The i3 matters because it proves electric cars can be anything but boring. Even those who aren’t interested in cars will find much to admire here, from modernist design that should be on show at the Design Museum to exceptionally low running costs that will have petrol or diesel car drivers weeping each time they pay for another tank of fuel.
The i3 is BMW’s first purpose-designed electric car, and – presently – the only pure electric car to be found in its showrooms. BMW uses the strapline ‘Born Electric’ and for once it’s copywriting with a point: the clean-sheet approach makes the i3 exceptionally energy efficient and ideal for those wishing to embrace a more sustainable way of life.
However, in the case of the i3, going green doesn’t come cheap. It costs from £34,075 for the standard, electric i3, before the government plug-in car grant of £4,500 is deducted.
That impression of value may be misled by its compact proportions. To bystanders, the i3 looks like a small hatchback, but actually compared with a BMW 3 Series it offers as much, if not more, seat space for four people. And when you consider the car’s exotic engineering, the price (the same as a 320d ED Plus) is far from greedy.
Factor in the low pence per mile running energy cost, absence of road tax, exemption from schemes like the London Congestion Charge and T-Charge, as well as highly competitive company car tax, and the cost of running an electric car like this car be rewarding.
There are two versions of the car, the standard i3 or the flagship i3s. Both use the latest generation of 94Ah lithium ion battery, mounted beneath the floor under the seats, and have an electric motor in the back of the car that drives the back wheels. The difference is that the i3s has a modestly more powerful electric motor.
The i3 costs £34,075, the i3s is from £36,980 (all prices are excluding the government’s £4500 plug-in car grant). However, with either version drivers can opt for the Range Extender model, or REX.
The REX crams a two-cylinder petrol engine under the boot floor, which acts like a generator. Electric car fans may tell you it’s the electric car for wimps, but pragmatists will argue it’s the right car for drivers with concerns over how far an i3 can travel before its battery needs to be recharged. An i3 REX costs from £37,225, and the i3s REX is from £40,130.
Buyers are offered a choice of one of four interior design themes – Atelier, Loft, Lodge and Suite – but only Atelier is at no additional cost.
Living with any electric car calls for a number of options that will make for a painless ownership experience. The first option to consider when buying an i3 is whether you need a dedicated charging station to be installed at home, which can replenish the car’s battery considerably faster than plugging it in to a regular household socket.
How much faster? BMW says using the car’s standard charging cable and a household socket will take around 10 hours to charge from 0-80%. With the 7.4kW iWallbox, the same charge takes less than four hours.
BMW offers its iWallbox from £570, including installation and a three-year warranty, and it’s worth noting there’s the option to upgrade it to a WiFi-enabled standard, but it lifts the price to £825.
Another charging option that may be useful for anyone intending to undertake long journeys is the rapid charge cable, which costs £237. This means you can plug the i3 into a high-powered, public charging point and take the battery from 0-80% in about 40 minutes.
Also potentially handy for those straying far from home is a subscription service, called ChargeNow. Having an account gives access the largest network of public charging points nationwide with a single card. Those points are displayed using the BMW i ConnectedDrive Services in the navigation system, and their availability is displayed in real time. It costs £7.85 a month to subscribe and you pay as you charge by swiping the ChargeNow card.
The i3 is also available with a heat pump system that is claimed to drain 30% less energy than the standard heating system. It’s £530, but also allows the car to be warmed or cooled remotely, via an app, while it is plugged in and charging, saving the battery’s energy for the miles ahead.
As mentioned, the i3 comes as standard with Atelier trim. But switch to Lodge – a favourite of The Charging Point – and the extra £1500 will feel like the car has had an interior designer give it a makeover.
The four seats (all i3 models only come with four seats) are cloaked in a mix of wool and leather, the dashboard and doors are capped in eucalyptus wood and mood lighting gets things funky at night. Like many other parts of this clever car, everything has been executed with sustainability in mind. For example, the fabric yarn is upcycled, the leather is tanned using olive leaf extract, the sustainably-sourced eucalyptus is chosen because it needs 90% less surface finishing than other wood finishes and no chemical treatment.
Cast your eye around and something else might catch you attention: the relative absence of plastic. Natural kenaf fibre is used in places, and with the doors open you can see the i3’s strong carbon-fibre structure – produced, you guessed it, at a plant that runs on hydro-electric power. (The i3 factory in Leipzig, by the way, runs on wind power.)
It feels fresh and forward-thinking. And it probably explains why i3 drivers have a slightly smug aura about them as they drive past.
Yet this is also a practical car. There is room for four tall adults. The view out is clear and the airy feeling and raised driving position make it more relaxing to spend time in than, say a 3 Series or Volkswagen e-Golf.
The drawbacks are that the boot is tiny. Its 260-litre capacity is smaller than a Ford Fiesta or VW Polo, cars that are smaller in the first place. And the back doors are hinged from the back of the car, so the front doors must be opened before anyone sat in the back can open theirs, and getting out, when stopped in a typical parking bay with cars on either side, requires a brief dance session as the doors needs to be closed again before you can step aside.
There are three traits that mark the way the i3 drives. It is light, agile and fun.
The car weighs just 1320kg – a full 265kg less than a VW e-Golf. It’s also rear-wheel drive, which helps it feel poised and responsive, and it soon dawns on the driver that they’re enjoying themselves rather than suffering for doing their bit.
With an electric motor and single-speed transmission, you push the throttle and enjoy a seamless surge of acceleration. It’s very brisk to about 50mph (BMW says 0-62mph takes 7.3 seconds in the i3, 6.9 in the i3s), and perfectly happy cruising at motorway speeds.
You can adjust the driving modes, to help conserve energy, and there’s lots of active information to inform your driving style and maximise economy. And in the Range Extender version, software monitors the state of the car’s battery and once it falls below a threshold the petrol engine acts as a generator to maintain the charge.
The only irksome behaviour lies with the car’s ride comfort. It tends to fidget around like a toddler, and the tall, skinny tyres can occasionally skip about the place over bumpy surfaces.
The i3 featured a 22kWh battery, which was a bit puny; its real-world range between charges was about 80 miles. The updated i3 features a 33kWh battery. It gives the car a range of roughly 125 miles, according to BMW, which gives it a meaningful nudge beyond the psychological barrier of 100 miles.
For those that need to drive further, there’s the i3 Range Extender (REX), with its petrol motor. It gets to just over 200 miles in day-to-day driving.
It’s important to note that the i3s travels no further, because it uses the same capacity battery as the standard i3. In fact, given its more powerful electric motor, there is every chance it may fall short of the more affordable model’s operating range.
It is only possible to give broad estimates, as the cost of charging will depend on where it is being done, as public charging points are more expensive than charging at home, the tariff of any home energy provider and, naturally, your driving style.
However, Car magazine, ran an i3 REX for one year and estimated that its electricity consumption of around 3.4 miles per kilowatt hour worked out to around £3.50 for every 100 miles travelled.
When testing the i3 REX, I achieved a best average energy consumption of 5.3 miles per kilowatt-hour, suggesting there is room for improvement if drivers are determined.
Independent sites suggest the cost of charging an i3 at home from empty to full would be around £4.30, or less than four pence per mile. Whichever way you look at it, it is significantly more affordable than running a comparably priced new petrol or diesel-powered car.
The i3 is a breath of fresh air. In starting with a clean sheet of paper, BMW has reimagined the car and created something to marvel at – and enjoy driving. It is not perfect; with only four seats, a small boot and that skittish ride comfort, as well as a designer aesthetic that may be too much for some tastes, there are flaws. But anyone who remains open-minded will enjoy the i3 and its low running costs.
|Power unit||94Ah / 34 kWh battery and electric motor|
|Transmission||Single-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive|
|Electric range||186 miles, official NEDC range; 125 miles in real-world driving conditions|