BMW's i3 is the cleverest all-electric car yet. But can we really still call it an 'all-electric' car in 'Range Extender' form with a little two cylinder petrol scooter engine slung out the back. Actually, we can. Jonathan Crouch looks at the improved 94AH version.
Ten Second Review
BMW's i3 is an electric vehicle unlike any we've seen to date. It can be bought either in pure electric form or, as tested here, with a Range Extender petrol engine added to prolong the period you can travel between potentially rapid charge-ups. The light weight of a specially developed state-of-the-art carbon fibre and aluminium chassis further helps extend that mileage and, along with the startling power of the now improved 94AH 33kWh battery pack, also plays its part in creating the kind of dynamic driving experience you simply wouldn't expect an electric vehicle to be able to provide. But then this is BMW's approach to EV motoring. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised.
It was only a matter of time before the prestigious brands entered the mainstream electric vehicle market. BMW was the first and this is the car they've bought us - the clever, futuristic i3. In size, as you can see, it's not a lot different from the kind of smartly badged small Audi, Mercedes or BMW that, in decently pokey diesel automatic form, would cost you about the same. The concept on offer here though is far more forward-thinking - that of offering zero emissions in a premium package, yet at an affordable price. Like its sister model, the hybrid i8 sportscar, this is a very different take on EV motoring, designed from the ground-up as an electric vehicle and unusual in this segment in its use of rear wheel drive and its emphasis on an engaging at-the-wheel experience. It's groundbreaking too in the lightweight chassis and bodywork solutions that have left it far less heavy than other pure electric rivals. That's enabled BMW to fit larger lithium-ion batteries that in turn, have boosted the operating range, now improved in this '94AH' form to as much as 195 miles. Buyers still not convinced by that can also order this 'Range Extender' version with a tiny two cylinder petrol engine out back that almost doubles the length of journeys you can take between potentially quite rapid charges.
First up, we need to make very clear that there are two very distinct versions of the i3 you can buy. There's a pure electric model powered solely by an electric motor. And then there's the one that the vast majority of customers will choose, this 'Range Extender' variant. Nestled behind you in this variant alongside the electric motor is a Korean-built two-cylinder petrol generator, a powerplant borrowed from a BMW scooter and there to work in tandem with the now improved 33Wh lithium-ion battery that propels this i3 along with impressive speed. Note that I've called it a 'generator' rather than an 'engine'. That's because it never actually drives the wheels: being only 647cc in size and developing just 37bhp, it probably wouldn't be up to that. Its role instead is merely to extend the life of the battery pack so that i3 owners don't suffer the sort of 'range anxiety' that afflicts the drivers of many electric vehicles who picture themselves running out of juice somewhere inconvenient or just plain dangerous. If that looks likely to happen in this Range Extender version, you just pop into a petrol station and top it up. The thing is though, this car is at its best when you're not using the petrol unit. Think of it as a 'get out of jail free' card and try not to press it into service too often. How will that happen? Well automatically mostly, the powerplant cutting in with a clatter (that's fortunately been well muffled in the cabin) when battery capacity drops below 20%. When it is rumbling away out back, your expectations of what the scooter engine can provide need to be realistic. After all, the tiny 9-fuel tank means it only extends the 94AH battery pack's claimed 195-mile operating range by around 80 miles. And the engine's assistance doesn't change the manner of your near-silent, milkfloat-style battery-powered mobility.
Design and Build
This BMW looks like nothing else on the road - such being the benefits of design from scratch. The Munich maker wanted to do that in order to create the kind of class-leadingly light bodyshell that would allow for the fitment of larger batteries to increase the driving range. That was the idea - here's the reality, with bodywork fabricated from the kind of aluminium and carbon fibre mix you'd find on a McLaren P1 supercar or an F1 Grand Prix racer. Getting in requires use of opposing coach-style doors that open to reveal the lack of the kind of central B-pillar that almost every other car in the world has to have. Unfortunately, only two folk can be accommodated in the rear nut those that can be carried have reasonable space to play with. There's also a 280-litre boot extendable to 1,100-litres. Up front, there's no conventional instrument cluster - just two high-definition LCD screens, one behind the steering wheel and the other sited at the top of the centre console and big enough for rear seat folk to see. The gear selector and start/stop button share a stalk projecting from the steering column and you engage gears using a rotary controller, which moves forwards or backwards. The central design element is this arc of trim extending from the air vents on the left-hand side of the cockpit, which continues behind the steering column and reaches its full height above the usefully deep top-lidded glove box.
Market and Model
Most i3 models will be leased but if you are looking at buying outright, you'll need to know that pricing starts at around £28,000 for the pure electric version. You can tack on just over £3,000 more if you want the Range Extender model - which seems quite a lot to integrate a scooter engine. These figures take into account the generous £4,500 OLEV Government grant, a bigger grant, we should point out, than applies to rival Plug-in hybrid competitors. The Range Extender version is the one that one motoring journalist dubbed 'the coward's choice'. Well, paint me yellow if you like, but as someone who routinely pulls his mobile out to find the battery pancaked, I'm not sure I'd be altogether different charging a car. It's certainly true that if you really get your act together and use the i3 as efficiently as possible, ownership of this version will see you paying for and lugging around a hunk of metalwork in the back that'll rarely, if ever, be used. But if I was buying this car, I personally wouldn't care about that. Peace of mind is hard to put a price on. BMW reckons that most customers will agree with me, over 80% likely to choose the Range Extender option with this i3, which means we're either a nation of cowards or something different. Pragmatists, I'd say.
Cost of Ownership
The biggest draw for many with this i3 will be its personal taxation advantages. The all-electric version is, after all, BIK tax-free, while this Range Extender model's official 13g/km CO2 rating means it qualifies for a mere 5% of benefit-in-kind liability. Corporate business customers benefit from a 100% capital write-down allowance and very low levels of National Insurance taxation. As for driving range, well here's a car that official statistics suggest can now in improved 94AH guise offer a range of up to 195 miles on the European test cycle. Mind you, my experience with electric cars to date has taught me to deeply distrust official statistics: I'd work around an all-electric driving range of around 120 miles if I were you. If just listening to those kinds of figures prompts you into an attack of so-called 'range anxiety', then the i3 Range Extender model we're looking at here is the version for you - to a point. The little motorcycle petrol engine here mated with battery power is reasonably efficient but unfortunately must operate with a tiny 9-litre fuel tank that offers you an extra driving range of no more than about 80 miles. In other words, your total real-world journeying distance is extended over that of the pure electric i3 to a figure that'd probably be in the region of around 250 miles in normal use, maybe a little more if you're a feather-foot and the season and the conditions are working in your favour. Based upon battery and engine combined use over that sort of distance, BMW claims the combined cycle i3 fuel figure to be an astonishing 470.8mpg. Based on its use of petrol alone, this car delivers only about 40mpg, which is what you'd get if you were to find yourself without electrical back-up for a few days. Given the fact that we're talking here about a tiny two cylinder scooter engine, that's far less impressive.
If, so far, you've been a bit sceptical about electric vehicles, then you need to try this one, especially in this imprved 94AH guise. Even if it doesn't change your viewpoint, you're going to have a heck of a lot of fun proving yourself right. It's distinctive, enjoyable and feels like a genuinely special ownership proposition. Compared to this i3, even a talented vehicle like BMW's own 1 Series seems a bit grey and two-dimensional. Like it or not, this is the future for small cars. Like most British buyers, if I was spending my own money, I'd definitely go for the version with the Range Extender petrol engine fitted. It gives the car the added flexibility you'll appreciate when life doesn't quite go to plan and, apart from the premium being asked, other downsides are few. Quite frankly, why wouldn't you? That's a question you could ask of the i3 package as a whole. And answer negatively by citing prestige pricing, awkward looks and restricted rearward space. None of these thing though, are issues likely to unduly bother the vast audience BMW is targeting with this car. People who've so far stayed away from the electric vehicle revolution - but might well join it now.