First Drive: BMW i3
The i3 is the first of BMW’s new plug-in vehicle sub-brand, and not only has it made strides in the engineering of the car itself, but it’s taken six years studying the reasons why people might dismiss EV ownership and systematically tried to iron them out.
Top among which is range. The i3 travels a familiar-sounding 80-100 miles on a charge and, while pre-launch trials proved this was plenty for most drivers, there’s a range-extended version for those who don’t believe it’s enough. Like the Vauxhall Ampera, this uses an efficient petrol engine to power a generator, which stops the battery running flat and emits a barely audible hum at low speeds.
BMW expects this safety net to make the latter more popular at launch, but with sales swinging back towards the pure EV as drivers get used to the technology. The i3 is offered with access to 85% of UK public charging points, reaching 80% charge in three hours using a 32-Amp charger, or 20 minutes at a DC rapid charger if the car is equipped with the optional capability.
As rapid chargers appear along major routes, infrequent long-distance travellers could find there’s no need to opt up to the range-extender, particularly as the i3 is also offered with short-term access to conventional BMW Group models should the need arise.
The car itself is no less interesting. Beneath its plastic body panels is a carbon fibre reinforced polymer bodyshell, sat on an aluminium chassis with the battery under the cabin and drivetrain under the boot floor, providing 168bhp to the rear wheels.
Manufacturing uses half the energy and 70% less water than a conventional model, and the materials used also allow it to be much lighter than its nearest rivals. A pure electric i3 weighs 30kg less than a MINI Cooper S, or 370kg less than a Nissan LEAF, while the range-extended model is 370kg lighter than the Vauxhall Ampera
In turn, this offers performance and agility belied by its egg-shaped back end and skinny tyres. Twist the chunky column-mounted gear selector into Drive, and the i3 surges off the line with ferocity its already impressive on-paper figures don't capture. The combination of its rigid bodyshell, wide track and low overhangs also allow it to change direction with incredible precision, without resorting to back-breakingly stiff suspension.
Single-pedal driving is odd, though. Most EVs reverse the polarity on the motor under deceleration, regenerating energy and simulating soft engine braking. Lift off the throttle in an i3 and it scrubs off speed so quickly that you often don’t need to touch the brakes at all. Throttle and braking sensitivity can be blunted using the ECO PRO and ECO PRO+ braking modes, which also incrementally increase range by 15%.
Sizing is also deceptive. The i3 has a stubby bonnet and is supermini-sized in its footprint. Inside, though, it feels like an airy C-segment hatchback. The bodyshell design removes the need for a B-pillar, so the rear doors are reverse-hinged for easy-ish entry, and while the shallow windows make it a little claustrophobic, there’s plenty of head and leg room for adults and the seats fold completely flat to extend the boot.
With pricing similar to a 118d M Sport hatch and an ownership experience designed to be as unchallenging as possible, BMW should have no problem finding its 2,000 planned UK i3 owners. This potentially had an easy task on its hands, but by taking the difficult route it’s become a compelling proposition that’s impossible to ignore.
High tech, great to drive and backed by some of the most joined-up thinking to be applied to the sector, the i3 presents a great case for a large percentage of the population to take a fresh look at electromobility. It’s only the styling that will polarise opinions.
Segment: Lower medium
Type: Battery electric vehicle/Extended-range electric vehicle
Price: £25,680 (EV) £28,830 (RE)
Fuel: N/A (EV) 470.8mpg (RE)
Electric range: 80-100 miles (EV) 160-186 miles (RE)
CO2 emissions (tailpipe): 0g/km (EV) 13g/km (RE)
Charging Port: Type 2 AC & CCS DC