BMW's long-awaited electric vehicle, the i3, promised much. Equipped with a stronger 94Ah battery, it delivers even more effectively. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
BMW i3 has proved to be a successful first stab at the all-electric vehicle market for its Munich maker. Now, the original 60Ah version has been replaced with a 94Ah variant that can offer an operating range boosted up to 195 miles in all-electric guise. As before, you can also buy a derivative with a small 'Range Extender' petrol engine incorporated to boost your operating mileage still more. These changes are important. After all, restricted range was one of the main reasons why customers might have avoided the original version of this car. Now, it's getting harder to ignore in this growing segment.
If you're of the old school and BMW means shark nosed, six-cylinder, ultimate driving machines to you, the Munich company's i3 electric vehicle is going to appear a wholly alien concept. It's a squat little city car riding on 155mm wide tyres. Yet delve a little deeper and it doesn't take long to find a strand of proper BMW DNA. It's revealed in the thinking behind the engineering and the logic that went into making the various decisions. Wherever BMW's engineers could have developed a more focused, technically correct solution, they appear to have done so, allowing for certain cost controls of course. You might well be part of the 99.98 per cent of British car buying customers that chooses an internal combustion engine over an electric motor. Your next car and the next one after that will probably be powered by fossil fuels. Even if that is the case, have a look at what the BMW i3 now offers, especially in this improved 94Ah form with its longer 195-mile operating range. It's building a case for electric vehicles that is becoming ever more convincing.
As you might expect from a BMW product, the i3 doesn't want for go. The electric motor is mounted low down within the rear axle which helps to keep a low centre of gravity and also to improve crashworthiness. The power unit weighs just 130kg and produces a nominal 170bhp, which means that the i3's power to weight ration of 141bhp per tonne is just 5bhp per tonne shy of a Honda Civic Type R hot hatch. As with all electric vehicles though, the decisive advantage comes in its amount of torque. In a typical city scoot such as, say, a 1.2-litre Fiat 500, you can count on 102Nm of torque, but the BMW i3 generates a hefty 250Nm of muscle. That's about what you'd expect from a Lotus Elise S and the i3 generates instant urge with all that torque available from idle. It's sent to the rear wheels via a single-ratio gearbox that offers the choice of three driving modes: Comfort, Eco Pro and Eco Pro+. This translates to a car that's certainly not slow off the mark. It'll get from standstill to 37mph in 3.8sec and to 62mph in 7.3sec, so any Toyota GT-86 sportscar drivers will have a very hard time keeping pace with the i3. The top speed is limited to 93mph. Extremely direct steering, a low centre of gravity, a clever DSC stability control system and lightweight body structures add up to very focused driving characteristics. BMW has engineered in a little body roll, largely to clue drivers in to where the limits of those narrow tyres are, but this remains a car you can enjoy hustling along. Go for the 'Range Extender' version, as many customers do, and a tiny 650cc two-cylinder petrol engine cuts in once the battery power is spent.
Design and Build
Think of the i3 as a car in two halves. The bottom half is almost all aluminium, the upper half almost all carbon fibre. Armed with this information, you can rightly surmise that it doesn't weigh very much. Even with the weight of all those batteries - some 230kg comprised of 96 individual cells kept at an optimum 20deg Centigrade by their own air conditioning unit - the i3 only tips the scales at 1,195kg. Compare that to the 1,395kg of the entry-level petrol-powered Mercedes-Benz B Class and you'll appreciate the lengths BMW have gone to keep weight low and efficiency high. The styling is determinedly modern, with the kidney grille being the key BMW styling signature. The black hood, roof and glazed hatch are set to become characteristic features for the "i" cars. Adaptive LEDs headlights and floating LED tail lights are standard. The lowered belt line in the rear and absence of a "B" pillar improves visibility while the rear "coach" doors make entry easier. It's not a big car, measuring just 3,999mm long, which is only a tad longer than a Ford Fiesta. With the flat floor, thin seats and low window line, the cabin feels surprisingly roomy. The instrument cluster and Control Display comprise two screens, one behind the steering wheel and the other at the top of the centre console. Interior materials aren't all as racy as carbon fibre. BMW has gone large on recycled, natural and renewable sources it dubs "next premium." The dashboard and door cards are made from dried grass fibres from the kenaf plant. Eucalyptus wood is optional. The boot measures 260-litres, but fold the rear seats and you get up to 1,100-litres. Expect that capacity to drop if you choose the range-extender motor. This is a modified version of the 650cc two-cylinder petrol engine used in the company's CT650 GT maxi-scooter, with a nine-litre fuel tank ahead of the front seats.
Market and Model
Value. That's a really tough one to assess in the context of the i3. Yes, BMW will sell you one for around £28,000, which is a lot for a city car. But is it really that exorbitant when compared to something like an Audi A1 Sportback, where you'd need to spend the best part of £25,000 to get a car that's as quick as the BMW i3 and which would never feel anything like as exotic. A car built from aluminium and carbon or a mass-production special that shares most of its underpinnings with a humble Skoda Fabia? Your call. There's a premium of just over £3,000 if you want the Range Extender version. The i3 represents the first time carbon-fibre reinforced plastics (CFRP) have been used in a mass-production electric car. Combined with injected thermoplastics, the i3's body will never rust and will be largely dent resistant.
Cost of Ownership
If you were running the car for three years covering typical city car mileages (circa 7500 miles per year), you'd could minimise your running costs by buying a cheap city car with a 1.0-litre engine. However, factor in something like the London congestion charge, which could run you over £8,000 for that period, couple it with the minimal fuel bills and likely strong residual values of the i3 and the BMW comes into its own. Put it up against premium rivals like the Audi A1 and the Mercedes-Benz A-Class and they don't enjoy a massive price advantage, thus making the i3 look increasingly attractive. The i3 offers a much improved range in this enhanced 94Ah guise, up from 118 to 195 miles - quite a change. The 'Range Extended' version claims to raise this to 276 miles. Those are European test cycle figures of course: in real world use, we'd expect around 120 miles in regular use from the all-battery model - maybe 150 miles if you're a feather-foot. Go for the 'Range Extender' derivative and of course you can raise that figure substantially - to well over 200 miles. Recharging times vary, but are much quicker, despite the significantly larger battery capacity. A DC Rapid-charge system is now standard and AC charging is now multi-phase, meaning full charging can be completed in under 3 hours with the multi-phase system. As before, the car can also be charged at home using a standard three-pin plug or by specifying a BMW i Wallbox.
We said electric cars were going to get better: here's a great example of just how. BMW's i3 was already a very good product. Now that its operating range has almost doubled, it now makes more sense than ever. As before, this model is unashamedly high-end - you only need to look at the materials it's built from to appreciate that - but as a result, it's leagues more exotic than a conventionally-powered rival with a premium badge. Indeed, its carbon fibre and aluminium construction lends it a technical sheen of cool that's quite different to the usual electric vehicle proposition, which all too often gives off the distinctive whiff of anorak. Costing around £2 to charge, with a real world range of up to around 150 miles on batteries alone, the i3 will work for many suburban commuters looking for something stylish and a bit different to the norm. One day electric vehicles will be cool rather than nerdy and if that happens, we think the i3 will be seen to be the car that started that progression.