What’s Hot: Nimble around town, ability to bypass fuel stations, cabin design, driveability
What’s Not: Small boot, range won't silence EV critics, bouncy suspension at high speed
X-FACTOR: The most polished all-electric offering yet, and one that's got more than a dash of premium panache.
Vehicle Style: Small all-electric hatch
Price: $63,900 (i3 BEV), $69,900 (i3 REX)
Engine/trans: 125kW/250Nm electric motor | single-speed transmission
Fuel Economy claimed: 0.0 l/100km (i3 BEV), 0.6 l/100km (i3 REX)
The first of BMW’s nascent “i” brand, the i3, has arrived in Australia. It promises eco-friendly motoring at a premium level, but for only a modest amount more than Holden’s Volt range-extender EV.
Priced from $63,990 for the electric-only i3 and rising to $69,900 for the range-extender model, it’s not cheap.
But, while others have blazed the EV trail before it, the i3 is an innovative approach to eco-friendly motoring, and we like it a lot.
Built atop an aluminium platform, the bulk of the i3 features a carbon-fibre skeleton that encases the passenger compartment and is clothed with plastic body panels.
It’s light too. Despite being saddled with a 230kg battery pack, the EV-only i3 weighs in at 1195kg.
But most importantly is its ability to use little or no fuel. For the base model i3, average power consumption is listed at 12.9kW/h per 100km, which at today’s renewable energy rates translates into $3.90 for each 100km travelled.
That’s less than half the running-cost of a similarly-sized petrol-powered light hatchback.
But how does it drive? Does BMW’s focus on electric propulsion result in too many compromises?
- Standard equipment: Single-zone climate control, dusk-sensing headlights, rain-sensing wipers, auto-dimming mirrors, front and rear parking sensors, self-parking feature, reversing camera.
- Infotainment: Navigation System Professional, 19.2-inch colour infotainment display, trip computers, energy flow display, customisable charging timers, digital radio tuner, USB audio input, Bluetooth audio and phone integration.
- Four seats, rears accessible by rear-hinged doors.
- Luggage capacity: 260L minimum, 1100L maximum. 50/50 split rear seatbacks.
You sit surprisingly high in the i3, thanks to the front seats having a hip point that’s the same as an X3.
As a result, the view of the road ahead is better than you’d expect for a small hatchback, and the large rear windows also give good over-the-shoulder vision.
But it’s the cabin itself that will intrigue the most.
The switchgear is recognisably BMW, but the transmission lever has morphed into a twist-to-operate nub and migrated to the right of the steering wheel. It’s certainly unconventional, but is, at least, intuitive to use.
The centre stack controls sit up high and within easy reach of the driver, and a 9.2-inch display sprouts out of the dashboard to show navigation, media and vehicle information.
The design, meanwhile, is modern and funky, and a great deal more adventurous than you’ll find in other BMW models.
There’s also plenty of natural materials on display, reflecting the i3’s eco-friendly posture.
Open-pore wood trim covers the dash top and top-hinged glovebox, the seats are covered in part-wool, part-leather upholstery and the door cards are made out of lightweight and completely renewable kenaf fibres.
In all, 25 percent of the i3’s interior materials are either renewable, or recycled.
So it’s certainly green, but is it comfortable? Though it’s only slightly longer than a Mazda2, the i3’s rear seats have roughly the same amount of leg and headroom as a 3 Series.
The larger rear windows also give backseaters a better view of the outside world.
The rear row is accessible only via a pair of rear-hinged doors though, which require the front doors to be opened first. It’s also strictly a four-seater, with no provision for a centre seatbelt.
The front seats have ample space but are pretty flat, though the driving position is relaxed and natural. The standard wool/leather trim is our favourite too, and actually preferable to the optional high-grade leather.
Luggage capacity is small thanks to a high boot floor, giving the i3 a boot capacity of just 260 litres with the rear seats raised. Drop the 50/50 split rear seatbacks, and there’s 1100 litres of space if you stack your gear to the roof.
ON THE ROAD
- 125kW/250Nm electric drive motor, single-speed transmission
- Optional 650cc two-cylinder petrol range extender engine
- 360V lithium-ion battery, eight-year warranty
- MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear suspension
- Disc brakes all around, regenerative braking.
The i3 feels light and agile, and is eager to turn in thanks to a fast steering rack-ratio and super-tight 9.86m turning circle
Unfortunately the skinny tyres (155mm wide up front, 175mm wide at the rear on the range-extender model) don't lend themselves well to cornering grip at speed.
The suspension is extremely soft and the i3 tends to porpoise over big bumps and broken tarmac. It feels too bouncy, and mid-corner bumps upset its composure in a big way.
HOWEVER, in a car that is designed primarily to zip around the inner suburbs, we're willing to bet that chassis dynamics are not a priority for the typical i3 buyer.
Indeed, with an typical range of 160km for the battery-electric variant, there is, as with most electric-only varaints, barely enough range to reach an interesting country road from the centre of most Australian capital cities.
In its natural environment of city streets and traffic, the i3 is the perfect runabout. Despite rolling on huge 19-inch alloys (20-inches on the car we drove), the ride is compliant and comfortable.
That tight turning circle and compact footprint also makes it a doddle to park - a key attribute for those living and/or working in the city or inner suburbs.
The battery-electric version feels lighter on its feet than the range-extender (petrol/electric) variant.
This is thanks to not having to lug a 120kg two-cylinder scooter engine under the boot floor - as well as its attendant petrol tank. When driving in Eco Pro+ mode, it can manage a maximum range of 200km.
It achieves this by dialling back the climate control, softening throttle response, maximising regenerative braking and limiting the top speed to just 90km/h. In more realistic driving conditions in Comfort or Eco Pro mode, expect an EV range between 130-160km.
It’s pretty sprightly too. The 0-100km/h dash is done in 7.2 seconds, and rolling acceleration between 80-120km/h is just 4.9 seconds.
Wtih 125kW of power and 250Nm of torque, the i3 is pretty zesty.
Most intriguingly though, is the i3’s ability to be driven using just the accelerator. The regenerative braking effect is so strong that slowing down for traffic lights just requires a gentle lift of accelerator pressure, while removing your foot from the right pedal will bring the i3 to a complete stop.
It takes some getting used to, but it’s not long before it becomes completely natural.
Master it, and the brake pedal only ever needs to come into play during an emergency stop.
But does the idea of electric-only motoring give you crippling range anxiety? The optional range extender increases maximum range to 300km in Eco Pro+ mode, but comes at the cost of slightly blunted acceleration - and an extra $6000 out of your hip pocket.
Still, it will give greater flexibility to i3 owners living on the periphery of cities; in fact, BMW expects 70-80 percent of i3 sales to be for the range-extender model.
A range-hold feature also allows the battery charge to be maintained at a specified level by manually firing up the range extender engine, which is essentially an on-board generator rather than something that actually provides drive to the wheels.
That means that you can use the range extender on the highway part of commute and reserve electrons for the congestion encountered closer to the city centre, where EV power reigns supreme.
Us though? We preferred the slightly zippier feel of the battery-only i3, and if its 130-160km real-world range is sufficient for your day-to-day motoring, we’d recommend you opt for it too.
A key factor that will determine the uptake of battery-electric cars in Australia will be how easy (or difficult) they are to charge. For the i3, there are several options.
The simplest option is to plug it directly into a standard 10-amp wall outlet using a cable that’s supplied with the car.
This option is also the slowest and takes roughly 11 hours to charge, meaning you’ll need to be disciplined with your charging routine if you don’t want to be stranded the following day.
BMW’s preferred method of home charging is through “i Wallbox Pure”, which costs $1750 plus around $500 for installation. Able to supply 3.7kW of power at 16 amps, it drops charge times to just under six hours for a fully depleted battery.
Other options include public charging stations operated by Chargepoint, which are slowly spreading through Australia’s capital cities but are mainly clustered around Sydney and Melbourne. Thanks to an energy supply of 7.4kW and 32 amps, they can fully recharge an i3 in less than three hours.
A DC fast charger can charge up the i3’s battery to 80 percent in just 30 minutes, but there are currently only three in Australia.
ANCAP rating: The BMW i3 has yet to be tested by ANCAP
Safety features: Stability control, traction control, ABS, EBD, parking sensors and a rear view camera are standard on all i3 models, as are six airbags.
An acoustic warning also operates at low speeds to warn pedestrians, but can be switched off.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
Rivals are few, given the relative newness of battery-electric and even range-extender hybrid technology. The following differ in size, price, range and power, but nevertheless are similar to the i3 in general concept.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
No question about it, the i3 is a landmark car for BMW.
It is brilliant in its own way and will have a whole lot of buyers rethinking electric cars. That said, it arguably won’t sell in large numbers here.
That’s not to say that it lacks a place on Australian roads.
If anything, the opposite is true - with the vast majority of commuters travelling under 100km in their workday commute, a product like the i3 is the perfect steed for the daily grind.
It’s comfortable, well-appointed, fresh in its design and incredibly easy to drive. It might not excite the soul like other machines in BMW’s product portfolio, but it fulfils its purpose beautifully.
We’ll be testing the i3 more thoroughly soon, but as more battery-electrics like the i3 trickle onto the market, perceptions about the suitability of electric cars will surely change - and change for the better.