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

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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 i3s

Although it’s a vehicle defined as much by what you cannot usually see as what you can – its pioneering carbonfibre-reinforced-plastic passenger cell is only properly revealed when the doors are flung open – the i3 remains an inimitable-looking proposition.

The changes for this revised iteration of it are subtle, the facelift bringing more gloss black trim, new bumper mouldings and alterations to the lights, although the more powerful i3s model tested here also sits 10mm lower, with tracks a substantial 40mm wider.

I'm a big fan of the way those coach doors look, but from a functionality point of view, they do leave a lot to be desired

That is not to say that BMW has justified the ‘s’ moniker with minor aesthetic amendments alone. The lowered ride height is the result of a sports suspension set-up comprising new springs, dampers and anti-roll bars, and there’s the option of sharpening the throttle response and ‘tightening’ the steering by way of a new Sport mode. The implication is that this is an electric hot hatch – and, as such, it would be the first of its kind – with the additional horsepower of the i3s resulting from tweaks to the electric motor control and new taper roller bearings for the drivetrain.

In keeping with the performance vibe, the i3s gets 20in alloy wheels with tyres that are 20mm wider than anything previously offered – the trade-off being improved grip for worsened rolling resistance, although the standard car’s handy 9.86m turning circle also grows to 10.31m.

However, these are mere tweaks and the drivetrain is fundamentally unchanged from before. The Samsung-sourced lithium ion batteries together form the same 33kWh (up from 22kWh but physically no larger) pack introduced to the range in 2016. Only 27.2kWh of that is actually usable, though: and given that a Renault Zoe now gives you 41kWh for considerably less outlay, that looks problematic. The battery is spread over the car’s floorpan, with the electric motor feeding the rear axle through a single-speed gearbox. 

Whether in the i3 or the i3s, the optional range extender is a two-cylinder 38bhp petrol affair that drives a generator for the battery. With a tank large enough to supply energy for a claimed 93 miles of driving, it takes the car’s theoretical range to 205 miles on the claimed NEDC test cycle, although it does incur a 120kg weight penalty.


BMW i3s

The i3s’s cabin is quite unlike that of any other car on the market.

There is no transmission tunnel to get in the way, and many of the materials used throughout are enticingly unconventional: the top of the dashboard is fashioned from recycled plastic, for instance, and olive leaves are used to tan the leather upholstery. Sustainability is the defining characteristic here, which is entirely fitting and only makes the i3 seem a more authentic product.

There are few cars I'd rather have been picked up from school in than an i3. I love the car's look and the view out of the back seats is really special

Even with the dark colour scheme of our test car’s interior, the cabin doesn’t give the impression that it’s lacking in space – at least from the front seats. The large windscreen not only provides excellent forward visibility, but it also lets plenty of natural light into the cabin. Although you sit fairly high up, you also sit with legs outstretched and head space is excellent. 

Relocate to the back seats, though, and this same sense of spaciousness isn’t as prevalent. Visibility is good back there but leg room is tight even by supermini standards and the rear-hinged coach-style rear side doors – which are interlocked with those at the front – can make accessing the back seats a more elaborate process than it really needs to be, particularly in a narrow, perpendicular bay. It also pays to remember that the i3s is a strict four-seater. 

BMW’s mid-life update of the i3 and i3s brings with it an improved version of the firm’s already excellent iDrive infotainment system. The 10.25in display is controlled by the familiar rotary controller and the screen itself now displays its content in even sharper resolution, at 1440 by 540 pixels. 

Apple CarPlay preparation has been included as a cost option (£235) for the first time and the voice recognition technology has been updated. 

Public battery charging points can also be displayed on the navigation map and the guidance system can alter a programmed route to redirect you to them if it deems the battery’s charge levels to be too low for the car to complete the trip. That’s handy for alleviating range anxiety.

Boot space comes in at 260 litres, so Volkswagen the BMW clearly isn’t as useful a car as the latest e-Golf (341 litres) or Hyundai Ioniq (350 litres). A Renault Zoe is more spacious, too, by some distance. 
Still, while it might not match direct rivals, the i3’s boot is an easily accessible, flat space that isn’t difficult to load heavier items into – although its bulky charging cables need a place to live and the boot is going to be the most likely candidate. 


BMW i3s

The i3s’s extra 19lb ft over the regular i3 certainly shows in the performance figures we recorded and lends the car an even more enthusiastic character than that we reported on back in 2013. It equates to a 30-70mph sprint time that is a whole second faster than a like-for-like i3’s, at 6.6sec. It’s more than enough of a difference to perceive on a wide-open throttle, and generally well worthy of any hot supermini

With lots of torque available right from the get-go, the i3s is well suited to urban driving. It has instant, muscular-feeling performance that’s strong enough to outpace most everyday traffic up to the national speed limit and can nip in and out of gaps at urban speeds particularly effectively.

No other small battery-electric car tackles a twisting road with quite the reward that an i3s can deliver

As a glance at the power and torque curve will suggest, you’ll have strayed beyond peak power and way beyond peak torque by the time you’ve accelerated beyond 60mph – which explains why, beyond there, the car so quickly surrenders the urgency of its pace. Only proper gearboxes will solve this problem for EVs in the long term.

With the range-extending generator, BMW claims the i3s will dispatch the sprint from zero to 62mph in 7.7sec and we matched that almost to the tenth in damp conditions. If you choose to forego the 120kg ballast of a range-extender engine, though, that claimed 0-62mph drops to a hot-hatch-troubling 6.9sec – something well worth considering if you’re buying an i3s for its performance pep and won’t use it for longer journeys. 

Naturally, there is a compromise here should you choose to drive with a heavy right foot: namely, that you’ll chew through the i3s’s electric range pretty quickly. BMW claims the range-extended i3s will manage a real-world electric range of 137 miles, with the twin-cylinder generator boosting this by up to 93 miles. Our testing results, however, suggest both estimates are notably optimistic, to the point where, by prevailing segment standards on battery range and day-to-day usability, the dreaded range issue begins to become a deal breaker for some potential i3 customers (see ‘Buying and owning’).

The i3s has good, but not outstanding, refinement levels. It’s certainly a quiet car at urban speeds although the frameless windows make for notable wind noise at higher pace.

Meanwhile, for all the appeal of the car’s super-responsive accelerator, its regenerative braking can take some getting used to. Lifting off the throttle causes the car’s speed to drop away with some immediacy. This trait is common to most electric vehicles but amplified in the i3 to the point where, with familiarity, it’s actually smoother and easier to drive the car entirely without using the friction brakes. This, of course, is also a more efficient way to drive the car, so there’s merit in the philosophy and it’s not hard to acclimatise yourself to it with practice. 

The last time a BMW i3 went around our dry handling circuit, in 2013, it was in similar conditions as those our i3s encountered. Both cars were range-extended models, too, although our 2013 i3 was on Bridgestone Blizzak winter tyres. Nevertheless, the better part of the new car’s 4.5sec lap time gain plainly came courtesy of its revised suspension and improved performance. Its lap time was also almost 2.0sec faster than the 2014 Volkswagen VW e-Golf’s.  

The i3s’s firmer suspension kept much better lateral control of its body while still permitting more pitch and dive than the average small car exhibits. Grip felt better balanced than in a standard i3, with the stability control apparently able to stop power understeer from presenting in any serious quantity. That it also stops you from adjusting the car’s handling mid-corner – and is impossible to fully disengage – is a shame, but doesn’t stop you from enjoying the car at full tilt. 


BMW i3s

The i3’s upright body profile, its relatively high centre of gravity and the profile of its tyres (designed as they are to minimise rolling resistance and maximise battery range) continue to present the car with significant dynamic hurdles to overcome. Even so, the i3s succeeds in two key dimensions: by being at once a more grippy, settled, balanced and compelling proposition than a standard i3, and a much more engaging and charismatic car to drive than any of its all-electric rivals. 

That it still doesn’t feel as stable, purposeful or rewarding as any of the piston-engined hot hatches you could spend its asking price on may be true, but it’d be a very uncharitable basis by which to deny it due credit here.

When it comes to outright grip, the i3s can't quite match a true hot hatch

It’s the i3s’s steering that provides the first hint of its ambition to offer a more athletic drive than the average battery car. There’s a noticeable amount of heft here, particularly at low speeds, and its quick gearing lends the i3s plenty of easy agility. 

Then there’s the way it rides. The i3s is firm-riding – not to the point of being in any way uncomfortable, but just a little short on suppleness over rougher surfaces. A compromise is being struck here, of course, between day-to-day comfort, outright grip, handling response and terrierish motive temperament; and for a performance-oriented car, it’s probably the right one.

Its uprated sports suspension contains body roll well, although the i3s still pitches fore and aft more than the average hot supermini might. Those standard-fit 20in alloys (the base i3 makes do with smaller 19s) make for a bit of secondary fuss and fidget over small lumps and bumps but not enough to make you question the wisdom of fitting them. In terms of outright grip level, the i3s isn’t quite at a true hot hatch’s adhesiveness.

If you drive it hard on slippery roads, it doesn’t take that much to trigger the dynamic stability control as the car begins to squat on its hindquarters under power and understeer around bends a little. But that stability control is very good and always keeps the car true to its course. There’s also more than enough purchase and balance here to enjoy a spirited flit across A-roads and B-roads.

Removing the i3s from its natural city centre environment won’t induce a great deal of stress. Motorway driving is a mostly relaxing experience, but it pays to bear the speed of the steering in mind when performing quicker lane changes.


BMW i3s

Leaving Tesla to one side, no other EV whispers ‘premium’ as insistently as the i3 and this comes with an associated cost. For the i3s, that cost is the far side of £40,000, whereas Volkswagen an e-Golf starts at £32,750 and the top-spec Renault Zoe costs less still. All three are eligible for the UK government’s £4500 grant for plug-in cars, of course, but even then, the BMW occupies entry-level 5 Series territory.  

Range is the other main concern. Our test figures indicate that the i3s has touring legs of 92 miles on electricity alone; just above 100, perhaps, without the ballast of a range-extender engine. Three years ago, that would have put it among the most exploratory cars in its class, but given that the e-Golf can now comfortably dispatch 120 miles and a Zoe will do better still, that’s no longer the case.

Pronounced depreciation is mostly a result of HMRC's £4500 discount. Pricey but holds value relatively well

The BMW’s nine-litre fuel tank pushes the overall range to around 160 miles, although the engine in the back of range-extender i3 model has always been an insurance policy slightly at odds with the spirit of the car. And it can be an intrusively loud insurance policy capable of returning only 36.3mpg, according to our testing.

The i3s is versatile, mind, being capable of taking both alternating or direct current when fast-charging. From a 50kW DC charging station – the likes of which you’ll increasingly happen upon at motorway services stations – battery charge can be replenished to 80% in 40 minutes. Charging at home on a 32amp wallbox would typically take between three and four hours.



BMW i3s

The BMW i3 has never been a rational purchase. Its revelation was to bring innovation and desirability, five years ago, to an embryonic market for electric cars that needed every fillip it could get. 

However, the EV market has developed and changed with alarming pace and now offers several options with significantly more usable range than the i3 and significantly better practicality, many of which cost significantly less. BMW’s range-extension option may mitigate one of those vulnerabilities and the i3s’s charm and zip partly compensate for the others.

Still better to drive than any other EV, but not better to own

But you still have to wonder how many EV owners wouldn’t rather have a genuine 150-mile affordable EV than a cross-breed that needs to burn fossil fuel to cover the same trip. Because, in 2018, they can have one – with plenty of change.

For those reasons – admitting that this car remains a superb mode of city transportation, a near-perfect second car and the best of its breed as a driver’s car – we must reclassify the i3 as an enduringly bold and likeable, but no longer outstanding, electric hatchback.


Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

BMW i3 S 2017-2022 First drives