Having had the good fortune to test drive several quite nice cars during my time as a motoring journalist – including Toyota’s GT86 and the frankly fantastic Audi A8 – I believe it’s fair to say that the BMW i3 is the one vehicle which has received the most attention. That’s not to say, however, that all of this attention has been completely positive. ‘Unique’ is possibly the best way of describing the exterior styling, which hovers in that ambiguous grey zone of subjectivity (as opposed to the Aston Martin DB9, which is simply and undeniably beautiful). From the outside, at least, it’s clearly a BMW – just look at the aggressive front kidney grille which is at home with the rest of the range (actually fully closed on the i3, whose electric motor doesn’t need cooling air), though the iconic propeller badge now features an electric blue rim encircling the blue and white disc. Several onlookers enjoyed its distinct looks. Many thought it was simply ugly. One preferred the styling of the Nissan Leaf, a viewpoint I still find quite puzzling. At worst, the i3’s looks will grow on you and, at best, it’s better than the Leaf.
With its tall stance on the road, you would be forgiven for thinking the i3 doesn’t handle very well at first but this notion is quickly dismissed once you get going, and the i3 handles curves and bends with confidence, helped to a great degree by the car’s low centre of gravity as the batteries are stored in the floor. The i3’s tyres are an interesting feature. Designed especially by Bridgestone they have a larger diameter and a narrower tread yet they still grip well in all conditions, and they’re more aerodynamic to boot, something which Bridgestone refers to as ‘ologic’ technology.
To drive, the i3 is surprisingly different from what I expected. I stepped into the cabin having never driven an electric car before, and perhaps brought several typical petrolhead prejudices on board – namely that electric cars are pointless, too slow (despite the fact that torque is available immediately) and you’d only make it several miles before having to scurry about in a panic, searching for a socket. It took an embarrassingly short time for those preconceptions to disappear (mostly). For starters, the i3 is anything but slow. Gently tap the accelerator and you’ll find yourself launching forward at a somewhat alarming rate before you find the brake. The i3 has a 0-100 time of just 7.9 seconds (for the range extender (REx) version) and it’s quite eerie to be thrust forward that fast accompanied by the sound of silence (and possibly only your startled squeaks). Bear in mind that the accelerator here works more like an on/off switch – once you remove your foot from the pedal, the i3 immediately begins to slow down quite noticeably.
BMW have also included regenerative braking on the i3 and for drivers suffering from the very real affliction that is range anxiety, it’s nice to see the range creep upwards by a few km now and then instead of the opposite. Once you take your foot off the accelerator the electric motor switches from drive mode to power generation and begins feeding electricity to the lithium-ion battery. If you’re worried about a lack of warning for the car behind you, the brake lights will illuminate if the energy recuperation process produces the same braking effect as if you were pressing the brake pedal.
On the Inside
Style-wise, the cabin takes a little getting used to and could well be described as futuristic, though it’s not unpleasant with its sweeping and sharp lines and unusual materials. You’ll find a dashboard containing bamboo and panelling which uses fibres from the kenaf plant, while leather tanned with natural substances like olive tree leaf extract adorns the seats. The floors are all flat and you’ll immediately notice the lack of a central tunnel running through the car – the electric motor is placed directly on the rear axle, leaving you free to slide from side-to-side when the mood strikes. The passenger frame is constructed from carbon fibre and the reverse-opening coach doors remove the need for central columns meaning the i3 is quite the lightweight car.
Around the driver’s sphere of influence, technology rules the roost. The steering wheel has the usual controls you’d expect from a BMW – cruise control, media centre, voice command and a handy button for answering your bluetooth-connected phone. Protruding from the wheel is the gear selection stalk which is a little ungainly, it has to be said, and where you’ll also find the start/stop button. Starting the car simply requires you to push on the brakes and press this button at the same time. Instead of the rumble or growl you would normally expect there is no noticeable change as the i3 moves from off to on, save for a little message which flashes up on the instrument cluster display (which functions as you might expect, displaying speed, trip counter, current battery and petrol levels and the maximum mileage possible). There’s also an arched digital indicator which swings from left to right as you drive, moving from Charge (to the left, when you ease of the accelerator and regenerative braking kicks in) and Power (on the right, when your foot is sinking into the floor). Lights can be set to automatic and will adapt to the time of day and light available while the wipers can also avail of this setting, flicking into life only when unwelcome drops of rain begin to fall. One thing to be aware of – features such as climate control or heated seats all have a strong impact on the electric range.
The i3’s dashboard is quite different to others – instead of a dashboard with a built-in media centre, BMW opted for more storage space where the dash would normally be and instead included an LCD screen mounted to the left of the steering wheel like a television sitting on a stand. The media centre connects you to both the car and the world, accessed via the iDrive controller knob located where you might expect to find the handbrake (the top of the knob also operates as a touchpad into which you can trace letters and numbers). Firstly there’s the usual multimedia option, followed by the car’s navigation system, which uses real-time traffic information to offer the fastest routes to your destination. Next up is BMW Connected Drive, a combination of apps, services, driver assistance and BMW online (news, sport, search etc. which can be read to you as you drive) accessed via a SIM card installed in the car. Vehicle Information tells you everything you need to know about range, destination time, fuel consumption, speed and more, as well as a digital owners’ handbook. The Settings folder contains departure times, state of charge and gives you access to the range extender function– you can opt to have the battery hold its current charge and continue forward on power produced solely by the petrol motor.
The i3 also features GPS tracking – a small button on the roof will connect you to emergency services who can then track the car (just be careful not to brush against it if you’re a little tall, or like stretching in the driver’s seat).
And you can continue to be connected to the i3 even when you’re not sitting in it. The iRemote app gives you access to your car’s information via smartphone or tablet and you can also log into ConnectedDrive online on your computer, with information on battery charge, car status and more at hand. Another innovation in ConnectedDrive is the fact that you can be guided from home to your destination, including through public transport. Additionally, driving an i3 will require a degree of planning to ensure you don’t find yourself stuck somewhere and while you’ll ease into this new pattern of driving relatively quickly, the ConnectedDrive system will display a list of nearby charge points along with other points of interest.
Though the car itself has a small footprint, the stretching dashboard, flat floors and lack of a central tunnel all give the impression of a roomy vehicle, and the i3 in fact boasts space similar to that of a 3 Series. Despite a sporty seating position, you can also command a good view of the road around, like a speedy little people carrier. It’s a little odd, but not unenjoyable. Driving long or short distances are both comfortable, though it was a little surprising to discover our test model had manual seat adjustment, given that the entire car depends on electricity to move. The rear seats aren’t huge and there are only two of them – the middle ‘seat’ doesn’t come with a seatbelt and won’t be transporting anything larger than a paperback book. The boot is average – 200L extending to 1100L when you drop the rear seats. Perhaps one of the more distinct features are the opposite opening coach doors, which on first impression lend a touch of originality to the i3. However the novelty does tend to wear off and ensuring the back doors are closed before the front doors becomes something of a minor annoyance (humans are notoriously pedantic BMW).
The hybrid electric motor on board was developed specifically by BMW Group for use in the i3, and generates 170hp and maximum torque of 184lb-ft. Power delivery remains constant as you speed on towards the car’s limit of 150km/h (power would drain rapidly at greater speeds), delivered through a single speed transmission which allows for uninterrupted acceleration. Range anxiety will quickly become part of life with the i3 and you’ll find yourself adapting your driving style relatively soon. Careful driving combined with regenerative braking results in an electric range of about 170km. The range extender version comes with a two cylinder 650cc petrol motor which generates more power, This involves a 9L petrol tank and an additional 130km of range (if your foot is quite light) – the REx doesn’t allow the i3 to act as a true hybrid, it’s merely a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Having said that, the i3 made it from Dublin to Carlow at a fair pace on 80% battery charge without having to resort to the REx, so trips around urban areas shouldn’t be an issue. When you switch to petrol-generated energy (either manually through the computer’s settings or when battery charge reaches 7.5%, you’ll certainly notice the difference. Running solely on electric power the i3 glides along in a cocoon of near-silence and yet once the petrol motor begins its work, it sounds as though you’ve attached an outboard motor to the car, or perhaps left a lawnmower running in the boot. It’s a little jarring when you first hear it (and continues to be) and a little disappointing – a little reminder of the past in a car which is trying to haul you into the future. Still, it’s a small price to pay for something Top Gear’s James May jokingly dubbed the ‘pure cowardice’ option.
Once you do run out of juice, the charging process is quite simple and you have three options to get the i3 on the road again. Included in a small compartment under the bonnet (which you can open via a button on the key) are two charging cables. One can be plugged into an everyday three pin socket for home or office charging but be warned – charging the i3 this way is time-consuming and a full charge will take around 14 hours. A charge overnight via conventional socket during my test drive brought the i3’s battery from 7% to around 75% in 12 hours (i3 pro tip: under car charging settings you’ll find options for maximum, reduced and low – select reduced when charging via a conventional socket as apparently the maximum setting has a tendency to trip circuit breakers).
The second charger will let you top up electrons via any of the public charging points dotted around the country (full charge in 40 minutes via fast charging station). And then there’s the BMW charger for use at home – the I Wallbox Pure (available at a price) will have you back on the road with a full battery in 6-8 hours and would be perfect for overnight charging.
Unsurprisingly – perhaps due to the BMW badge on the front and the fact that electric cars are a relatively new technology on our roads and remain something of a novelty, the i3 isn’t cheap. Initial on the road prices are €44,010 for the all-electric i3 and €48,540 for the REx version. Coupled with VRT reductions (€5,000 on the i3/€2,500 on the i3 REx) and an SEAI grant of €5,000, these prices drop to €34,010 and €41,040 OTR. Compare that to the Nissan Leaf, for example, which begins at €20,990 and you may have some potential electric car customers who will opt for price over premium (the Leaf has received decent reviews, and has a range of approx. 128km).
For urban dwellers who spend the majority of their lives in a town or city, this could be well be the car for them, provided they are enthusiastic early adopters with plenty of disposable income. The i3 is compact and easy to park (turning circle is just 32.3 feet) and uses little power through daily city driving while the handy real-time traffic plug-in for the navigation system could help you avoid those really congested areas. And while commuting from surrounding areas is possible, the i3 remains at its best in those urban environments – those of us living out in the countryside or with a long commute may not be so ready to adopt electricity as the vehicular fuel of choice, at least until battery technology advances to a point where range concerns are negligible.
And yet battery range shouldn’t be the ultimate qualifier in how good (or not) an electric car really is. Because the BMW i3 is undoubtedly one of those cars which puts a smile on your face as you drive, even if you’re smiling at something you don’t quite understand. It grips, it has a low sense of gravity, there are plenty technological gadgets and gizmos on board and it really is fun to drive (particularly with all that torque ready and waiting). There’s almost a sense of occasion with the i3, something you tend not to experience with very many modern cars. Though you’ll become rapidly acclimatised to its modern/futuristic looks, it’s hard not to feel like you’re driving around in some sort of spaceship or, at least, a spaceship pod. So if you’re seriously considering purchasing the i3, as Nike so eloquently phrased it, just do it.