be the case. It's certainly a flexible space, the completely flat floor making it possible to easily shimmy across the car and exit on either side.
Which you can also do up-front: there's a totally flat floor there too. Here, the roomy feeling you get comes with no caveats thanks to the low windowline, the tall airy cabin and, if they've been fitted to the car you're looking at, the optional glass roof panels. There's no conventional instrument cluster - just two high-definition LCD screens, one behind the steering wheel and the other (either 6.5-inches or optionally 10.25-inches in size) sited at the top of the centre console and big enough for rear seat folk to see. The gear selector and start/stop button share a stalk projecting from the steering column and you engage gears using a rotary controller, which moves forwards or backwards. The central design element is an arc of trim extending from the air vents on the left-hand side of the cockpit, which continues behind the steering column and reaches its full height above the usefully deep top-lidded glove box.
This surface could be specified by original owners in eucalyptus wood and around it lie other renewable materials like naturally treated leather, wood and wool. Everything centres around eco-minded sustainability, with 25% of the plastics that would normally be used in an interior of this sort replaced with recycled or renewable elements. The leather used is treated solely with natural substances, but we're less keen on the material used on the instrument panel surround and door trim panels which apparently use fibres from the kenaf plant. Maybe so but it still reminded us of loft insulation. Still, it would certainly impress your green-bearded friends. Original buyers in search of luxury were offered three different trim packages by BMW ('interior worlds' as the marketers rather pretentiously called them). 'Loft', 'Lodge' and the top 'Suite' trim level add things like eucalyptus wood, velour floor mats and stitched leather.
That only leaves the boot, which offers a relatively restricted 260-litre capacity thanks to its high floor. That's quite a bit smaller than that you'll find in theoretical all-electric competitors like Renault's ZOE and Nissan's LEAF. Having said that, it is bigger than the trunk you'll find in a Ford Focus Electric and about the same size as that provided in what is probably this car's closest market rival, Volkswagen's eGolf. There are rubber tie-down straps and lashing eyes plus an under-floor compartment but if you do need more room and can fold down the 50:50 split rear bench, you'll create a completely flat surface feeing up 1,100-litres.
What to Look For
You should check following things have been serviced and/or replaced: door seals (particularly on early '63 plate cars), sunroof seals and HV cables. Also, check that the car you're looking at had the necessary software update that BMW announced in mid-2016. Ideally, you'd stay clear of the earliest '63-plate or '14-plate cars as they've exhibited the most consumer issues - the '63-plate models (most of which were built for BMW's original demo fleet) particularly. The '14 plate cars can be a little hit and miss; many you'll find will be sporting redesigned parts; find out from the original owner what these are. It's just another reason to try and stretch to a post-2016-erra car with the longer-range 9AH battery. Also check the nav system has had a current map update; if it hasn't, your mapping is liable to be up to three years out of date! As usual with a small family car, kerbed alloy wheels and signs of interior child damage are very possible. Use these as negotiating points with the seller.
(approx based on a 2015 i3 Range Extender excl. VAT) Because this is an electric car, the amount of parts needing maintenance aren't that great, but there are a few. A pair of rear brake pads are about £75. And a wiper blade costs around £23. If you're buying from a BMW dealer, check whether the car has the cover of a BMW insured warranty; remember that this applies only in the first three years from new and without a warranty in place, repair costs can be absolutely ruinous - e.g. a safety box can cost well upwards of £2,000 if it needs replacing. Warranties not issued from VBMW dealers will probably be useless.
On the Road
So, what's it like? Well, you take your place on the high-set driver's seat and survey the elevated view it offers of the road ahead - surely ideal for urban motoring. Here is a driving environment very different from the kind you'll be used to - no gearstick, no instrument cluster and all the information you'll need marshalled by two free-standing screens. Many i3 models you'll find will be fitted with keyless entry, which means you press a Start button which in response delivers a chime rather than the sound of a starter motor. Now you've only to twist the column-mounted gear selector to 'Drive'. There's no 'creep' like you'd get from a conventional auto but brush the throttle and the i3 eases away with a gentle whirr from its electric powerplant. At last, it seems, the 21st century has properly arrived.
Now we know what you're thinking. This car is all about sustainability and the rosy glow that comes with being an early adopter, but you know something? It's not. If ever you needed confirmation that this model is shot through with BMW DNA, a short trip in one provides it. This is anything but an anodyne electric box, all 50:50 weight distribution, feel and feedback, really rewarding you at the wheel. This thing has character to it, something evident not only through the futuristic style of the fittings but also from the way it matches the instant throttle response you expect from an all-electric vehicle with the crisp steering feedback you don't. This car's been developed and built by people who care.
Before we go any further though, we need to make very clear that in the 2013 to 2017 period, there were two very distinct versions of the i3 customers could buy. There was a pure electric model powered solely by an electric motor. Early versions of this variant had a 'real; world' operating range of around 80 miles between charges. With the post-2016 94AH models, that figure was increased to around 120 miles. Go for a 'Range Extender' model and you're looking at a range of up to around 150 miles for an early car - or around 180 miles for a 94AH model.
The 'Range Extender' variant uses a Korean-built two-cylinder petrol generator, a powerplant borrowed from a BMW scooter and there to work in tandem with the 360v 22kWh lithium-ion battery that propels this i3 along with impressive speed. Note that we've called it a 'generator' rather than an 'engine'. That's because it never actually drives the wheels: being only 647cc in size and developing just 37bhp, it probably wouldn't be up to that. Its role instead is merely to extend the life of the battery pack so that i3 owners don't suffer the sort of 'range anxiety' that afflicts the drivers of many electric vehicles who picture themselves running out of juice somewhere inconvenient or just plain dangerous. If that looks likely to happen in the Range Extender version, you just pop into a petrol station and top it up.
The thing is though, this car is at its best when you're not using the petrol unit. Think of it as a 'get out of jail free' card and try not to press it into service too often. How will that happen? Well automatically mostly, the powerplant cutting in with a clatter (that's fortunately been well muffled in the cabin) when battery capacity drops below 20%. When it is rumbling away out back, your expectations of what the scooter engine can provide need to be realistic. After all, the tiny 9-fuel tank means it only extends the battery pack's 80-100 mile range by around 80 miles. And, as we've said, the engine's assistance doesn't change the manner of your near-silent, milkfloat-style battery-powered mobility.
We should point out before we go on that this Range Extender model's petrol generator doesn't have to work automatically. You can manually turn it either on or off via the car's iDrive settings menu. Why might you do that? Well if you're on a longer trip, once the battery's range has gone down below 75%, you might want to switch the engine in earlier so that normal battery charge can be saved for city driving later on in your journey. The other scenario is one where you're nearly home and the engine's about to cut in, yet you know from your remaining range that you can make it back to base. That's when you might want to stop the engine cutting in and needlessly using up fuel. Bear in mind though that if you get your range calculation wrong and run the battery power right down to the zero charge point where the engine's forced to cut in, you'll then be giving that little scooter powerplant an awful lot of work to do as it simultaneously would have to charge the batteries while providing power to the electric motor. Something would have to give, which is why your top speed would then be limited to just 44mph. Which wouldn't be a lot of fun on the motorway.
And, surprising as it might seem, fun is a big part of why you might want to buy this car. As we've been suggesting all the way through, it's everything you don't expect a pure EV to be. Yes, as you'd expect, all the traditional plus points of full electric motoring are here present and correct, so you get the refinement we've just mentioned, plus the low centre of gravity (and subsequent feeling of all-round cornering balance) generated by central placement of the heavy batteries. But that's not the primary memory you'll carry away from your test drive. No, you'll be pleasantly surprised - and maybe even a little shocked - by the speed of this thing. All full-electric vehicles have instant torque from rest but that's usually blunted by the heavy weight they tend to carry around. Thanks to this BMW's lightweight construction (it's no heavier than an ordinary Ford Fiesta), you really get to experience the sheer performance this technology can deliver.
At typical city speeds, this can be quite startling. We're talking here about a car that can propel itself from zero to 37mph in just 3.7s, which is quicker than a V8-engined M3 super-coupe. In fact, if you've an i3, nothing short of a supercar is ever going to outdrag you away from the lights. There's something vaguely childish but comical about watching a GTI driver cooking their front tyres in a bid to catch up with this eco-minded electric runabout. Who says sustainability has to be so serious? The Range Extender model is obviously a little heavier than the pure EV version, its engine and fuel tank adding the weight of an extra podgy passenger, but the performance difference isn't very significant, the pure electric model's 7.2s 0-62mph showing slowing to a still respectable 7.9 seconds in this engine-assisted variant. The top speed is pegged at an identical 93mph in both vehicles. That's if you use the drive system in its normal 'Comfort' or more efficient 'ECO PRO' modes. Switch to the third 'ECO PRO+' setting though and your velocity will be restricted to just 50mph. Ultimately, it all boils down to the fact that this is the first car of its kind you could genuinely enjoy driving.
That's one thing you'd expect from a model with that blue and white roundel on the nose. Another is the provision of drive to the back wheels rather than to those at the front, an unusual thing for an electric vehicle and another reason why traction away from the line is so good. True, the tyres are skinny but they do a remarkably effective job of setting torque to tarmac. The electric motor's rated at 170bhp and cranks out 250Nm of pulling power, enough to ensure the need for a little circumspection if you're pushing on through the bends, though understeer, body lean and lack of side bolster support on the seats will ultimately see you throttling back on the shopping rocket heroics. You'd expect that though from the tall, short appearance, the limitations of which are well disguised by the rear weight bias and the light but direct electric steering (borrowed from the third generation MINI) that makes the car feel lithe and sporty and, with just two and a half turns lock-to-lock, also endows it with quick reflexes in town: the 9.86-metre turning circle is comically small and beaten only by a London Black Cab. We could do with the ride being a little more forgiving though: potholes and scabby surfaces are more of an issue in this BMW more than they should be in what is, first and foremost, an urban runabout.
Possibly the weirdest thing about driving the i3 is that you can perform most of your journeys in it using only one pedal. There are already only two - all EVs are automatic of course - but in most scenarios, you can leave the brake pedal well alone. How so? Well it's certainly something that takes a bit of getting used to. The moment you lift your foot off the accelerator, the electric motor switches from 'drive' to a recharging 'generator' mode, feeding power into the lithium-ion battery. At lower speeds, this has the side effect of creating a significant braking force, which means that if you plan ahead, you can soon carry out most of your slowing down manoeuvres without actually touching the brake pedal. Don't worry about being rear-ended by following cars either. As a safety measure, the brake lights come on if the regeneration slows you significantly. It all means that switching back into a conventional vehicle after using an i3 can be quite alarming if you forget what you're driving and expect the same kind of braking effect to kick in merely by rolling your foot off the throttle.
As for charging, well the ordinary public charging points that the sat nav will be able to direct you to can, depending on the one you come across, generally charge your i3 in anything between one and four hours. If you're really lucky when out and about with this car, you'll be able to use one of the so-called 'Rapid charging points' being placed systematically at key locations such as motorway service stations for long journeys. These put out a fizzing 50kW and can give this BMW an 80% charge in just half an hour. That'll be enough to cover most typical commutes.
Most of the time, of course, you'll be charging up overnight at home - provided of course you have off-street parking. If you don't, you might as well forget EV motoring altogether. Assuming that's not a problem though, BMW will sell you a 7.4kW 'i Wall Box Pure' charger that provides a zero to 80% charge in three hours and doesn't cost much more than around £300 fully installed. You really have to have this we think, as on a standard 240v wall plug, you're looking at seven hours or more for a full recharge. Either way, you can also set the car up on its integrated seven-day timer to charge itself on low-cost off peak electricity tariffs. If you're not happy with those tariffs, you can look at switching your home's whole supply to 'BMW Green Energy', an eco-minded electricity supply offered in conjunction with BMW and the 'Good Energy' organisation.
What else? Well, the Munich maker offers all sorts of clever services for the i3, including a smartphone app that lets you remotely control wallbox charging, see available public charging stations and even gives you turn-by-turn walking directions back to where you parked your car. There's also the BMW 'ChargeNow' package which, for around £20 annually, gives customers pay-as-you-go access to the largest nationwide network of public charging stations with a single card.