Think electric cars all look boring and are dull to drive? Munich's innovative supermini EV begs to differ

Aren’t electric cars boring to look at? Despite the free rein many firms have to package these futuristic machines, it’s a shame that most turn out decidedly dull.

Not the BMW i3, though. And not only does it look cool, but there’s real innovation behind it, too, with the car being constructed predominantly from carbonfibre-reinforced plastic, helping to offset the 230kg heft of its lithium ion battery pack.

The i3 has a high price and only a modest range, so it has been overtaken by many cheaper models that may not look interesting but can go further on each charge and are more practical. However, as a used buy, the i3 now stacks up as a reasonable route into EV ownership. Careful which version you go for, mind. The original i3, known as the 60Ah, has a 22.6kWh battery pack, from which you should expect to extract only around 80 miles.

In late 2016, the 94Ah arrived with a 33kWh battery and realistic range of about 120 miles – a useful hike that makes it the pick of the bunch. Most recently, BMW introduced the more expensive 120Ah, which has a 42.2kWh battery and an average real-world range of 165 miles, according to our sister title What Car?’s Real Range test.

Another recent addition was the sportier i3s, which gets 13bhp extra, at 181bhp, plus a wider rear track, 20in alloys, fatter tyres, retuned suspension and flared wheel arches.

To banish range anxiety, a model called the Range Extender – or REx for short – was available until 2018. This features a two-cylinder, 647cc petrol engine from a BMW motorbike that fires up to generate power for recharging the battery once that runs flat. Its tank is big enough for only nine litres of petrol, but it increases the i3’s range a useful amount, it’s easy to fill up (obviously) and it doesn’t cost a great deal more than a conventional i3 on the used market.

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BMW i3s

Revised hatchback sets out its range-extended electric stall in a new, sportier tune

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Although the i3’s range isn’t especially impressive, you’ll enjoy driving every mile in it. It’s a fun car that delivers typically zingy electric pace off the line and its well-weighted steering is among the best of its EV class. Plus, while it may be on the small side, there’s a real high-quality, futuristic feel to its cabin and excellent, airy visibility – along with BMW’s market-leading dial-controlled infotainment system.

The starting point for a used i3 today is around £13,000. This will get you a 2014 60Ah model with above-average mileage and a full service history, bought from a specialist. Between £16,000 and £18,000 will secure you a 2015 or early 2016 car in our favoured 94Ah spec. Once into the realm of £20,000, you’ll find good 2017 cars with a low or average mileage, bought from a franchised dealer, while £22,000 to £25,000 will hook you up with an i3 from late 2017 or early 2018.

NEED TO KNOW

In What Car?’s latest Reliability Survey, the i3 ranked ninth out of 11 hybrid and electric cars.

Bodywork was the main problem area, followed by the suspension, climate control and sat-nav.

If you’re still worried about the battery, rest assured that it has always come with its own eightyear/100,000-mile warranty.

There have been a few recalls for the i3, including for an issue with overly aggressive regenerative braking potentially causing the rear end to step out in slippery conditions and, in the Range Extender version, a fuel tank ventilation line that can become chafed. Check with a BMW dealer to find out if your car is affected.

OUR TOP SPEC: PROFESSIONAL NAV

Standard kit is generous, including heated front seats, climate control, rear sensors and sat-nav, but we’d seek Professional Navigation for a larger screen.

OUR PICK: BMW i3 94Ah

The first evolution of the i3 manages a decent range, thanks to its bigger battery, but keeps costs down. And chances are its styling will still look futuristic in a decade.

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WILD CARD: BMW i3S

The fastest version of the i3 gets a firmer suspension set-up, 20in alloys, sportier styling and more power. It nears hot-hatch troubling territory in a straight line, but expect its range to tumble if you have a heavy right foot.

ONES WE'VE FOUND

2013 BMW i3 Range Extender 60Ah, 77,000 miles, £12,600

2016 BMW i3 Range Extender 94Ah, 46,000 miles, £17,450

2018 BMW i3s 94Ah, 2136 miles, £24,521

2019 BMW i3 120Ah, 6500 miles, £26,800

READ MORE

BMW i3S 2020 long-term review

BMW to cease production of the i3 Range Extender​

Mini to revive Traveller name for BMW i3-based MPV

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Comments
7

21 May 2020

But why so unreliable, with bodywork and suspension problems. Is BMW incapable of making reliable cars, or is the What Car survey flawed?

This car and the Audi A2 before it seem to show that buyers don't want interesting innovative cars. It's no wonder that so many other cars are deeply conservative... 

21 May 2020
I think it is a great car to drive, I really enjoyed it and I also like the looks and could live with the short range, but I must be honest, the exotic materials are an off put as they will be expensive and possibly difficult to repair. A similar issue has caused so many A2s to be written off when low in value, not sure how low in value an i3 would need to be for this to happen though.

289

21 May 2020

....for a car that looks as if it has escaped Toy Town?!

For that money you could get a real car.....secondhand Mustang with a proper V8.

Around £5k is how I would value a  weird looking car with a useful range of around 120 miles (on a good day).

21 May 2020
Looks are definitely subjective...

MrJ

21 May 2020

I'll stay with Tesla (or more or less anything else) thanks.

The BMW looks pig-ugly to me, and shouts too clever by half early-electric design.

21 May 2020

As ever looks are a matter of opinion. Just be careful with i3S as ride is very harsh and uncomfortable on UK roads. Regardless of how some contributors 'value' used cars the market appears to value them highly, few cars retain almost half their new value after 5 or 6 years. Relative rarity is clearly a factor and if the i3 fits your likely use they are a lovely car to own to owna nd drive with one of the most original interiors in a mainstream car.

22 May 2020

I've owned a 120Ah i3S for the last few months, so will just weigh in with some of my own experience.

  • The standard i3 has a tendency to lurch the cabin alarmingly over rough tarmac. It's the main reason I went for the i3S instead: its wider tyres and sports suspension make it vastly more stable. That probably applies to wet-weather roadholding too: I've heard bad things about the standard model (didn't experience them during my summer test drive) but have never had a single problem in the S. So it's definitely the variant I'd recommend, unless you're mainly driving in city environments.
  • In my experience, range can be as high as 200 miles driving gently in warm weather, or as low as 125 miles when driven on motorways in freezing weather. Average is more like 165 right now (as stated in the article), 135 in winter.
  • Charges 100 miles in ~40 minutes on public rapids. I've never actually waited for it to charge: the rapids I've used have been next to supermarkets, and by the time I'm finished shopping, it's ready to go. That said, I haven't used the public infrastructure in 4 months - EVs are bloody useful to have in a pandemic.
  • 500 miles costs around £16 on my current tariff (12.19p/kWh). You can get even cheaper by charging at night with a time-varying tariff.
  • Check your car for random rattles. My <1yr-old car has several. So much for German build quality eh? That said, zero reliability problems so far. Apparently it's just the <2015 cars that are regularly problematic for reliability, and even then, mainly the range-extender ones.
  • Range-extender engine... personally, I wouldn't, unless I had to go for the low-ranged 60Ah model. (And even then, don't go older than 2015! i3 repair costs are expensive!) When you hear about an i3 having a problem, it's usually the range-extender. The car does automatically perform a maintenence cycle on the engine if you don't use it for a while, but seemingly that's not enough. Also, it's more expensive to service, potentially ineligible for some EV benefits, and adds over 10% to the car's weight.
  • It's not silent. For pedestrians, most of the latest models now have an external noise emitter: it's very subtle, like a mid-pitch rumble, so I have a hard time picking it out from inside the car. What I do hear is the motor when pushing the pedal or releasing it, which sounds like a quieter version of a Formula E car. And other noises too - air and vibration booming around the chassis. Sometimes the overall experience sounds like Aliens' atmosphere processor, and it adds to the car's weird sci-fi charisma. But if you want Rolls-Royce silence, this isn't your car.
  • How is it for passengers? Well, on the plus side, near-peerless view of your surroundings, especially with the sunroof. Huge windows, tall height. Gorgeous sci-fi interior (don't cheap out on the basic spec - all the optional trims are stunning but the standard one not so much). Surprisingly comfy seats. Lots of tech to browse around in the infotainment. Incredibly spacious in the front: I'm not sure the front-seat occupants get any more room than this in a 7-series. It's a really nice place to be. But not perfect: the driver needs to learn how to smoothly accelerate/decelerate to avoid jerking passengers around; ride quality is near-sports-car bumpy; seat position is manual so has no memory function; no touchscreen for the infotainment. It's poor for rear passengers, partly because they have no nearby air vents, but mostly because the concept car doors require the front set to be opened before the rear can be (like the old Clubman).
  • How is it for drivers? Great. It's the lightest car currently made with a BMW badge, on par with the Mini Cooper S 5-door. So it handles well, albeit not as well as similarly light cars because it's so tall and narrow. (Don't spec the sunroof if that's something you care about, it adds a lot of weight at the top of the vehicle.) Steering is better than any electrified car I've driven to date - not quite Mini-good, but closer to it than a Jaguar or Lexus. And of course it's a quick car. Not rollercoaster-brutal like a Tesla, but enough to give you a nice stomach-lurch, and to outgun most other traffic. The i3S is slightly more accelerative than the standard model at higher speeds, but generally you barely notice the difference, the stability is the main reason to go for an S. Regenerative braking is just strong enough to bring the car to a halt, but not on a downward slope, and it takes some practice to learn how to do it smoothly. Visibility is great, and because the car has such short overhangs and a narrow turning circle, it's very easy to park.
  • Other stuff: Boot and rear passenger space depends on what you're doing with the seats. If you have the front seats all the way back, there's almost no space for rear passengers... but I'm 6ft 3 and don't need that much room in the front, so it's possible to set the seats for both sets of passengers to have enough legroom. With the boot, it's Mini-small normally, but if you have the rear seats folded down and the front seats moved as far forward as you're comfortable with, it's surprisingly voluminous. There's no space under the boot floor, but there's a 'frunk' in the nose of the car that's big enough to hold both your 'granny' cable for charging from mains sockets, and your AC cable for charging at destination chargers. In older models it wasn't properly waterproofed, but it is in mine. Original model's halogen headlights apparently weren't much good at night, but the facelift's LEDs are fine.

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