Hilton Holloway
7 November 2013

What is it?

Nearly all car enthusiasts will, by now, be familiar with the radical BMW i3. Announced as the ‘Mega City Vehicle’ just over three years ago, the electrically driven production version is finally on sale in the UK. 

Based on a separate aluminium chassis, topped with a carbonfibre reinforced plastic bodyshell, the i3’s rear wheels are driven by a rear-mounted electric motor, good for a peak power output of 167bhp and 184lb ft of torque from standstill.

This model is the i3 Range Extender, which gets a two-cylinder petrol engine/generator to act as back up to the 18.8kWh lithium-ion battery. The two-cylinder, 647cc engine - adapted from a BMW scooter - is made in Korea to BMW’s specifications and develops 36bhp and 40lb ft of torque at around 4500rpm, which seems to be the speed that the engine is programmed to run at when it is called into use. 

Described as being ‘sealed in a box’ under the rear boot floor (although it sits alongside the electric motor), the petrol engine (which already meets strict EU6 pollution regulations) cannot mechanically assist by driving the rear wheels. This is in contrast to the Chevrolet Volt, whose range-extender engine can actually ‘clutch on’ to the transmission. 

The i3’s tiny engine/generator gets an equally tiny nine-litre fuel tank and what one BMW employee told me was a “real-world economy of between 40 and 50mpg” when driving the i3 purely on the engine alone. Officially, this car is rated at 470.8mpg.

On paper, there are downsides with the addition of the range-extender engine. Weight rises from the 1195kg of the pure EV i3 to 1315kg. This very slightly blunts performance, with this version of the i3 having its 0-62mph sprint time increased from 7.2sec to 7.9sec, while the crucial urban 0-37mph time is eased back from 3.7 to 3.9sec.

What is it like?

Despite being unlike any previous BMW production car, the i3 has plenty of this brand’s best characteristics. The i3 has beautifully weighted steering, a first rate drivetrain, sparkling open road performance and remarkably assured handling for a short, tall car.

The styling is either alarmingly modern, or just plain over-done, depending on your point of view; but I doubt few people will have a problem with the interior. The cabin is remarkably modern: the huge view forward, the undeniable effectiveness of the twin-screen dashboard and the journey-enhancing airiness for front seat passengers. Top marks, also, for the quality, detailing and logic of the switchgear.

In heavy traffic, the i3 has remarkable off-the-line pace and can be positioned with a directness that leaves most other traffic stumbling. The driver can exploit openings in the traffic flow with a speed of reaction than even the Nissan Leaf can't match; and the i3’s semi-high-rise driving position is also a particular advantage in town, as is the 9.8m turning circle - something beaten only by a London Black Cab.

It is also surprising how well the i3 copes with the cratered streets of London on this test drive, feeling taughtly sprung and yet not crashing across broken surfaces. BMW’s chassis teams now carry out testing in the UK and it is clearly paying off.

On quicker A-roads, the i3 has a very impressive pace under full acceleration. Long uphills are demolished in fine style, with a seamless stream of torque (thank the combination of an electric motor and a single-speed transmission). The i3 also has remarkable stability, as a series of driving exercises at Brands Hatch prove. Sharp lane changes and even a stretch of hilly circuit in the pouring rain fail to ruffle the i3, even though it has 155/70 tyres at the front and 175/70s at the rear.

On the return leg to central London, the range extender activates, allowing it to cut in and out as required by the conditions. It is just about possible to hear it running – the sound is of a very distant thrum – and then probably only because the cabin of the i3 is so very quiet. The i3 also has pre-set levels of regenerative braking. It’s quite an aggressive setting that slows the car quickly once the driver lifts off the accelerator.

In terms of low-pollution fossil fuel running, the use of this small petrol engine is a masterstroke with, for example, emissions of unpleasant NoX gas at just 0.0009 g/km. You have to wonder whether the electricity created by the i3’s range extender is ‘greener’ than what the average power station can manage. With a full battery and fuel tank of fuel, BMW predicts a real-world range of between 150 and 186 miles and claims CO2 emissions of 13g/km.

There are downsides to the i3. After the price (although the standard spec in ‘Standard’ trim is pretty comprehensive), the main one is probably the restricted space in the back (and tight boot) and the fact that the rear suicide doors cannot be opened without the front door being opened first. Many will find this problematic on the school run. The tiny fuel tank means that long journeys will mean refueling as often as every 80 miles. Otherwise front seats are also rather flat and need bolsters considering the i3’s handling abilities.

Should I buy one?

Buying a car like this is a very individual choice. Assuming you have the ability to charge the i3, there’s no doubt it is the sharpest handling, quickest and most premium-feeling EV on the market, if not the most capacious or family friendly.

The addition of the tiny range extender is a masterstroke (although it adds £3150 to the price), although the tiny fuel tank a serious frustration. Even so, despite being different in every possible way, the i3 is recognisably a real BMW.

BMW i3 range extender Standard

Price £33,830 (before £5000 government grant); Top speed 93mph; 0-62mph 7.9sec; Economy 470.8mpg (Combined); CO2 13g/km; Engine 2 cyls petrol 647cc, petrol with integrated generator; Power 36bhp at 4500rpm; Torque 40lb ft at 4800rpm; Electric motor power 167bhp peak; Torque 184lb ft from start; Gearbox single speed

Join the debate

Comments
22

Absolutely grotesque

45 weeks 3 days ago
Absolutely grotesque exterior, mind-numbingly boring interior, not very practical, and £33,800. Let me think...

The more I see it .....

45 weeks 3 days ago
.... the more I almost like it. It seems to be colour sensitive more than most other cars, but I guess that once they are seen on the road in numbers, we'll all get used to them. It is certainly not the most beautiful looking car but on the other hand, the people who are likely to be looking to make a statement by buying one will probably think the looks are a plus point, making their choice even more visible among all the similar looking mainstream cars out there. The range extender seems to be the best option to me, just so that you don't get caught out with a 'flat' battery in the middle of nowhere.


Enjoying a Fabia VRs - affordable performance

JJ

The rear of this thing ...

45 weeks 3 days ago
I know styling is a subjective thing, but to my eyes, the rear of this thing is just dreadful. I'm normally a fan of blacking-out the rear hatch. Opel's Meriva does this in a lovely way, as did the 2nd-gen Honda CR-X. I blame the blackened airblades (?) that can be seen creating a "frowning mouth" effect, as they extend the gloss black treatment down from the outler, lower edges of the tailgate to the lower trailing edges of the rear wheel arches. Together with the body-coloured bumper and the squinting tail lights, it has the effect of making the rear look like the face of an evil robot in extermination mode. It also leaves the rear looking unfinished.

Who is the lunatic, at BMW,

45 weeks 3 days ago
Who is the lunatic, at BMW, who thought that fitting a nine litre fuel tank is a good idea? Especially given the 40 to 50 mpg estimate, that is what you will see on long journeys, once the petrol engine is needed to keep going.

 

I'm a disillusioned former Citroëniste.

I really dont understand the

45 weeks 3 days ago
I really dont understand the enthusiasm for this thing. I will ignore the looks, because some may like it. But other road tests have described the suspension as 'crashy' and 'too firm' which is silly for a city car. If its not a city car, then the range extender is needed. Other tests also describe it as a lot noisier than autocar. And why the tiny fuel tank? If i were to drive 400 miles (as i do from time to time) i would need to stop every hour to refuel after the fist couple of hours. Thats probably 5 refuelling stops. How tedious. And lets not forget, once running on petrol this thing wont even match a Toyota Aygo for Fuel economy. If you carry people in the back they cant get out. Not without you getting out to let them out. So, its expensive, rides badly, has a short range as range extender, an even shorter range without the back up motor. And people cant get in and out of the back easily But it does accelerate quickly, and it does have that badge. Not a car for me it seems

+1 for the question on size

45 weeks 3 days ago
+1 for the question on size of the fuel tank - why spend that much extra to get the extender when it extends by such a small amount? Good work on the overall weight, but the one thing I'd like to see featured on the test is braking distances in the wet & dry - on such skinny tyres for a relatively heavy car I'd worry just how much further this would travel when braking from high speeds vs something traditional like a VW Golf.

Oh ! it has the economy of the 9 speed Range Rover Evoque

45 weeks 3 days ago
There must be some idiots out there to buy it ,what with the high price and economy of the 9 speed auto range Rover Evoque the Evoque wins handsdown.I bet if you by the time you put leather on the i3 and other options it will be far more costly than the Evoque. The efficiency of these petrol hybrids is very questionable and do not even think about the battery replacement costs.

lunchtime and no JLR story

45 weeks 3 days ago
The problem with this story is that it does not involve JLR. We all know that JLR (might) have a vastly superior EV in the works, which will (possibly) embarrass this rather amateurish effort from the Germans. Ok so it won't be available before 2024 (big deal!) but perhaps we could see some sketches in the meantime? Or how about - JLR straps an XF grille onto a milk float, then Autocar could gush about the incredibleness of it all? Of how this "could be" and "very possibly might be" the best thing since slice bread etc? On a more serious note. It is alarming to see a lack of JLR stories today given that the entire UK economy depends on it.

Saw these on Monday

45 weeks 3 days ago
Was working central London on Monday and saw a whole fleet of these driving round and parking up in the Marble Arch underground car park. Have to say in real life they look much better proportioned and detailed that these pictures. Completely agree on the colour sensitivity. Silver and Grey looked dull, Burnt Orange looked great. The interior in particular looked really fresh To expensive and not enough overall range for me to use currently. But I could certainly see the appeal.

Lunacy

45 weeks 3 days ago
@Frightmare Bob I read that the reason for this is some Californian law regarding the requirement for range extenders: the rex range must not exceed the battery range. Well, that is certainly the case. If this is true it seems silly that they would decide that a Californian law would determine the size of the tank for all models everywhere. I don't know how much room they have to play with but it would have been a smart move if they could have offered different battery sizes (like Tesla's model S ) for both electric and range extender models, the REX offering the appropriately sized fuel tank to match battery range. Or they make an i3plus model with a bit more passenger space, bigger boot, bigger battery and fuel tank. If they can make a coupe model concept surely they could do a plus model.
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