Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/11/12/review_bmw_i3/

ULTIMATE ELECTRIC driving machine? Yes, it’s the BMW i3 e-car

The smart ‘leccy car from the folks at Bayerische Motoren Werke

By Alun Taylor

Posted in Hardware, 12th November 2013 11:29 GMT

First Drive People can sometimes behave like sheep. They will go somewhere, do something or buy a certain product simply because other people are doing so or because they recognise the brand. Call it consumer herd mentality. It’s one reason why the Toyota Prius sells so well in the States.

BMW i3

Brands Hatch bound: the BMW i3

Here in Blighty, we’ve seen viable, everyday electric cars from Renault, with the Zoe, and Nissan, the Leaf, but to be honest neither name is really strong enough, in the UK at least, to flog 'leccy motors just by dint of brand association.

But now BMW has joined the electric vehicle party, and that’s a brand that most certainly is strong enough. The new BMW i3 will draw in punters simply because it has a propeller logo and kidney grille on its snout. But is that the only reason to consider it?

Even a cursory glance is enough to see that BMW has opted for a radical design. Compare that to the Zoe, whose shape follows Renault’s overall styling language and looks rather similar to the new Clio, though to my eyes the Zoe is the prettier car. Pretty the i3 is not, but it is a bold and brave design that grows on you, especially up close and in the metal. Well, in the aluminium, carbon fibre and plastic, to be precise.

BMW i3

No question it’s a Beemer

The i3 is not built like any previous Beemer, but I’ll spare you details of a production cycle that claims to use only renewable energy and stick to the engineering.

The base of the vehicle is made entirely of aluminium and contains the battery pack in the floorpan as per the Zoe. The battery in question is a 19kWh lithium-ion affair made up of eight modules, each having 12 cells. This can be charged from a standard domestic 13A socket or from a 32A 7.4kW wall box. The i3 will also accept a charge from a 50kW DC fast-charger. The battery comes with an eight-year, 100,000 mile warranty as standard.

According to BMW, you can charge an i3 in between eight and ten hours from a domestic socket, or in three hours from a 7.4kW wall box. With a DC charger, you’ll have to wait 30 minutes to one hour. In the day I spent driving the i3, I couldn’t quantify any of that so you’ll have to wait until El Reg gets one for a week-long test next month for some real-world numbers.

BMW i3

Appealing rear?

On top of the aluminium drive module sits the carbon fibre “live module” to which is bolted the plastic body panels. BMW reckons the i3 is one of the safest cars of its size, though I resisted the temptation to drive it into a tree to find out. The important thing about the construction is how light it is. The battery-only or BEV i3 – I’ll come to the range-extender, REX version in a moment – weighs 1,195kg, compared to the Zoe’s 1,468kg. The i3’s battery accounts for 230kg of the total.

Less weight means a car that can go further and faster. In everyday motoring, the i3 will cover between 80 and 100 miles on a charge, claims BMW. Stick it into Eco Pro mode, which dials back the power and acceleration, and you can add 15 per cent to that figure.

Opt for Eco Plus Pro, which limits the top speed to about 55mph, down from the usual 94mph, and you can add yet another 15 per cent. From my limited time in the car I’d say those projections are reasonably accurate but again, they are just claims for now.

BMW i3

The i3 gets a lot of glances

If those ranges don’t blow your socks off, you can cough up another £3,000 and get a REX i3 with a range-extender motor. This takes the form of a 650cc two-cylinder petrol engine buried in the back of the car along with a nine-litre fuel tank.

Extended range

At the back? You bet. Like the Smart ForTwo, the i3 is rear-engined and rear-wheel drive. The size of the engine and petrol tank should give you a clue that the range extender is just that, not a motor designed to let you drive the length of the country as that capability is in a plugin hybrid. With a full tank of unleaded and a fully charged battery, getting 200 miles down the road shouldn’t, says BMW, be a problem.

BMW i3

No B pillar here

At all times the i3 is electrically driven. The range-extender motor only pumps juice into the battery, and it can only maintain the battery charge level, it can’t increase it, at least not by any significant amount.

Left to its own devices, this REX motor will fire up when the battery gets down to its last 3.5 per cent of charge and will keep you moving until you can plug the i3 into the mains. Once the battery drops below 75 per cent, you can force the REX motor to maintain that level, in effect conserving your current charge for pure electric motoring later in your journey.

Of course, you are free to keep topping up the fuel tank and holding your charge, so making a long trip in the i3 REX isn’t out of the question, but BMW is keen to stress that’s not really what the little two-pot is for.

BMW i3

Coach doors open to a spacious interior

I found the petrol engine to be surprisingly unobtrusive, much less so than the one in the Vauxhall Ampera. If you’re driving along in utter silence you can just hear it, but if you have the stereo on or the window open, you can’t.

The only external difference between the REX and BEV i3s is the petrol filler flap on the front wing. The engine ups the i3’s emissions to 13g/km of CO2 and increases its weight by 150kg. BMW quotes a combined cycle fuel economy figure of 470.8mpg for the REX. Yes, the decimal point is in the right place.

But what really what separates the i3 from other electric cars is the focus on driving dynamics. I took a REX i3 from central London to Brands Hatch where I got to throw it through some bends and have a drag race with an M3 driven by a BMW test driver.

BMW i3

The interior is harshly modern, but it quickly becomes familiar

Thanks to the i3’s featherlight weight and 125kW (170hp), 250Nm electric motor, I beat the M3 from a standing start to 50mph twice on the trot. According to the spec sheet, the i3 BEV can hit 62mph in 7.2 seconds but can reach 37mph in 3.7.

Of course, the M3 driver had to contend with changing gear while all I had to do was push the pedal to the carpet and hang on. But there’s no denying that all the way up to its top speed the i3 is a genuinely rapid little car.

It handles well, too. Despite the tall shape and high, semi-commanding driving position and pretty skinny 155/70 tyres, the i3 went through Dingle Dell Corner and Stirling’s Bend at speed with perfect composure, even on a damp track. And even with heavy-footed hack like me at the wheel.

BMW i3

i3 about to beat m3

Thanks to that low-slung battery pack, getting the i3 to break traction is nigh on impossible, even while threading the car though a cone slalom at speed, a manoeuvre made all the easier by the very tight turning circle and impressive all-round visibility. Speaking of which, exactly where the front end stops requires a bit of guesswork since the bonnet – which conceals a small storage cubby – drops away steeply.

Modern interior

Inside, the i3 is awash with strange fabrics and materials, all of which are sustainable and recycled or recyclable. It’s painfully modern and open plan, a bit like driving an Ikea show home, but still a perfectly nice place to spend an afternoon. It all feels very well made too. The driver environment, meanwhile, is dominated by the 6.5- and 5.5-inch LCD displays mounted on the dash.

BMW i3

The i3 has a 6.5-inch LCD in place of traditional instrumentation

The latter serves as the driver’s instrument binnacle, the former houses the highly connected communication and navigation system. Drive is selected through a rather strange twisty-knob to the right of the steering wheel. You simply turn to D, R, N or Park after pressing the on/off button and away you go. From the pictures, the i3 may not look an easy car to get accustomed to but trust me, it is.

Thanks to the carbon-fibre passenger compartment there’s no need for strengthening b-pillars so the i3’s coach doors open to provide very easy access to the surprisingly spacious interior much like a Ford B-Max. Leg room all around is generous with more than enough space for five six-foot adults.

Thanks to the electric motor, the boot is not exactly deep but at 260 litres it’s not bad. The REX version has the same size boot as the BEV despite having to house a petrol engine.

BMW i3

The drive selector

The i3 has telematics coming out of its ears. The satnav can show you a real-time range map and take you to free charge points. BMW is working with Chargemaster to give i3 owners access to 85 per cent of the charge points in the UK in an effort to overcome the Balkanisation of the e-car charging network.

And there is the inevitable iOS and Android apps that will let you control and monitor your i3 while still in bed or on the loo. Apparently a Windows Phone 8 version is being developed.

BMW expects 70 per cent of the first i3s sold to be the REX models and to be purchased on a new personal lease scheme cooked up by the company’s finance and insurance division, though as it was quick to point out, the bulk of its smaller cars are sold in this fashion already and the numbers are only increasing.

BMW i3

Under the hood

People apparently like financing their cars like their mobile phones no matter what the drive train, and to this end BMW has come up what it calls the 360° Electric ownership package, full details here.

The Reg Verdict

Is the BMW i3 a better e-car than Renault’s Zoe? Yes, not least because it has a much more powerful motor but because it weighs a lot less and so goes like stink.

But that is like saying the Renault Clio isn’t as good as the BMW 1 Series. Price makes a mockery of the comparison. The i3 BEV at £25,680 OTR – the i3 REX will set you back £28,830 – is considerably more expensive than the £14,000 Zoe. Granted you have to lease the battery with the Zoe, but many people I’ve spoken with think that leasing the battery is a Good Idea because it removes any worry about the power pack degrading down the road.

Still, the i3 is a very impressive vehicle and lays to rest any claims that electric cars are fundamentally impractical. The fact that you can go out and chose between two such fine examples of the e-car makers’ art can only be regarded – by a rational person at least – as a most welcome state of affairs. ®