BMW's first electric car will be in Ireland soon. We've driven it.
If you believe the hype, the i3 is not a BMW that happens to be powered by electricity; it is an electric BMW - and that is an important distinction. Being 'Born Electric' means it is uncompromised in its packaging and drive.
If you believe the hype, the i3 is not a BMW that happens to be powered by electricity; it is an electric BMW - and that is an important distinction. Being 'Born Electric' means it is uncompromised in its packaging and drive while a commitment to sustainability means it has an interior to die for. Finally it's ready to buy.
Model tested: BMW i3
'Engine': synchronous electric motor with lithium-ion batteries
Transmission: single reduction gear attached to e-motor, rear-wheel drive
Body style: five-door hatchback
Rivals: Nissan LEAF, Opel Ampera, Toyota Prius
CO2 emissions: 0g/km (Band A0, €120 per annum)
Range: 130- to 160 kilometres on a full charge in normal urban driving conditions
Top speed: 150km/h
0-100km/h: 7.2 seconds
In the Metal: 4/5
Such has been the hype and build up for the i3 (and indeed the 'i' brand itself) that it feels like we have been waiting for years for this car. Through various concepts, disguised prototypes that have gradually shed their psychedelic covering to this - the final production model. This is the version that will launch in Ireland next month and while it is probably not a design classic it is certainly a car that attracts a lot of attention. Wheels measuring 19 inches in diameter sit at each corner of a short yet tall body, not too dissimilar to that of the Audi A2 - it is unlike any BMW that has come before it. In fact, save for the kidney grilles (which are not grilles at all on this car) and headlights that reach out to touch them, there are precious few BMW design hallmarks.
The move was intentional says the company's design supremo Adrian van Hooydonk - this is more than just a new model, it is a new brand and the i3 sets the design language for future models. This 'new thinking' has also lead to an interior design unlike any other BMW's. Sure there is some carry-over of switchgear and the iDrive unit operates much the same (save for some i3 exclusive travel options), but this is no 1 Series interior chopped to fit. The focus for designers was on airiness and the impression of space; and on that count they succeeded. The three-dimensional, floating dashboard design with its pair of LCD screens looks and feels like show car frippery that someone has forgotten to remove. It works beautifully though, even down to the steering-column mounted 'drive selector' that allows the driver to switch between drive, neutral and reverse with the flick of a thumb.
The rigidness of the carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) passenger compartment means there is no need for a B-pillar either, which allows back seat passengers to enter via rear-hinged doors. The lack of a transmission tunnel means that they can slide from one side of the car to the other with ease (an important consideration in tighter parking spaces), but this is also true for front passengers due to the foot wells being one - no more cursing the idiot who parked too close to the driver's door; just slide across.
Driving it: 5/5
You cannot help but grin while driving the BWW i3. Not in a "Oh I'm so embarrassed to be driving a glorified milk-float" way but because no electric car should be this much fun to drive. Some of this can be attributed to the way the car accelerates - being fully electric, peak torque of 250Nm is on tap from the moment you prod the starter button, but much of it is in the purity of the drive. The BMW engineers say they set the car up to drive like a BMW, but those expecting oversteer will be disappointed. It may wear comically small 115/70 section tyres, but when you find the limits the car will understeer rather than kick the tail out. No, the benefits of the rear-wheel drive set up are that it leaves the front wheels to get on with the job of steering. Uncompromised, this allows you to confidently place the car exactly where you want to on the road, which is an important consideration when dealing with Amsterdam's hordes of cyclists.
The i3 is a city car after all - BMW describes it as a 'mega city ' car - and it is around town that it feels at home. The accessibility of available torque makes it ideal for nipping in and out of traffic and with a 0-60km/h time of 3.7 seconds it has no problem embarrassing more powerful cars in a game of 'traffic light grand prix'. The i3 is not a fish out of water once you venture beyond the city limits though. In fact it is as at home on the motorway as any BMW would be. Top speed is limited to 150km/h though, in a bid for efficiency, but there are no issues getting up to motorway speeds and even overtaking beyond that limit. With no engine noise to infringe on the cabin the experience is very relaxed with just a touch of wind noise around the A-pillar and a quiet, almost distant, hum from the electric motor to report.
In the i3's default 'Comfort' mode, a range of 160 kilometres is quoted, though we suspect closer to 130 kilometres is more like it. This range can be topped up by 15 per cent by switching to ECO PRO or a further 15 per cent in ECO PRO+. Both of these modes limit the top speed to 120- and 90km/h respectively with ECO PRO+ further killing the air conditioning to conserve energy, but should you need to exceed the imposed speed limits a quick dab of the throttle overrides the system anyway.
What you get for your Money: 4/5
Considering the technology that is utilised in the i3 it is quite a feat for it to be offered so cheaply. Of course this is relative; the i3 is, at the end of the day, a city car, meaning its price tag of €33,400 (after government grants) is more than double that of a conventionally powered rival, but for an electric car (which you own, not lease the battery of) it is cheap and that is without taking the usual premium commanded by cars that bear the propeller badge into consideration.
At launch, smartphone owners will be able to communicate with their i3s via a dedicated application. Navigating to the app allows owners to check on the charge status of their car, set the desired cabin temperature and keep a running count of just how much driving electrically has saved you. The phone can also communicate with the car's satellite navigation system to give 'intermodal' navigation; park your car at an available charging point and your phone will show not only the route to get to your final destination but what public transport options are available.
Sales of electric vehicles (EVs) have, thus far, been disappointing, but the i3 may be the car to change that. While existing EVs command premium price tags the BMW i3 matches the price tag with a premium badge. It may 'only' be a city car (in a country with few of those), but the no compromise engineering philosophy and dedication to low weight means that its range should be more than enough for most buyers. Those still suffering from range anxiety may hold out for the range extended version.