The BMW i3, available either as a pure electric vehicle or with a range extender, has modern design, lightweight construction, rear-wheel drive and very low running costs.
It seems to have been a long time coming, but the first model in BMW’s electric is range is here in the form of the i3. BMW has been doing some strategic thinking about how we will get around in the future, and the i3 is designed to meet the needs of a developing global trend – the increasing number of people in mega cities (cities with more than 10 million inhabitants). Such cities already have huge problems with local air quality, so zero emission vehicles will be needed to help address this issue.
In advance of the i3, BMW trialled the MINI E and the BMW Active E. These trials showed that the average daily commute was 13.1 miles each way – in other words well within the range of an electric car. They also showed that the cost of a charge for such a commute was as low as just 27 pence per day.
Rather than dropping an electric powertrain into a conventional car, BMW has literally taken a blank piece of paper and designed from scratch what it believes is the ultimate electric car. This has resulted in a number of bright ideas, not all of them being on the actual vehicle.
One of the main issues with electric cars is the weight of their batteries. Having more weight to carry around doesn’t help with the car’s energy efficiency, and extra weight dulls the responsive handling of a car. So BMW has come up with a solution – not to build a car out of metal, but to instead build it out of fabric. The fabric in this case is carbon fibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP) – which is 50% lighter than steel. This makes the i3 much lighter than other electric cars.
Carbon fibre should be energy-intensive to manufacture, but for the i3 it’s made using energy from hydro-electricity. And the production of the car in BMW’s Leipzig factory in Germany is powered by wind energy. As a result of such initiatives, BMW claims that the i3 is the most sustainable car you can buy
There’s an all-electric version of the i3, with a lithium-ion battery under the floor and an electric motor near the rear axle. For people who occasionally need to drive greater distances than the 80-100 mile range of the electric version, there’s a range extender version, which additionally has a 650cc, two-cylinder 35hp petrol BMW motorcycle engine which sits under the rear of the car. This acts as a generator to charge the battery when it’s depleted, and results in a weight increase of just 150kg over the pure EV version.
The blank sheet of paper approach, combined with the battery sitting under the floor of the car, and the electric motor sitting next to the rear axle, also means that the car could be designed with better packaging than most other vehicles. The i3 is just 3999mm long, but it has a real feeling of spaciousness inside. Its practicality is enhanced by the ability of the rear seats to fold flat.
The BMW i3 has ‘coach doors’ – in other words the rear doors open backwards, and there’s no central door pillar, so providing good access. You can’t open the rear doors without opening the front doors first, and you need to watch your head when getting in and out of the rear due to an area where the top of the central door pillar would normally be which drops down lower. There’s also a protrusion that sticks out at the base of the rear doors which can easily be caught when entering/exiting the rear.
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The BMW i3 has all the qualities of other electric vehicles – it’s quiet, refined and has good acceleration – but it also has rear-wheel drive, mated to the low centre of gravity. This makes it the default choice for keener drivers who may not have considered that an electric car might be for them.
The i3 launch was based in central London and involved a drive to, and around, the Brands Hatch circuit. The circuit was as cold and damp as you would expect early on a November morning, and the i3 provided an entertaining experience on the track in such low grip conditions. It certainly exhibits rear-wheel drive handling characteristics, with the standard traction control setting allowing a degree of slide through high speed greasy corners. It’s also possible to disengage an element of the traction control, but this has to be done by delving into the on-screen menus rather than by pressing an easily-accessible dash-mounted button.
As well as the rear-wheel drive chassis, the i3 also has heavier steering than the over-light systems in most other EVs currently on the market, which provides much more confidence through the corners. This is despite the i3’s extremely narrow front tyres.
With the battery mounted under the floor, the i3 has the lowest centre of gravity of any current production BMW, which assists with the car’s handling, although the i3 is relatively tall and narrow, and you sit quite high up. So despite the low centre of gravity, you don’t feel as secure through corners as you do in, for example, a BMW M3, where you sit low down.
Talking of M3s, we had a drag race between the i3 and an M3 on the track at Brands Hatch. Early on in the day the M3 struggled to put all of its power down on the damp track and the 170hp i3 had the advantage from standstill until around 30mph. However above this speed the lead started to diminish, and as the track dried out, the M3 performed more in line with the way its official acceleration figures suggest it should.
Some impossibly-tight looking bends were laid out using cones and the i3 successfully demonstrated its very tight turning circle. The i3 has large diameter wheels – 19-inch as standard – but with very narrow front tyres, which help with the tight turning circle, as well as with improving aerodynamics and rolling resistance, but ultimately the laws of physics mean that they won’t provide as much grip as wider tyres.
On the road – where the i3 will obviously spend its time, rather than on the race track – the car is an extremely quiet and refined place to be. In the range extender model, it’s virtually impossible to hear the generator kicking in – usefully, there’s a graphic on the car’s display which tells you when it is working. When the battery is at a charge of 75% or less, you can select the range extender in order to save the EV capability. The i3 has a comfortable ride, and with no gears or clutch it’s an extremely easy car to drive. It also has excellent acceleration from 0-30mph, meaning that you can more than keep pace with virtually any other car that you’re likely to encounter in city driving. The interior is modern and is designed to provide a feeling of spaciousness. In the chaotic environment of London traffic, the i3 is an oasis of calm.
The gear selector, and the start/stop button, is located on the right hand side of the steering column. This is not an intuitive place for most people to reach to change gear, but you’d get used to it as you lived with the car.
The i3 has three drive modes – Comfort, Eco Pro and Eco Pro+. Eco Pro gives an extra 12-15% of driving range, the same again with Eco Pro+.
One feature of the i3 that is very different to conventional cars is the regenerative braking. All electric cars have this technology, but it’s much more pronounced in the i3 – to the extent that you very rarely have to use the foot brake; take your foot off the accelerator and the car will brake itself. BMW claims that the ability to drive the i3 with just one foot is a strong selling point when driving in urban traffic. However some people may not like the sensation of the car constantly braking when lifting off the accelerator. After driving the i3 for a while you get used to having to lift off the accelerator slowly rather than quickly, and this reduces the acceleration/deceleration sensation. We’d personally prefer to see an option to adjust the amount of regenerative braking; dialling down the level of intensity would reduce the efficiency, but would make for smoother progress.
The pure electric version of the i3 has zero tailpipe emissions. The range extender version has official emissions of 13g/km CO2 and economy of 470mpg. These figures are obviously a result of the flawed NEDC test. In fact, rather than quoting the car’s official NEDC driving range, BMW is instead providing figures for its real-life range, which is 80-100 miles.
The range-extender version has a two gallon (nine litre) fuel tank, which only gives you an extra 75-93 miles of petrol range. This means that if you drive an i3 in petrol mode you won’t be getting 470mpg, but instead a rather underwhelming 40 or so mpg, which is over 160g/km CO2. The slight weight gain also means that the real world electric range is reduced from 81-100 miles for the pure electric model to 75-93 miles. All this may sound surprising, but the range-extender is intended as a very lightweight solution to provide extra range for occasional rather than regular use.
BMW expects the range-extender version to be the most popular model to start with, but predicts that the EV will become the better seller over time. Note that the pure EV version of the i3 is lighter, faster and more efficient.
The i3 has a charging time of three hours to take it from a zero to an 80% charge, using the 32 amp AC fast charger that BMW recommends to charge the car – or four hours from completely empty to full. Using a standard three-pin plug – seen as an option for occasional use only – the charge time increases to eight hours.
It’s also possible to recharge from DC rapid chargers if you specify this optional ability with the car. A DC charger up to 50kW will provide a full charge in just 30-60 minutes. There is a growing network of public rapid chargers around the UK.
It should cost less than £2 to fully charge the i3. Based on driving 8,000 miles per year, and recharging with a standard electricity tariff, it should cost £21 per month to charge, or just £9 if an Economy 7 tariff is used. This compares to £87 per month for a diesel car that averages 50mpg, so the savings in running costs for the i3 are significant.
For business users, the all-electric i3 has a zero benefit in kind rate, and just 5% for the range extender.
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The basic price of the pure electric i3 is £25,680, or £28,830 for the range extender (a premium of £3,150). These prices are after the government’s plug-in car grant of £5,000 has been deducted.
The i3 has three trim levels – Loft (£1,000 more than the standard interior), Lodge (£1,500 extra), and Suite (£2,000 extra).
Standard equipment for the i3 is based on the benchmark of the BMW 3 Series SE, which includes features such as business navigation and Bluetooth. As with all BMWs, but unlike most other electric cars, you can specify a huge range of options. The cars on the launch typically had price tags in the region of £35-£40,000.
You can lease an i3 for £369 per month. This is based on a £3,000 deposit and 36 monthly payments of £369, with a maximum of 8,000 miles per year.
BMW’s home charging wall boxes are available at a cost of £315, after a government subsidy. BMW also has an energy partner that will provide a 100% renewable tariff to ensure that the i3 really is zero emission.
With 0% benefit in kind for the pure electric version, and just 5% for the range extender, the i3 has very low running costs from a company car tax point of view. It’s also exempt from the London congestion charge.
The i3 comes with an eight year or 100,000 mile battery warranty.
As well as the car itself, BMW has also been doing a lot of intelligent thinking about other support that is useful if you buy an electric car. The support services are extensive, including a smartphone app to control the car’s charging (using an Economy 7 tariff will be cheapest) and the ability for the car to plan your travel for you, including public transport (available at launch only in London, but expanding to the rest of the UK in due course).
Thanks to a roaming agreement brokered via ChargeMaster, BMW has also managed to create one card that provides the ability to use the majority of public charge points in the UK – normally you would need a number of different memberships for a range of networks. At launch this gives access to around 85%, or 4,000, of UK charge points (currently there is no cost to use 99% of charge points in the UK).
As part of the support package for the i3, you also get 700 ‘points’ per year to use another, non-electric, BMW if needed. This currently includes the 1 Series, 3 Series, 5 Series, X1 and X3. As an example, 700 points will get you a 1 Series for seven days – and you can buy more points if desired.
The BMW i3 is a rear-wheel drive electric car with a very low centre of gravity. It’s also very light weight because it’s constructed out of carbon fibre. Within a few minutes of driving the i3 it’s obvious that it’s been designed to incorporate the feel of the traditional BMW driving experience, which sets it apart from most other electric cars. On the damp track at Brands Hatch the i3 felt rapid and fun.
If you occasionally need more range than the 80-100 miles of the all-electric version, then you can specify an i3 with a range-extender.
The relatively harsh regenerative braking is certainly a different experience than in conventional cars, and the gear selector on the right hand side of the steering column takes a bit of readjustment. Even with the £5,000 government plug-in car grant, the i3 is expensive, and it can easily become more pricey when options are specified.
Overall, the BMW i3 is a welcome addition to the electric car market. It provides a product for drivers who want a more premium feel than is on offer elsewhere, and it also takes the driving experience to the next level. But where it really stands apart is with the efforts that BMW is making to offer intelligent support to its customers beyond the car itself.
For the investment BMW has made in developing a truly innovative efficient car, that also drives extremely well, the BMW i3 is awarded a Green-Car-Guide rating of 10 out of 10.