BMW made waves with Europe’s first premium-brand compact EV, and continued development means the i3 keeps upping the ante

There may be disquiet about its gentle rate of climb, but the electric car has – at last, once and for always – taken off.

The presence of cars like the BMW i3 can no longer be ignored. Experts are already predicting the year when EVs will account for a million registrations around the world. While every motorshow suggests that the pace at which EV technology is progressing is off the charts, with the 2017 Frankfurt show already predicting battery ranges in excess of 600 miles and charging times that will rival the amount of time it takes to refill a conventional combustion engine, by the end of this decade.

BMW's Mini E was a precursor to the creation of this, the new i3

A roll call of a few of the big introductions of 2013 shows seemed to be behind the big breakthrough, with the Renault Zoe proving that EVs can be cheap, the Tesla Model S that they can be grand and the Porsche 918 Spyder that they can be supercars. It’s as if every new example represents a significant step forward for the breed.

Fast forward four years and the market is awash with options from hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius and Hyundai Ioniq, through to the Volkswagen Golf and Volkswagen Passat GTEs, Volvo's T8s and the Honda NSX. While the electric market has seen Tesla stretching its capability with the Model S and Tesla Model X, alongside the continuing development of the Volkswagen e-Golf, Nissan Leaf and Renault Zoe, while others are considering entering the market for the first time - as Jaguar are with the i-Pace.

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But one of the first to the party, particularly from the premium segment's point of view was the BMW i3, the first battery-powered series production BMW. It is the battery car done with evident freedom, imagination and commitment and then draped in European premium-brand allure.

BMW has not dabbled in mass-production electric cars before the BMW i3 (and its sister car, the plug-in hybrid BMW i8), but its success has seen the idea spawn for the BMW i5 - which was first seen in BMW i Vision Dynamics at Frankfurt. However, the programme that spawned these models – Project i – does provide direct antecedents.

The first phase included the Mini E, which offered a remarkably similar range and performance to the i3 and began field testing in 2009 - with Mini's first fully-electric production model announced to be built in Oxford in 2019. This was succeeded in the second phase by the ActiveE, a 1 Series that previewed the i3's electric motor and entered two years of global testing in 2012 with a fleet of 1100 cars.

BMW's i3, then, represents the sum total of all that was learned in that lengthy and studious process. Two versions are offered. The first version a BMW i3 168bhp pure electric version with a range of up to 186 miles, although in real-world driving expect that to be more around the 125 mile mark. The second is new to the i3 family, and is the sportier BMW i3S model which has a punchier 181bhp motor which can pass 62mph in 6.9sec before reaching its top speed of 99mph, all while maintaining a real-world range of 125 miles. To put that in perspect, the range is no match for the Teslas of the world or even the updated Renault Zoe, but it betters the bigger capacity Nissan Leaf.

Both variants can be teamed with a two-cylinder petrol engine to help eradicate some of that range anxiety most feel behind the wheel of an EV.  So, when the battery becomes depleted, the generator fires up to ensure that you can continue your journey.

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Could there be a better invitation than the BMW i3 to take the plunge on zero-emissions motoring? You’re about to find out.