£30,980 - £36,130 Price range
The new breed of electric vehicles can be considered a mixed-bag for reviews and ultimately only certain drivers will be able to put up with their range and charging limitations.
If you’re to pick just one of the breed though, the BMW i3 is a pretty good choice – reviews are very positive indeed and many see the car as a turning point in the fortunes of electric cars. Not least because it’s one of the first EVs that could be considered truly desirable – and it’s all down to that BMW badge on the nose.
The i3 has the kind of interior you’d expect from its quirky modern exterior. Gone is a vast slab of dashboard or traditional centre console. In its place is an airy, open, loft-style space with clever use of modern and sustainable materials, minimalist design and vivid touchscreens.
Passengers are also treated to excellent access to the rear seats. Thanks to the rear-hinged doors and the lack of a B-pillar (the post that usually separates the front and back doors) the i3 would be a very practical choice for young families. Even the 260-litre boot is reasonable for a car this size.
One tester describes it as “lovely… Extremely modern and calm, and high quality”. It’s a sentiment echoed in most other reviews. Criticisms are few and far between – some say the seats, while comfy, lack a little support given the car’s surprising cornering abilities. Regardless of any minor niggles, it’s certainly an interior in which to sooth away the city stress.
It’s rear-wheel drive! Hurrah! Unusual though the i3 is, power to the rear wheels is one area in which BMW’s tradition has remained. The rest is resolutely different – the electric motor itself is also mounted in the rear, while batteries sit under the floor of the cabin.
Rear-drive doesn’t mean big smokey slides though – it’s more a packaging thing. Most reviews are positive on the i3′s handling even so, praising its tight turning circle (almost as good as a London taxi), precise steering and nimble, lightweight feel.
Outright grip is less good – “there’s nothing but understeer when the tyres reach their modest limits” says one reviewer – while ride quality is “quite firm and tends to become frigid on anything but smooth road surfaces”. It does subtract a few points from the i3′s city abilities.
Other testers were pleasantly surprised by the grip from the skinny eco-frindly tyres but noted that, once the i3 was out on open country roads, it felt less at home. Its firm suspension and rigid body cell tending to get knocked about by bumpy roads.
The only engine you’ll find here is in the range-extended car – a small twin-cylinder petrol unit running at constant rpm to keep the batteries topped up when they’re depleted. Be warned though, one tester found that running a depleted i3 on a long run meant the range-extender couldn’t keep up the power demanded uphill on the motorway.
Other than that, it’s all electric power. Quite a bit of it too – 168 horsepower and 184 pounds-feet of torque, delivered virtually from rest. Acceleration verges onto hot hatchback territory, with a 7.2-second 0-60 sprint (7.9 for the heavier range-extender) and excellent traction. Top speed is limited to 93 mph to preserve range – 80-100 miles is a realistic estimate, which will be more than adequate for most commuters.
Thanks to strong regenerative braking – feeding power back into the battery when you lift off the accelerator – you can virtually drive the i3 with one pedal. When you do, it’s as smooth as cars come – the whisper-quiet drive makes for a wonderfully relaxing experience.
The BMW i3 does nothing to break that illusion. No internally-combusting vehicle can match its refinement, and that puts it on par with every other EV out there.
Performance is widely praised though - a 7.2 second 0-60 sprint is pretty brisk and the excellent calibration of the accelerator pedal and its regenerative effect means you rarely need to use the brakes - it's virtually a one-pedal car. As you'd expect, that makes driving it a cinch.
Essentially, it gets you a tiny 647cc twin-cylinder, motorcycle-derived engine and an even tinier 9-litre fuel tank. It runs at a constant rpm and doesn't drive the car - just keeps the batteries topped up.
The upshot is another 100 miles or so of range when the batteries run out. This is both a blessing and a curse - range-anxious buyers may enjoy it, but for those who spend their lives in town the extra cost isn't worth it for a car that still doesn't really do long distances. It also reduces performance and boot space - but it's admirably hushed, at least. Stick with the regular electric unless you absolutely must have the safety margin.
The i3 has been designed in such a way that allows the metal chassis to take the brunt of low speed collisions, rather than the far more expensive carbon fibre panels.
Surprisingly, the i3 was only awarded four stars in the Euro NCAP crash tests. This was due to the sub-standard pedestrian impact ratings – the safety scores for the people inside were excellent.
There’s no doubt that a £30,680 base price tag is quite a lot of dosh. Luckily, you can subtract £4,500 from any i3 thanks to the government’s plug-in car grant. It’s still more than a Nissan Leaf, but the Leaf is slower, nowhere near as cool or as fun to drive.
Range-extended cars start at £33,830, pre-grant. Combined economy is an essentially arbitrary 470 mpg, but in reality it’s two costs you need to consider – your electricity cost, and the 40-50 mpg or so you’ll get when the engine is on. The former will cost very little. Car tax, congestion charge and BIK are all free.
BMW expects around 80 percent of buyers to go for the range-extended car, but most of the critics say it probably isn’t worth it – most electric car buyers quickly realise how little their daily journey cuts into range and adapt accordingly.
BMW will also offer a convenience package that lets you hire a regular car from them if you ever need to make a longer journey – further reducing the need for the petrol-assisted version.
The i3 is now available with an upgraded battery that increases the maximum range from 81 miles to a far more usable 195 miles. The interior space is unaffected by this new battery that will reportedly last for the i3’s entire 100,000-mile service life. If you combine this new system with the range-extending generator option, the i3’s range jumps to an impressive 276-mile maximum. The charge time of just under three-hours remains the same.
The styling is an acquired taste, the price could be considered steep and the range may still put some people off – but overall, the i3 is a very compelling car.
It genuinely feels like a car from the future and it has plenty of other talents too. If you’ve got the budget and think it’d meet your needs, it’s an easy car to recommend.