BMW made waves with Europe’s first premium-brand compact EV, and continued development means the i3 keeps upping the ante

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There may be disquiet about its gentle rate of climb, but the electric car has – at last, once and for always – taken off.

The presence of cars like the BMW i3 can no longer be ignored. Experts are already predicting the year when EVs will account for a million registrations around the world. While every motorshow suggests that the pace at which EV technology is progressing is off the charts, with the 2017 Frankfurt show already predicting battery ranges in excess of 600 miles and charging times that will rival the amount of time it takes to refill a conventional combustion engine, by the end of this decade.

BMW's Mini E was a precursor to the creation of this, the new i3

A roll call of a few of the big introductions of 2013 shows seemed to be behind the big breakthrough, with the Renault Zoe proving that EVs can be cheap, the Tesla Model S that they can be grand and the Porsche 918 Spyder that they can be supercars. It’s as if every new example represents a significant step forward for the breed.

Fast forward four years and the market is awash with options from hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius and Hyundai Ioniq, through to the Volkswagen Golf and Volkswagen Passat GTEs, Volvo's T8s and the Honda NSX. While the electric market has seen Tesla stretching its capability with the Model S and Tesla Model X, alongside the continuing development of the Volkswagen e-Golf, Nissan Leaf and Renault Zoe, while others are considering entering the market for the first time - as Jaguar are with the i-Pace.

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But one of the first to the party, particularly from the premium segment's point of view was the BMW i3, the first battery-powered series production BMW. It is the battery car done with evident freedom, imagination and commitment and then draped in European premium-brand allure.

BMW has not dabbled in mass-production electric cars before the BMW i3 (and its sister car, the plug-in hybrid BMW i8), but its success has seen the idea spawn for the BMW i5 - which was first seen in BMW i Vision Dynamics at Frankfurt. However, the programme that spawned these models – Project i – does provide direct antecedents.

The first phase included the Mini E, which offered a remarkably similar range and performance to the i3 and began field testing in 2009 - with Mini's first fully-electric production model announced to be built in Oxford in 2019. This was succeeded in the second phase by the ActiveE, a 1 Series that previewed the i3's electric motor and entered two years of global testing in 2012 with a fleet of 1100 cars.

BMW's i3, then, represents the sum total of all that was learned in that lengthy and studious process. Two versions are offered. The first version a BMW i3 168bhp pure electric version with a range of up to 186 miles, although in real-world driving expect that to be more around the 125 mile mark. The second is new to the i3 family, and is the sportier BMW i3S model which has a punchier 181bhp motor which can pass 62mph in 6.9sec before reaching its top speed of 99mph, all while maintaining a real-world range of 125 miles. To put that in perspect, the range is no match for the Teslas of the world or even the updated Renault Zoe, but it betters the bigger capacity Nissan Leaf.

Both variants can be teamed with a two-cylinder petrol engine to help eradicate some of that range anxiety most feel behind the wheel of an EV.  So, when the battery becomes depleted, the generator fires up to ensure that you can continue your journey.

Could there be a better invitation than the BMW i3 to take the plunge on zero-emissions motoring? You’re about to find out.


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BMW i3 rear

It took a lengthy research effort – featuring prototypes such as the Mini E and BMW 1 Series Active E, and developing carbonfibre composites to new heights on strength, longevity and cost-effectiveness – to bring BMW to the point where it was ready to introduce this car. In the meantime it has watched rivals come to market with quicker-fix battery cars, but now comes the pay-off.

The i3 is more innovative than anything that the early adopters of EVs have been offered so far. Like the Tesla Model S, it is a ground-up electric car, not a platform-engineered adaptation. Something others have followed - just look at the Hyundai Ioniq and Jaguar i-Pace.

Fill a BMW i3 with petrol and you'll see the distance-to-empty meter show a number at which you’d think about filling a regular car

But unlike even the Tesla, it is constructed predominantly from carbonfibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP). That CFRP has been micro-engineered to balance weight and strength against cost in pioneering proportions. It undoubtedly adds to the purchase price of the car, but CFRP also allows BMW to offset the 230kg of the lithium ion battery pack from which the i3 draws its power almost entirely.

BMW initially installed 60kWh battery packs at the i3's launch, but 30 months on it has been replaced with a more powerful Samsung-developed battery pack, which remains the same size but is more dense that its predecessor – meaning it can hold 50 percent more charge. The 94kWh i3 is also fitted with a new, improved charging system, including a DC charger designed to charge the i3 up to 80 percent in 40 minutes, which translates to a range of 100miles.

BMW also off a home charging unit called the i Wallbox Connect, which will provide 11kW of power to charge the battery, meaning it can provide the i3 with a range of 112 miles in under three hours, which is supposedly five times quicker than doing the same process through a three pin plug. This teamed with BMW's Digital Charging Service aims to provide users with 'a smart ecosystem' where charging costs are optimised and those with solar panels can make the most of the electricity they have gathered.

As part of the weight-saving mission, this car also has hollow driveshafts, lightweight cabin fittings – a honeycomb windscreen wiper, even – and forged aluminium suspension and wheels.

And what wheels: five inches wide but 19 inches in diameter, for excellent aerodynamics and low rolling resistance. Will we see a consequent shortage of mechanical grip? Possibly. But there’s no problem with its turning circle; it’s a decidedly wieldy 9.86m.

The extended range version – fitted with a two-cylinder engine/generator to quell any range concerns and therefore the heaviest that any i3 is likely to get – weighed 1315kg. That’s 150kg lighter than the Renault Zoe Dynamique Intens we tested.


BMW i3 dashboard

For anyone accustomed to BMW’s established cabin architecture, this interior’s appearance is quite a step change. You perch elevated and upright on firm, flat seats, confronted not by a darkly imposing dashboard but by a stripped-back, light-toned design flooded with natural light from the enlarged windscreen. There’s airiness, space and, yes, a definite cheeriness to rival any high-sided B-segment model.

What separates the i3 from them (aside from its complete lack of a foot-hindering transmission tunnel) is the cherry-picked locations where either its price point or eco credentials poke through. BMW has done away with the instrument cluster completely, opting instead for a pin-sharp screen ahead of the driver. Most other functions are corralled on to an even larger 10.25-inch widescreen display controlled by the familiar, thigh-high iDrive.

The size of the i3's boot is impressive, even if you've opted for the range extender with the rear-mounted engine

The backdrop for these handsome slabs of LCD is a swathe of PUR-Sensatec, the entirely recycled trim material that closely resembles moulded packaging. For an early adopter, one imagines the juxtaposition would be as covetable as milled aluminium on house brick. The layout of what switchgear is left is impeccable, and the single steering column stalk – including drive select – is the icing on the modernity cake.

Aft of the slim backrests is arguably less successful. The i3’s structural integrity may have permitted the elimination of B-pillars and fitment of coach doors, but the opening remains slender and too distant from the floor to be labelled especially convenient. Nor is the space they access particularly roomy. Even worse, because they interlock, the back cannot be accessed without first opening a front door.

Nevertheless, the i3 provides one of the most appealing environments available for under £35k.

The i3 on the whole is certainly very well equipped with an iDrive system chocked full of BMW ConnectedDrive Services, sat nav, DAB radio, Bluetooth and a USB port. There are also heated front seats, rear parking sensors, and auto lights and wipers thrown into the package.

However, BMW want the i3 to be more than a mere driving machine but a personal statement, and have created four ‘interior worlds’ each with their own design style.

There is the standard fit Atelier trim, Loft, Lodge and Suite options, which upgrades the seats from cloth to premium leather and the dashboard from recycled material through to Eucalyptus wood

The 2017 facelift has seen the i3 given a moderate refresh with a new front bumper and rear apron, while LED headlights and a new generation of iDrive help give the small EV added sparkle. Now the i3 is smarter than before with the options to parking assistant, a rear-view camera, collision and pedestrian warning, city braking, active cruise control and traffic jam assistant - which helps maintains a safe gap to the car in front in traffic up to speeds of 37mph.

As per other BMW models, the iDrive system in the i3 has been updated, so the latest generation of the infotainment's software is used, and all i3s now come with a 10.25 in screen as standard, as is an improved version of BMW's iConnectedDrive and improved voice recognition, while Apple CarPlay is an optional extra. 

The i3S doesn't look all that different from the standard i3, except for the creative use of gloss black exterior trim to give the car a sporty profile and the standrad fit 20in alloy wheels.


BMW i3 side profile

Because only the BMW i3’s electric motor is connected to its (rear) driven wheels, this city car has the kind of power delivery that we’ve come to know and love from a pure EV. With peak torque from zero revs and no discernible lag at any speed, you put your foot down and the i3 responds immediately. It responds strongly, too.

The 0-62mph sprint is claimed to take 7.3sec in the all-electric model, and is accompanied by a seamless, prolonged shove in the back. The top speed may be only 99mph, but the performance on the way to it wouldn’t shame a warm hatchback. The range extender, which weighs 120kg more, takes a slower 8.1sec and has the same top speed. The i3S with its more powerful motor can do the same sprint in 6.9sec (or 7.7sec in Range Extender form), before topping out at the same top speed of 99mph.

Unlike most plug-in hybrids, the range-extending petrol engine never drives the wheels

Normally, you’d be frightened to use all of that poke in an EV because of the rapidly reduced range that a heavy right foot brings. And on battery power alone, the i3, in our hands, returned a typical range of about 75 miles.

But, in range-extender versions of the i3, the fact that there’s that twin-cylinder bike engine secreted beneath the boot floor gives you a certain confidence, even if the fuel tank is only bike-sized, too.

It’s possible to ask the i3 to hold its battery charge once it has fallen below 75 percent full, from which point the car will run with electrical power provided by the petrol generator.

In doing so, we found that the battery depletes a little between switch-offs, but we still rate the range extender as an extremely worthy feature, turning the i3 from short-hop urbanite into something acceptable as an only car.

Find yourself without electrical back-up for a few days and the i3 will give you about 40mpg on generator, accompanied by a muted, quite endearing twin-cylinder thrum.

On battery power, we saw as much as a 94-mile range and as little as 68 miles. With a fresh charge and a fresh tank, then, you could expect comfortably over 150 miles before having to find a power source of one kind or another.


BMW i3 cornering

In a few ways – control weighting and consistency – the i3 drives similarly to other BMWs. But in most respects it’s nothing like any other BMW at all.

Where it differs most are via its dimensions, which are reflected in the way that it drives. Because it’s tall, narrow and short and has a tight turning circle, the trademark feeling of stability and solidity that you get with most BMWs is notable by its absence.

The i3's body control is good and its handling quite balanced

Around town, the i3 has a firmness to its ride (to help prevent this high car from lolling around) that never leaves it. Throw in a rear weight bias – 57 percent of the mass is over the back axle – and it’s inevitable that the i3 has dynamics that make it more like, say, a Mitsubishi i than a 7 Series.

Up the speed and the i3 makes a slightly nervous motorway companion, one that is quick to change direction and react to minor steering inputs. It’s not a big deal or a great criticism – just unexpected from a BMW.

BMW has sensibly made the stability control system on the i3 one that will not switch out, although it is possible to turn off the traction control should you want to allow the wheels to spin up to gain purchase in poor conditions.

On normal surfaces, you’ll have to try hard to trouble the DSC system, because the i3 – despite its minimal surface contact with the road – generates a commendable amount of grip, at 0.74g, so it doesn’t feel out of its depth on back roads.

The steering, which doesn’t feel overtly stable on a motorway, does lend the i3 a certain feeling of agility, too. This is a short car with a minuscule turning circle, so the steering feels quicker than its 2.5 turns lock to lock suggests.

Initially, there’s understeer, which the i3’s stability control quells rapidly. And in poor conditions there’s even a hint of power oversteer, which the electronics stamp out just as rapidly. We suspect that, somewhere, there’s a tidy chassis behind the intervention.

But there are trademark BMW traits here, too. Steering weight is heftier than is typical in a city car and pedal and lever responses are similarly firm. They imbue the i3 with some sense of solidity, and cabin noise and refinement levels – both of which are fine – only add to the feeling that this is a special little car.

Visibility is sound, making the i3 an easy car to thread through city traffic, which is where it shines. There is no creep like you’d get with a conventional auto and, as with most EVs, the i3 can be tricky to modulate while slowing because lifting off turns the motor into a generator and deceleration is quite fierce.

Still, you get used to it, and the point at which the brake discs add extra stopping power is better managed than in most rivals.


BMW i3

The i3 is not cheap. Without a grant, the model starts at just over £34k for the all-electric version and over £37k for the range extender, not to mention the i3S which can set you back in excess of £40,000 if you opt for the range extender version.

Even with the government’s scheme taken into account, the cheaper car is equivalent in cost to a BMW 120d SE. It is also almost £5k more expensive than the larger Nissan Leaf and over £10k beyond the Clio-sized Renault Zoe’s entry point.

It’s surprising to find nowhere in the extended-range car to tell you your average economy

However, BMW calls the i3 the first premium electric car, and that description feels warranted. In terms of quality – and by that, we mean both attention to detail and driving experience – the i3 is in another league.

BMW has not eliminated the limitations we associate with buying an electric car, though. Its battery – bought with the car rather than leased – comes with an eight-year or 100,000-mile warranty and will take seven to eight hours to charge from a domestic plug.

Have BMW’s AC fast-charging Wallbox fitted to your house and that will shorten to about three hours. Find a public DC fast charger and you’ll still need half an hour.

Without the two-cylinder petrol engine, the i3 is limited to under 125 miles. With it, in our experience, the range increases, but you’ll still be leapfrogging between petrol stations to top up the dinky tank on a very long journey.

Its presence and an official CO2 rating of 13g/km also mean that the car qualifies for five per cent benefit-in-kind liability. The all-electric version remains free.



BMW i3 rear quarter

It’s the range extender version of the new BMW i3 that aids it in earning its four star-rating here.

Were it purely an electric vehicle, it would look, as so many do, expensive and of limited usability, but the filler cap allows it a chance to be your go-anywhere only vehicle while retaining an electric range as strong as most pure EVs, should that be how you want to use it.

Going electric on a budget? This is as good as it gets. Better with petrol engine included

We’d prefer its fuel tank to be bigger than that of a scooter, but its mere existence buys the i3 credibility.

That backs up the i3’s other undoubted drawcards: its attractive design, alluring interior, sprightly performance and, best of all, the fact that it has what it takes to appeal to people who like driving cars - especially in i3S form.

They are rare, these cars. Tesla does it, and now BMW does it too: making an EV for those who take pleasure from cars and driving.

Alternatives such as the Volkswagen e-Golf or Hyundai Ioniq Electric may offer considerably more room, but have far less charm and lack the premium edge that the BMW commands.

The BMW i3 is as worthy as any EV, but it is one whose soul exists to be enjoyed, not just endured.


Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.