WHAT IS IT?
A funky, urban hipster oriented city car designed from the ground up as an electric car. It is BMW trying to jump its opposition, who are still largely fiddling with hybrids, and sex up the EV from a nerdy, techy product into a lust-worthy, chic premium product.
WHY WE ARE TESTING IT
This is our first drive of the i3 on Australian roads, so we're keen to see if it can manoeuvre over kangaroo road kill, cope with pock-marked back roads and handle the Aussie heat
Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe, Renault Twizy, Smart ForFour
Model: BMW i3
Engine: Synchronous electric motor
Max power: 125kW
Max torque: 250Nm @ 0rpm
Transmission: single-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 12.9kWh/100km (EU)
THE WHEELS VERDICT
The i3 is more than simply an EV: it's genuinely desirable for its drivability, design and is genuinely affordable. It shifts the goalposts for BMW's rivals.
PLUS Bold styling, attainable cost, realistic range
MINUS Small boot, Range extender gets no more pace, slow charge time
THE WHEELS REVIEW
HENRY Ford once said, "If I asked the man in the street what he wanted, he would've said a faster horse." The BMW i3 isn't intended to sell by the millions like Henry's Model T, but instead is aiming to spark a desire for electric motoring that currently doesn't exist.
Other electric cars haven't created an irrational, emotion-based connection with a broad or influential crowd. The Mitsubishi iMiEV didn't do it. The Nissan Leaf hasn't so much, while the Renault Twizy - under consideration for Australia - is seen as a novelty more than a necessity. The i3 is such a bold, innovative gamble for the German car maker, an electric city car that runs a carbonfibre chassis, has a 160km range yet poses as a design centric, funky and desirable machine that should appeal far beyond tech-heads and early-adopters. It is the first electric car that people will buy not just because it's electric.
The i3 kicks off at $64K – a lot for a city car, but countered somewhat by its edgy design and the cache of a BMW badge. Each element is not exactly bold or unique: yet it's the combination for that price that makes it compelling. First is the carbonfibre chassis, which helps keep weight down while giving the i3 the strength to not have a B-pillar, and have its 'coach' opening rear doors. The panels are all plastic, apart from the carbonfibre roof and the glass tailgate.
In total, this helps keep the with down to 1195kg, helping the 125kW electric motor, mounted on the back axle to feed the rear wheels, offer a range of up to 200km, or 340km with the Range Extender in the i3’s most efficient of its three driving modes, EcoPro+. There’s also the standard Comfort, with full throttle response, or the mid EcoPro, which takes a tiny edge of the throttle and reduces the air-con’s energy take.
The Range Extender adds a 647cc two-cylinder pinched from BMW Motorrad that's nestled next to the electric motor, so doesn't swallow any boot- or rear-seat space at all. Despite the extra 140 claimed range, you also cop an extra 120kg thanks to that engine and nine-litre fuel tank, while it also costs $6K more than the electric-only i3, with no other spec or equipment level changes other than 20mm wider rear 175 tyres.
At the wheel, the i3 presents a high driving position and good all round visibility, with a two-spoke wheel and digital dash before you. There's loads of headroom, and legroom with no centre console up front. There are familiar BMW buttons, such as the iDrive controller, while the gear selector has been consolidated onto a stubby stalk on the right of the wheel. You're surrounded by earthy textures and shapes, with the sunken dash below the 10.3in centre screen, mimicking the pinch on the exterior side windows. There's wool, treated cotton and oil-leaf tanned leather in a cabin of 25 percent renewable or recycled materials with solid fit and finish.
Push start, and the dash comes to life with a chime to tell you the i3 is ready, before pushing D gets it all going. Not only does the silence stun pedestrians who fail to notice the i3, but the "one-pedal" technique of driving takes a bit of getting used to. The electric whir when you nail it, with the full 250Nm of torque on tap from zero revs, gives the i3 a giant-killing acceleration. Yet lift off the throttle suddenly, and you'll snap your neck as the i3 slows with its re-generative braking.
The method, then, has you rolling out of the throttle when you'd normally brake, and once you’re accustomed to it the i3 becomes a fun, perky car to drive even on a winding country road that this city car's not exactly designed for. Here, the roll becomes apparent, and the change of direction shows the body and chassis aren't in unison, and it feels a little tall from the high driving position, but this is a well-balanced city car that is a lot of fun out of town. It has a proper multi-link rear end, too, and while the ride on the optional 20s is a tad jiggly, the standard 19s are surprisingly comfortable and don’t make as much tyre noise at higher speeds.
Either choice delivers excellent road holding and the steering, which is responsive if not overly meaty in its weight and feel, makes the i3 feel almost chuckable when you’re having a play, the rear-drive almost ruling out understeer when you’re pushing it. Around town, its 9.8m turning circle - smaller than a Mini's - means snap U-turns are a breeze, and its rolling response for lane changes is almost as good as its off-the-mark effort, which is 7.2sec for the EV, or 7.9sec in the Range Extender.
The downsides are a boot that's only 260 litres, and when the two-cylinder engine kicks in, it sounds like there's a dentist's drill in the boot. And although the i3 is relatively affordable for an EV, $64K for a city car is still a big ask. Then there's charging: if you use a standard Aussie plug, it takes a lethargic 11 hours for a full fill, but you can pay another $1750 for a fast charger that tops up the lithium-ion batteries in a more satisfying six hours or so.
The Range Extender is expected to make up around 70 percent of sales in Oz, yet the EV version is the i3 in its purest, best form. It's faster, better balance, more refined and cheaper, and puts cars like the frumpy Nissan Leaf to shame in terms of style and appeal. It is a genuine premium product that delivers on its promise, and even if it's far from The Ultimate Driving Machine, it's clever, practical and lust-worthy EV. It's the most convincing to date, even in a country that doesn't offer a single dollar rebate for such a stunning zero-emission city car.
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