What is it?
BMW i brand’s first model, the keenly anticipated electric powered BMW i3. First previewed in concept car form back in 2011, the four-seat hatchback i3 has now progressed to pre-production stage, with UK sales set to begin before the end of the year.
The pre-production i3 differs little from the most recent concept, which took the form of a two-door coupé seen at last year's Los Angeles motor show. The car boasts proportions not unlike those of the Mercedes-Benz B-class, but with a much more contemporary appearance and more modern detailing, while the lack of B-pillars has allowed the use of coach doors at the rear to provide excellent access.
The i3 is the first road-going BMW to be based around a carbonfibre body structure. BMW says the extensive use of the material in the i3 has helped achieve an impressively low (by electric car standards) 1195kg kerb weight. Special crash paths, including patented honeycomb structures within the side sills, are also claimed to provide the i3 with class-leading levels of crash protection.
Power comes from an electric motor mounted low down within the rear axle – a position that has allowed BMW to devote the entire space under the bonnet to improve crash worthiness. The synchronous unit weighs 130kg and produces 168bhp, giving the i3 a power-to-weight ratio of 141bhp per tonne – just 10bhp per tonne shy of the Mini Cooper S. But it is the torque that really counts. With 184lb ft, the i3 boasts 5lb ft more than the Cooper S, and it arrives 1600rpm earlier, from the very first touch of the throttle. It is sent to the rear wheels via a single-ratio gearbox that offers the choice of three driving modes: Comfort, Eco Pro and Eco Pro+.
This all helps the i3 dash from 0-37mph in 3.8sec and 0-62mph in 7.2sec. Top speed is limited to 93mph, at which the engine is pulling a maximum 11,400rpm, to protect the state of battery charge and subsequently its range.
The new i3 offers a range of up to 118 miles on the European test cycle, although BMW’s own projections are less optimistic at 81 miles in wintery conditions and 100 miles in the summer. Still, they are well within the 30-mile average daily commute the German car maker identified in UK customer trials of the Mini E. As it is, BMW describes the i3’s range as being “adequate to meet the day-to-day mobility needs of the target customers”.
BMW will also offer the i3 with a range-extender (REX) option. It will use a modified version of the 650cc two-cylinder petrol engine used in the company’s CT650 GT maxi-scooter, with a 9.0-litre fuel tank sited low down and ahead of the front seats. The combustion engine acts purely as a generator to provide electricity to the battery, and so configured the i3 is claimed to provide a range of up to 186 miles.
The 22kWh lithium ion battery used to power the i3’s electric motor comes with a warranty that is valid for up to six years or 100,000 miles. Claimed to weigh 230kg, it consists of 96 individual cells mounted low down across the entire length and width of the car’s flat floor. BMW says the battery, which is kept at an optimum 20deg C by its own air conditioning unit, has been designed to allow the replacement of damaged cells.
Recharging times vary, but BMW offers a wall box charger that is claimed to provide a full charge within six hours, or the battery can be charged from 20 per cent to 80 per cent capacity within 30 minutes when plugged into a contemporary 40kW fast-charge station.
Underneath, the i3 uses a bespoke chassis that boasts a 50 per cent front/50 per cent rear weight distribution. The front end is supported by MacPherson struts while the rear uses a five-link arrangement that mounts to the electric motor’s bell housing. Standard 19-inch forged aluminium wheels wear relatively narrow 155/70 tyres, to save weight and reduce both air and rolling resistance.
What is it like?
To get in to the i3 you step over substantial sills and sit rather high. Much of the interior of the pre-production prototype we drove remained covered, but BMW says the final version will adhere closely to the most recent concept. It is a thoroughly modern cabin, though, dominated by a horizontal dashboard, a steering wheel that is not as vertically mounted as in other BMWs and upright seating.
The heavily raked windscreen, deep dashboard and a completely flat floor give a feel reminiscent of the old Mercedes-Benz A-class. In the rear, there’s ample room for two adults, although the rear windows are fixed. The boot is also quite small and boasts a rather high loading lip.
The main controls take the form of a pod which extends out from the steering column, housing the starter button, park mechanism and gear shifter. There’s a second cluster of controls between the front seats, including the all-important drive mode switch.
Pressing the start button with your thumb and then nudging the gear lever forward with the palm of your hand to select D in one movement feels intuitive – and distinctly new-world. There’s a faint whine from the electric motor, but apart from the distant sound of the tyres the cabin is hushed. In the first mile or two, it is the directness of the steering that gets our attention. The electro-hydraulic system is terrifically well weighted for urban driving, and unlike some systems it is also keen to self centre.
Thanks to its relatively low weight, the i3 offers instantaneous acceleration and entertaining pace. The reality of the whole 184lb ft being delivered to the rear wheels the moment you brush the throttle gives the car genuinely urgent properties. Before you know it, you’re backing off, such is the initial burst of acceleration.
The default driving mode is Comfort, which is designed to provide maximum performance. The rate of energy recuperation, and with it the braking effect on a trailing throttle, depends on the mode you choose. Backing away from the throttle in Eco-Pro+, the most efficient of the three driving modes, provides quite aggressive levels of retardation as kinetic energy is collected on the overrun; so much so that you rarely need more than a fleeting dab of the brakes to wipe off speed.
The off-throttle retardation is so assertive that the brake lights illuminate if the i3 decelerates too abruptly. Eco-Pro+ mode also limits top speed to 50mph, reduces the performance of the air-con and will route you on roads with favourable topography to provide the maximum possible range.
The seamless power delivery and the braking effect of the energy recuperation system give the impression that the i3 will be a terrific city car, but it is the sheer agility that is the car’s defining characteristic. The lightweight structure and low-mounted batteries combine with rear-wheel-drive dynamics and a super-responsive driveline to produce a truly engaging drive. Given its overall size and tall stature, the i3 is easy to place, remarkably manoeuvrable and, crucially, fun to drive.
There is noticeable roll when you throw it into tightening corners at higher speeds, but it builds progressive and is easily tamed by a trimming of throttle. The tall but narrow tyres allow you to edge up to the point where grip begins to fade with a tell tale squeal with a fair deal of confidence before the DSC chimes in.
We’ll need more time behind the wheel on public roads before we can deliver a real appraisal of ride quality. The i3 hinted that its relatively long wheelbase, high-walled tyres and generous wheel travel provide comfort-orientated feel. There’s no obvious fidgeting over smaller ridges, although the jury is still out on its ability to cope with bigger bumps.
Should I buy one?
You can’t just yet, but BMW is already taking orders ahead of a planned world debut scheduled to take place in London on 29 July. Deliveries planned to begin in the UK before the end of 2013. Pricing is yet to be announced, but officials suggest that it will land in the UK at around £30,000, less the government's discount for electric cars. The range-extender option will likely add a further £2000.
Those in the market for an electric car should by now be aware of their limitations. The i3 is not a family car in the traditional sense; instead, it’s a highly individual, inherently practical and fun-to-drive alternative to existing city cars.
The signs are that the i3 will be an excellent city car with urgent performance, outstanding manoeuvrability, engaging handling and a high level of refinement. That it emits no CO2 will also see it provide a potential financial bonus for some, not least those who face a daily commute into city centres where a congestion charge is in place.
But the i3 appeals on many other levels. It hints at a new age of motoring with a look unlike that of any other BMW, both inside and out.
Price £30,000 (est); 0-62mph 7.2sec; Top speed 93mph; Economy 0mpg; CO2 0g/km; Kerb weight 1195kg; Engine synchronous electric motor; Power 168bhp at 11,400rpm; Torque 184lb ft; Gearbox single ratio