BMW’s new i3 tested

Can going green be fun? BMW thinks so.

There’s no hiding from it; I was extremely sceptical of the BMW i3 following its debut back in 2013. How could BMW, an automaker famed for great engines and driving pleasure, decide to produce a quiet, compact city car that went against everything that the German badge stood for? I was shocked and appalled; but how wrong I was.

Exterior

Yes the appearance will split opinions, however the more time I spent with the i3, the more it started to grow on me. That’s not to say that I drool over it every time I walk out onto my drive. The front, to me, is spot on; the snub nosed bonnet that sits on a fat lower lip gives the city car the perfect mixture of a sporty yet warming image. However, the same can’t be said for the rear, which has an uninspiring drop-off that leaves the car looking rather boxy. I believe that this will be improved drastically over future generations, as we have seen with the 1-series. I understand that boxy city cars are a nightmare for designers, but I believe that BMW could have done a lot more with this.

Looking at the side profile of the i3, the windows look out of place, especially with the rear drop off. Once again, the extremely progressive styling will split opinions, although I will say that it looks much better in black. It is evident that BMW has chosen practicality over style here, in order to allow greater access to the cabin. The question is: would you take practicality over style in this situation? For me, I probably would.

In short, the i3’s looks are growing on me, however there is still some way to go. I look forward to seeing how BMW develops this ‘megacity car’ through multiple generations as there is great potential for the German automaker’s first mass production EV.

Interior

Thanks to the boxy exterior design, the i3’s rear-hinged doors and lack of B-pillar allow easy access to the front and rear seats. Once inside, you will notice a surprising amount of space within the car, which can comfortably sit four grown adults. On top of this, BMW has managed to fit a much larger boot than you would expect, creating an automotive Tardis. This is a revolution in the segment, as BMW has achieved arguably the most space in such a compact city car to date.

Of course, BMW’s familiar premium touch found in the rest of its vehicle lineup is present within the i3: sleek, stylish and – above all – sustainable. Up to 95% of the vehicle is recyclable thanks to its large interior surfaces being made of 30% Kenaf, substituting petroleum-based plastics which also reduces the overall weight of the i3. This adds a very authentic touch to the overall sustainability concept of the car. This lightweight material is extracted from the mallow plant, which converts an above-average volume of CO2 to oxygen as it grows.

The twin-flat screen dash looks and reads great, presenting a clear and simple display for the driver that informs them on charge, power and ‘connected drive’, as well as the usual information. With an integrated SIM card, the i3 has full connectivity, allowing the use of BMW i ConnectedDrive services.

Sound insulation is rather good in the i3, even at high speeds. I blasted it around Millbrook’s speed dome and you could barely hear the electric motor, even with the range extender which adds a small 650cc bike engine in the back. For a city car, the i3 is rather hard to top in this category. The car does suffer a small amount of wind buffeting that is typical with cars of this size and you do notice a bit of tyre roar, although it is a lot better than most competitors in the market today.

Driving

Unlike an internal combustion engine, the electric motor gives you an instant response of power which, if you have never driven an EV, will certainly surprise you with the nonexistent torque delay. Most importantly, the i3 drives how a BMW should. The automaker has even stuck to rear wheel drive which maintains that great steering feeling in such a small car. BMW has cleverly place the batteries low down in the vehicle to counter the tall-short physique of the i3, sporting BMW’s famous even weight distribution.

In terms of speed, it does seem quicker than its 7.2 seconds to 60 mph figure and I am sure this is due to the instant electric power delivery. In addition, the i3 slows down and regenerates power when you lift off the accelerator, a revolutionary approach that works perfectly. This may seem a little strange to drivers at first, however they will soon appreciate the almost one-pedal approach BMW has implemented in its driving style.

There may still be a touch of range anxiety for some but, for what it will be used for, it is more than enough for most. The addition of a charging station locator on customers phones goes a long way, however BMW’s updated range extender will be the deciding factor for most. The larger 94Ah battery pack now allows drivers to reach up to 288 miles on a single charge and a full tank of fuel, charging 80% in 40 minutes. Yes, I agree, this still needs to be cut down in the future, but BMW is on track and leading the pack. This is down to the DC Rapid Charge that is now fitted as standard, allowing customers to charge from a standard wall socket, however this would take approximately 10 hours – which is fine for a nighttime charge, but not so much for a quick top up.

Verdict

Unfortunately, the i3 sits in an odd area; a typical BMW buyer wouldn’t take the city car into consideration at present and the typical EV buyer may also share a similar perspective from further afield. However, for a city car, even in the company of both electric and conventional fuels, there is not much competition. It may be a little pricey at the moment – our test car was just over £30,000 even after a HM Government Plug-in Car Grant – but it was well spec’d and boasted luxuries far beyond its rivals. All in all, BMW is on to a winner with this one.

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