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

Although it may be a touch disappointing to some to observe how long it’s taking Europeans to fully embrace electric cars – not least, you suspect, the car makers who’ve nursed them through their early ‘problem’ years – it’s not a hurdle that appears to be preventing the breed, such as the BMW i3, from improving. 

Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen battery capacity and associated cruising range improve significantly on the Renault Zoe (by 86%) and Volkswagen e-Golf (48%), while the Nissan Leaf (the new version of which will be road tested soon) has undergone a 66% increase in battery capacity in just three years. 

The blue inner trim of the kidney grille has been replaced with matt silver and gloss black. It lends the i3s a less friendly demeanour than the old i3 had

Before the end of the decade, those cars will be joined in UK showrooms by the new VW ID.3 all-electric hatchback and customers in mainland Europe can buy the Opel Ampera-e, both of which promise to be nearly 250-mile prospects. 

If those newbies really are what they’re purported to be, for the fledgling EV hatchback class to hit that mark, having effectively started with the circa-80-mile original Nissan Leaf in 2010, that clearly isn’t progress to be sniffed at.

In such a rapidly advancing context, a once-celebrated class-leading car can go backwards very quickly indeed. So has that happened to the mould-breaking i3? BMW’s i3 new-age electric supermini delighted us to the tune of five glittering road test stars of recommendation back in 2013, courtesy of its innovative and unusual design, characterful aesthetic, distinguishingly perky performance and equally perky, idiosyncratic handling. The car hasn’t been standing still since its introduction, having been subject to a model-year revision in July 2016 that added 50% to its battery capacity. But now a wider, mid-life update programme has brought it styling and equipment changes and myriad technical refinements to boot.

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Just as before, the BMW i3 is available in an all-electric form or as a range-extended petrol-electric version that falls back on a two-cylinder petrol engine when its drive battery becomes depleted. But in addition to that choice, BMW now offers a 181bhp de facto performance version of the car alongside the standard 168bhp model.

The go-faster BMW i3s variant gets lowered, stiffened suspension, widened axle tracks, retuned steering and a pioneering traction control set-up. And the i3s is this week’s road test subject.

So is it time to welcome a bona fide performance car to the more affordable end of the EV market? Or this actually a cleverly conceived bit of misdirection from BMW intended to disguise the fact that its pugnacious electric supermini is slowing falling off the pace set by its competitors? 


BMW i3 First drives