What is perhaps most remarkable about the i3 is that it pulls off the amazing trick of looking like nothing else, but still looking like a BMW. At just under four metres in length, it’s barely any longer than a supermini like the Ford Fiesta or Volkswagen Polo, but with its two-tone paintwork, U-shaped running lights and exposed carbon fibre on the roof, it’s a very distinctive car indeed. Unlike many BMWs there are no differing trim levels to choose from, or racy M Sport variants, however there are seven exterior colours to pick, and four different alloy wheel designs, including a particularly striking pair of (optional) 20-inch wheels. There is also a Sport pack, which bundles together LED headlights, tinted windows, and a Harman Kardon stereo – but does little to alter the exterior design.
Inside, too, the design is thoroughly original, despite containing several familiar BMW components. True, there are some strange combinations of textures, materials and mouldings in a few places, but there’s no questioning the quality, and the result is still a cabin that’s easy to get comfortable in and packed with features that are a doddle to use. The upper dashboard is dominated by two colour screens – one directly behind the steering wheel, displaying information about the car (its speed, range and so on), while the other in the centre acts as the display for everything from the sat-nav, to the stereo and car settings. BMW hasn’t forgotten the basics: the driver has a good forward view out and plenty of adjustment in the driving position, however the small rear window and massive C-pillars mean reversing can be tricky, and the i3 feels bigger than it actually is when reversing into a tight spot – parking sensors are an absolute must have.
The i3 is only a four-seater, but despite being a relatively short car, it has plenty of space inside, at least for those in the front. A cool design touch, the rearward opening back doors are nice in theory, but make getting in and out quite awkward, as you have to prise the front door ajar to get access to the cramped rear seats. Anyone sitting behind a tall driver will find the room in the back considerably less generous than in similarly priced rivals like the Audi A3 e-tron. With 260 litres (a little more than a VW Up), the boot capacity is reasonable for a car of this size, and the standard split-folding rear seats drop down to give a very decent, almost flat load area if you do need more space, but again, more conventional rivals are better at offering space for adults and bigger suitcases.
Ride and handling
A turning circle of less than 10 metres means the i3 is easy to manoeuvre through even the most congested city streets, but the question on many people’s lips will be whether the i3 drives like a ‘real’ BMW. The simple answer is that it does: with rear-wheel drive, a low centre of gravity and an even weight distribution, it’s very well balanced. It will happily cruise at the legal limit on the motorway, too, and although you’re conscious of wind noise from around the door mirrors, that’s more because of the lack of engine noise than any fundamental lack of refinement. If there is a drawback, it’s the shortage of ride comfort, especially at low speed on the kind of city streets that most i3s will call home. Our only caveat is that the car we drove was on optional 20-inch wheels. However the standard 19s are equally firm, and the i3 feels like it simply doesn’t have the suspension travel to deal with the severely pockmarked roads that are so common place in UK city centres. The steering is also rather light, so while it’s fast and accurate enough to give the driver confidence when cornering, the oddly inconsistent weighting can take some getting used to.
Like any electric car, the i3 is silent when you turn it on, but once you pull away, you’ll be shocked: the i3 is very quick and can beat most cars away from the lights – very useful around town, which is where most i3s will spend most of their time. Like any electric car, the i3 produces all of its torque immediately, which means it responds keenly and instantly when the driver hits the throttle. What takes more getting used to is the strength of the regenerative braking, which slows the car as soon as you lift off the throttle. Mind you, it’s so strong that you can almost always drive through town without ever touching the brakes – which is more relaxing than it sounds. There are several driving modes to choose from, and if you pick the ‘Eco Pro’ or ‘Eco Pro Plus’ modes then your speed is automatically limited, to 70mph and 55mph respectively, to help conserve the batteries. Of course, if you pick the range-extender model this is less of an issue, but the small motorbike engine the i3 uses is quite noisy when it does kick in, and makes a big difference to how the i3 drives.
If you compare the i3 to other electric cars, such as the Renault Zoe and Nissan Leaf, it looks rather expensive – and without overcoming the same weakness as any electric car, its range. The long and short of it is that, if you can’t live with a range of 80 miles, an electric i3 is not the car for you; well, not without paying a monthly fee to join BMW’s Access programme, which gives you access to a range of other BMWs when your i3 isn’t suitable. Then again, you could buy the range-extender version, which will go twice as far, and which you can just fill up with petrol to keep you going – but which costs thousands more. However, once you’ve bought the car, it’s very cheap to run and exempt from the London Congestion Charge. Both versions of the i3 sit in the lowest band for road tax, and incur low rates of BIK tax – zero for the electric car and 5% for the range-extender – while the battery is included in the price of the car, so you don’t have to pay extra to lease it. It will be cheaper to charge than to fuel a conventional car, as it takes three hours to charge the car from flat to 80% using a home wallbox or seven hours from a regular socket.
It’s impossible to predict how reliable this new technology will be, but in theory at least, it could be better than a conventionally engined car, as there are fewer components and moving parts. If you have concerns about the electric drivetrain, they may be partly allayed by the eight-year/100,000-mile battery warranty. However the range-extender is known to have had reliability issues with overheating, but only when driven on petrol power alone for an extended time – not what the i3 was originally intended for – so that’s worth bearing in mind.
In theory, making the passenger compartment out of carbon fibre-reinforced plastic, which is exceptionally strong and keeps the occupants separate from the battery, should give the car excellent safety. That’s why it’s all the more disappointing that the i3 scored only four stars (out of five) in Euro NCAP tests. The testers said that, in the side pole impact, protection of the chest was weak; the front seats and head restraints provided marginal protection against whiplash; and, the front edge of the bonnet gave poor protection for pedestrians. At least the car has excellent standard safety kit, and on top of that you can specify options such as the Driving Assistant Package, which will warn you before a potential collision and automatically maintain speed and distance in city traffic.
The biggest choice for buyers is whether to spend the extra on the range-extender version, as both it and the electric car come with the same high level of standard equipment. This includes alloy wheels, Bluetooth, a DAB radio, sat-nav, rear parking sensors and climate control. Beyond that, you can specify optional ‘worlds’ for the cabin, which give you different trim, upholstery and floor mats, and you can choose from various combinations of three packages – BMW Maintenance, BMW Access and ChargeNow (public charging) – which are available for an additional monthly fee. The Volkswagen Golf GTE and Audi A3 e-tron have similar kit levels, and cost around the same as the range-extender though, and both are better all-rounders.
If an electric car will fit into your lifestyle, then the i3 is certainly worth a look. It may be dearer than other all-electric cars, but we think the extra is justified by the premium look and feel, and fun driving dynamics. The range-extender version though is outclassed by its rivals, which are more practical, smoother riding, and easier to live with, if less exciting to look at.