The main controls take the form of a pod which extends out from the steering column, housing the starter button, park mechanism and gear shifter. There’s a second cluster of controls between the front seats, including the all-important drive mode switch.
Pressing the start button with your thumb and then nudging the gear lever forward with the palm of your hand to select D in one movement feels intuitive – and distinctly new-world. There’s a faint whine from the electric motor, but apart from the distant sound of the tyres the cabin is hushed. In the first mile or two, it is the directness of the steering that gets our attention. The electro-hydraulic system is terrifically well weighted for urban driving, and unlike some systems it is also keen to self centre.
Thanks to its relatively low weight, the i3 offers instantaneous acceleration and entertaining pace. The reality of the whole 184lb ft being delivered to the rear wheels the moment you brush the throttle gives the car genuinely urgent properties. Before you know it, you’re backing off, such is the initial burst of acceleration.
The default driving mode is Comfort, which is designed to provide maximum performance. The rate of energy recuperation, and with it the braking effect on a trailing throttle, depends on the mode you choose. Backing away from the throttle in Eco-Pro+, the most efficient of the three driving modes, provides quite aggressive levels of retardation as kinetic energy is collected on the overrun; so much so that you rarely need more than a fleeting dab of the brakes to wipe off speed.
The off-throttle retardation is so assertive that the brake lights illuminate if the i3 decelerates too abruptly. Eco-Pro+ mode also limits top speed to 50mph, reduces the performance of the air-con and will route you on roads with favourable topography to provide the maximum possible range.
The seamless power delivery and the braking effect of the energy recuperation system give the impression that the i3 will be a terrific city car, but it is the sheer agility that is the car’s defining characteristic. The lightweight structure and low-mounted batteries combine with rear-wheel-drive dynamics and a super-responsive driveline to produce a truly engaging drive. Given its overall size and tall stature, the i3 is easy to place, remarkably manoeuvrable and, crucially, fun to drive.
There is noticeable roll when you throw it into tightening corners at higher speeds, but it builds progressive and is easily tamed by a trimming of throttle. The tall but narrow tyres allow you to edge up to the point where grip begins to fade with a tell tale squeal with a fair deal of confidence before the DSC chimes in.
We’ll need more time behind the wheel on public roads before we can deliver a real appraisal of ride quality. The i3 hinted that its relatively long wheelbase, high-walled tyres and generous wheel travel provide comfort-orientated feel. There’s no obvious fidgeting over smaller ridges, although the jury is still out on its ability to cope with bigger bumps.