Despite being unlike any previous BMW production car, the i3 has plenty of this brand’s best characteristics. The i3 has beautifully weighted steering, a first rate drivetrain, sparkling open road performance and remarkably assured handling for a short, tall car.
The styling is either alarmingly modern, or just plain over-done, depending on your point of view; but I doubt few people will have a problem with the interior. The cabin is remarkably modern: the huge view forward, the undeniable effectiveness of the twin-screen dashboard and the journey-enhancing airiness for front seat passengers. Top marks, also, for the quality, detailing and logic of the switchgear.
In heavy traffic, the i3 has remarkable off-the-line pace and can be positioned with a directness that leaves most other traffic stumbling. The driver can exploit openings in the traffic flow with a speed of reaction than even the Nissan Leaf can't match; and the i3’s semi-high-rise driving position is also a particular advantage in town, as is the 9.8m turning circle - something beaten only by a London Black Cab.
It is also surprising how well the i3 copes with the cratered streets of London on this test drive, feeling taughtly sprung and yet not crashing across broken surfaces. BMW’s chassis teams now carry out testing in the UK and it is clearly paying off.
On quicker A-roads, the i3 has a very impressive pace under full acceleration. Long uphills are demolished in fine style, with a seamless stream of torque (thank the combination of an electric motor and a single-speed transmission). The i3 also has remarkable stability, as a series of driving exercises at Brands Hatch prove. Sharp lane changes and even a stretch of hilly circuit in the pouring rain fail to ruffle the i3, even though it has 155/70 tyres at the front and 175/70s at the rear.
On the return leg to central London, the range extender activates, allowing it to cut in and out as required by the conditions. It is just about possible to hear it running – the sound is of a very distant thrum – and then probably only because the cabin of the i3 is so very quiet. The i3 also has pre-set levels of regenerative braking. It’s quite an aggressive setting that slows the car quickly once the driver lifts off the accelerator.
In terms of low-pollution fossil fuel running, the use of this small petrol engine is a masterstroke with, for example, emissions of unpleasant NoX gas at just 0.0009 g/km. You have to wonder whether the electricity created by the i3’s range extender is ‘greener’ than what the average power station can manage. With a full battery and fuel tank of fuel, BMW predicts a real-world range of between 150 and 186 miles and claims CO2 emissions of 13g/km.
There are downsides to the i3. After the price (although the standard spec in ‘Standard’ trim is pretty comprehensive), the main one is probably the restricted space in the back (and tight boot) and the fact that the rear suicide doors cannot be opened without the front door being opened first. Many will find this problematic on the school run. The tiny fuel tank means that long journeys will mean refueling as often as every 80 miles. Otherwise front seats are also rather flat and need bolsters considering the i3’s handling abilities.