BMW i3 (2018 - 2022) used car review

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By Jonathan Crouch

Introduction

If you're not yet quite convinced by the electric vehicle revolution and you want a used EV from the 2018-2022 period, then maybe this facelifted version of BMW's i3 could be the car to tempt you. This model is all the things you'd expect a compact EV from this period to be - refined, eco-conscious and super-affordable to run. But it's also surprising when it comes to sheer driving enjoyment thanks in large part to the light weight of a specially developed state-of-the-art carbon-fibre and aluminium chassis. This improved model built on that character with an extra, more focused, i3s variant. It's all part of BMW's rather different approach to EV motoring.

Models

Compact 5-Door hatch - i3 full-electric / i3 Range Extender

History

The i3 was originally launched back in 2013 as a first offering from its maker's 'BMW i' all-electric sub-brand into which the Munich manufacturer had ploughed over £2 billion of investment. Futuristic looks were matched with even more sophistication underneath courtesy of a ground-breaking carbon-fibre and aluminium chassis. This made the car lighter than obvious EV rivals and allowed for the installation of an optional 'Range Extender' two cylinder petrol engine for buyers needing to maximise operating range.

The resulting package, in electric vehicle terms at least, turned out to be quite successful for BMW, with over 10,000 global sales by the end of 2017, helped by the fact that the brand continually developed the car following its original launch. As it needed to. The rather feeble, 60Ah/22kWh battery package supplied with the car when it was first introduced had a real world range that struggled to reach 80 miles between charges - which meant that almost three quarters of early customers felt forced to pay extra for the pricey 'REx' 'Range Extender' engine. Things improved greatly in 2016 though, when a new 94Ah/33kWh battery unit increased that range by almost 50%. As a result, in 2017 the i3 consolidated its position as our market's joint second best-selling all-electric model, vying with the Renault ZOE, both models just behind the Nissan LEAF.

But of course this BMW was a pricier, more up-market-feeling product than either of those two contenders, premium credentials which were enhanced by the further round of changes that brought us this significantly improved model in 2018. It proved to be a little smarter, a little better connected and a little better equipped than the earlier version. And, most significantly, there was an additional variant, the sportier i3s, which got more power and sharper chassis dynamics. Whatever version you prefer as a used buyer, the i3 remains a car of contradictions. An individual choice, yet with mass appeal. And an eco warrior that a petrol head might also enjoy. Ultimately though, it's a BMW born to be electric - which ought to be a very good thing indeed. Production ended in late 2022.

What You Get

Even now, the i3 still looks quite futuristic. Starting from a clean sheet of paper, the BMW eDrive development team were able to create a lightweight body perfectly balanced to suit the specific needs of its electric powerpack. The created weight saving could then be 'invested' in larger batteries to improve the operating range. That was the idea anyway: the reality saw bodywork fabricated from the kind of aluminium and carbon fibre mix you'd find on a McLaren supercar or an F1 Grand Prix racer. Those were the headlines, but the reality was that most of the carbon-fibre used was blended with plastic - which sounds far less exotic. Still, what was important was the end result. Without the batteries, what we were given here would be easily have been the lightest car on the market.

We certainly like the front end, which saw a front bumper restyled for this improved model, featuring a black U-shaped surround that flows up into horizontal turn signal indicators. In the original model, this front end had introduced some subtle new vocabulary to BMW's well-established design language. The Munich maker's familiar double kidney grille is present and correct, but it's purely cosmetic as the electrically powered i3 doesn't require any cooling air, even if you do choose one with a supplementary Range Extender petrol engine fitted out back. A more controversial touch is the sudden dip in the pronounced so-called 'streamflow' shoulder line just rearwards of the front doors. It apparently was incorporated so as to create a larger side window surface for the rear passenger compartment, but at first glance, it looks like a bit of an after-thought.

You'll be glad that it's there though, if you have to take a seat in the back because otherwise, that whole rear seat area would be a bit of a black hole. And pretty impossible to get to were it not for the 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. Back seat occupants would be pretty much trapped if this BMW had one but the bodywork and chassis of an i3 are so stiff, a centre pillar isn't necessary. So it is that, rather against the odds, what we have here is a car that's incredibly easy for anyone of any age to get in and out of. It is unfortunate though, that the rear door can't be used until the front one has been opened - which means that you'll always have to act like a chauffeur when dropping the kids off on the school run.

Talk of children brings up a potentially deal-breaking point for family folk. Namely that only two people can actually be accommodated in the back, even though three would probably fit at a squash thanks to the lack of the usual centre transmission tunnel.

There's a totally flat floor up-front too and the roomy feeling you get is enhanced by the low window line and the tall airy cabin. There's no conventional instrument cluster - just two high-definition LCD screens, one behind the steering wheel and the other a large central monitor standardised at 10.25-inches in size, 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 its incorporated rotary controller.

The boot offers a relatively restricted 260-litre capacity thanks to its high floor. If you do need more room, the 50:50 split rear bench folds down using handles near the headrests that are easy to reach from outside the boot. Activate them and you'll create a completely flat surface freeing up 1,100-litres.

What You Pay

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What to Look For

A common issue is problems with the steering system (helm gets stiff or emits squeaking noises); the stiffness in feel is due either to low tyre pressures or software issues. The squeaking is usually due to an insufficiently-lubricated plastic bearing on the steering spindle sleeve. We've also heard of an issue with the printed circuit board, which can lead to a sudden loss of power or even a complete motor shutdown. The printed circuit board is a critical part of the Electric Motor Electronics module and in some cars, was not up to the required specifications. BMW issued a recall to address this issue, but if your i3 experiences a sudden loss of propulsion, that may be a sign that this issue hasn't been properly attended to. We've also heard reports of the plastic mounts for the electric motor failing, particularly in harsh conditions, but this tended mainly to apply to pre-facelift models.

If the charging rate is too slow, then there might be several reasons. You might not have set the charging rate to 'maximum'; or you might need to properly engage the right charge setting for the cable you're using. There are two i3 cable settings - for the 'AC rapid charging cable' (the 7kW one) and the 'Standard charging cable'. If you've checked all of this and the charging rate remains too slow, then you may have a faulty charger in your i3. This facelifted model used three 16 amp charging circuits, which can either work separately for 16 amp 3-phase charging; or in pairs for 32 amp single phase charging. In case any of these units fail to work, then the i3 is set to charge at 16 amp/3.7kW, which in that case would result in in slow charging speeds.

Otherwise, it's just the usual things. Insist on a full servicing history. Also check the nav system has had a current map update; if it hasn't, your mapping is liable to years out of date! As usual with a small family car, kerbed alloy wheels and signs of interior child damage are very possible. Use these as negotiating points with the seller.

Replacement Parts

(approx based on a 2020 i3 EV excl. VAT) Because this is an electric car, the amount of parts needing maintenance aren't that great, but there are a few. A pair of rear brake pads are about £28. Front discs are around £73 and rear discs around £36. And a wiper blade costs in the £5-£19 bracket. If you're buying from a BMW dealer, check whether the car has the cover of a BMW insured warranty; remember that this applies only in the first three years from new and without a warranty in place, repair costs can be absolutely ruinous - e.g. a safety box can cost well upwards of £2,000 if it needs replacing. Warranties not issued from VBMW dealers will probably be useless.

On the Road

As part of the 2018 facelift update, BMW expanded the i3 range with an additional sportier 's' variant. The standard version had an electric motor rated at 170hp, while the 's' derivative used a motor rated at 184hp. The handling of the 's' model was uprated too, with a 40mm wider track, a 10mm lower ride height, larger 20-inch wheels and specially tuned springs, dampers and anti-roll bars. All of that made this BMW feel even more planted and agile, embellishing this model's reputation as the first EV able to offer genuine driving enjoyment. Predictably also though, the i3s modifications further stiffened up ride quality that was already quite firm in the standard i3, as the engineers sought to reduce the natural tendency of the tall, narrow body to roll around through the corners. There was no kind of adaptive damping system available to minimise the downside here, so even if you're set on an i3s, we'd advise also trying the ordinary variant before you finally decide.

Initially with this facelifted i3, both versions were offered either full-Electric spec or in 'Range Extender' ('REx') form, though the 'REx' option was quickly withdrawn at the end of 2018. The preference here is really down to peace of mind, the 'REx' package adding in a Korean-built two-cylinder petrol generator which can cut in to increase your driving range by around 80 miles should you run out of battery charge. You might think that to be an issue, given that some rivals can significantly better the distance possible between charges of this car's 94Ah/33kWh battery pack - expect around 120 miles in real world terms. Still, charging can be relatively quick, taking less than four hours using the 7kW Type 2 Wallbox that you'll need to get fitted in your garage. Find a high-amperage DC charger at a garage or service station and up to 80% of battery charge can be replenished in just 40 minutes. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a normal household plug point will need 11 hours to completely recharge the car.

Overall

There's lots that we really liked about the i3. It offered a premium feel missing from every other compact EV of its period, something we think that would translate into a genuinely special ownership proposition. And, despite the fact that it dates back to 2013, it still looks distinctive and interestingly-styled. Plus it's innovative under the skin. Better still, this BMW remains - by some distance - the most rewarding electric car you could choose from the 2013-2022 period to drive, especially in uprated i3s guise.

In short, even if you're a bit sceptical about electric vehicles, you might enjoy trying this one. Even if it doesn't change your viewpoint, you're going to have a heck of a lot of fun proving yourself right. 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.

Or at least it would be if the battery element of the i3's technology was able to match the sophistication shown elsewhere in the design of this product. The i3 never really offered a particularly long battery range and we'd be tempted to try and find one fitted with the optional little Range Extender engine fitted, though that was phased out pretty quickly in the lifetime of the post-2018-era facelifted model we've been looking at here. On top of that, rear seat room and boot space are a bit restricted and prices are quite high. But if you can get over all of that, then you'll find that this BMW has much to offer. Take a drive and you begin to understand why. The i3's bold, futuristic and, in its own way, moved the game on in this sector. It's a car the used car segment needs. Try one and, perhaps to your surprise, you might find that you do too.

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