What’s Hot: Lively acceleration, liberty from petrol stations, cool interior.
What’s Not: Firm ride, overly-sensitive steering, lacking luggage space.
X-FACTOR: The i3 shows the world exactly why electric cars make so much sense in an urban environment. If you want to see what the future will look like, drive one.
Vehicle Style: 5-door small hatch
Price: $63,900 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 125kW/250Nm electric motor | single-speed transmission
Energy consumption claimed: 12.9kWh/100km | tested: 14.9kWh/100km
Blade Runner, Minority Report, Back To The Future II... all of these films had two things in common: they were set in the future, and the cars looked weird.
And that brings me to the BMW i3. Definitely an odd-looking unit, but absolutely dripping with futurism.
It wouldn't look out of place on the set of a sci-fi movie, and the way it drives is a peek into what lies ahead in the world of motoring.
The concept behind our $63,900 i3 is certainly like nothing else, with a lightweight chassis made from space-age materials propelled solely by electric power and furnished with eco-friendly materials.
And by running on electricity rather than fossil fuels, it promises to not only leave more money in our wallets, but reduce our dependence on a rapidly disappearing - and increasingly expensive - resource.
But what of the compromises? What of its reduced range compared to its petrol-powered brethren, its higher purchase cost and the incovenience of waiting hours - not minutes - to recharge its batteries?
To answer these questions, we took an all-electric i3 for a four-day test.
While it's not without its flaws, it's apparent that the i3 is pretty much the best thing around if all you need is a compact commuter car.
Quality: While the switchgear is recognisably BMW, there are many aspects of the i3’s interior that will seem foreign - and a touch exotic - to existing BMW owners.
And that’s because much of the i3’s cabin is made of new materials that place an emphasis on renewability, recyclability and lightness.
Materials like Eucalyptus wood, wool, compressed kenaf fibres and carbon fibre. There’s leather also, and it’s tanned using an eco-friendly olive leaf extract rather than traditional tanning chemicals.
Elsewhere there are typical BMW plastics, both hard and soft, and the overall cabin ambience is premium, but not pretentious.
It certainly feels a great deal more inviting than the Holden Volt’s interior, despite the Volt being only $4000 cheaper than the i3.
Comfort: The front seats are quite flat and firm, but otherwise supportive and boasting a wide enough range of movement to accommodate a variety of body types.
Getting in and out is hampered by the i3’s high sills though, and we routinely clipped our heels against its carbon-fibre chassis.
The hip-point is as high as a BMW X3, and the view of the road ahead is quite good as a result. The i3’s unique side glass also gives decent over-the-shoulder vision.
The back seats are accessible via a pair of rear-hinged doors, which can only be opened while the front doors are ajar.
Access is good nonetheless, and two adults (there’s no centre seat position) will find a surprising level of comfort in the back.
Equipment: It might be a lightweight eco car, but the i3 hasn’t been stripped of high-end features in the name of weight saving.
On the contrary, its standard level of specification is remarkably fat.
There’s standard sat-nav, a 10.25” colour infotainment display, digital radio tuner, 20GB of onboard music storage, USB audio inputs, a self-parking feature, single-zone climate control, cruise control, rain-sensing wipers, dusk-sensing headlamps and internet connectivity.
And that’s on top of the usual luxuries like power windows and mirrors, central locking and wheel-mounted audio controls.
As with most BMWs, there’s plenty of options available too. Our car had the glass sunroof ($2920), LED headlamps ($1400), keyless entry ($850), 20-inch alloys ($1000) and Driving Assistant Plus package, which brings lane departure warning, active cruise control, and a pedestrian alert for $2200.
Storage: The high boot floor necessary to clear the i3's rear-mounted motor means luggage capacity is just 260 litres, but dropping the split rear seats increases that number to a handy 1100 litres.
In-cabin storage is decent, though the only covered storage is a small pocket under the armrest and a modestly-sized top-hinged glovebox.
ON THE ROAD
Driveability: For a city car, electric motors are perfect. They’re smooth, quiet, consume no energy when the vehicle isn’t moving and run on cheap electricity.
And the 125kW/250Nm motor in the i3 is perfect for this kind of driving.
Like all electric motors it produces maximum torque from zero rpm, though in the i3 it feels like peak torque is delayed to reduce the chance of wheelspin.
It’s got tremendous rolling acceleration too, and overtaking from 100km/h is swift and safe.
Not only that, but blasting past slow-moving traffic in near-silence is oddly gratifying.
In the default “Comfort” drive mode the accelerator can be quite sensitive to inputs, but selecting Eco Pro mode dampens its response to a more natural level. Eco Pro also delivers a boost in range to about 120-130km, which is handy.
Eco Pro+ restricts speed to 90km/h and limits the effectiveness of power-hungry ancillaries like climate control, but provides an even greater range of roughly 160km. In Comfort mode, expect around 110-114km from a single charge.
Range and Charging: Will you feel crippling range anxiety from the electric-only i3’s range?
That depends on what you use your car for, but if it’s to tackle the daily commute into the city or to run around the suburbs, odds are it’ll be all the range you’ll ever need for a day’s motoring.
If you live greater than 50km from your workplace, well, the base model i3 simply isn’t for you. The range-extender model’s 300km range could do the trick, albeit at extra cost.
In terms of economy, we recorded an average of 14.9kWh per 100km, which translates into a cost (assuming a kWh price of 25 cents), of $3.73.
That amount of money would buy you around 2.7 litres of petrol at current prices, and would only allow an efficient light car like the Mazda2 (which uses 4.9 l/100km in automatic form) to travel roughly 55km.
Charging can be done via a conventional 10-amp wall outlet using the i3's supplied charging cable, though this method requires 11 hours to completely charge a depleted battery.
BMW recommends owners install the i Wallbox Pure charger in their garages, which adds around $2250 to the purchase cost.
Public charging stations operated by Chargepoint can recharge an i3 in around three hours, while the handful of DC fast chargers in Melbourne and Sydney can take it to 80 percent charge in 30 minutes.
For us, though, the i3's own charging cable proved more than sufficient. We never travelled much more than 60km each day, so provided the charger was plugged in by 11PM we would always have a full battery by 7AM.
Refinement: Like most electric cars, refinement is outstanding. There’s no engine vibrations to encounter, no exhaust noise that needs muffling, just a muted humm from the electric motor when in motion.
It’s noise from other road users that’s most noticeable, and even then that’s fairly well suppressed.
Ride and Handling: This is one area where the i3 could use some improvement.
During out first drive of the car we noticed it felt unsettled when cornering at speed, with poor damping making the short-wheelbased i3 pitch forward and backward.
At lower speeds, there’s another problem. It’s too firm for a city car. The i3 could easily do with softer springs and revised damper rates to give it a more supple and better-controlled ride.
The steering ratio and turning circle gifts the i3 with exceptional agility in tight streets and carparks, but it feels restless around dead-centre.
It responds too keenly to inputs, in other words, and you have to use a feather touch to keep it going dead-straight - particularly at highway speed.
Braking: Most of the time you don’t tend to “brake” like you would in a normal car.
Instead, merely lifting off the accelerator will activate the i3’s regenerative braking mode and convert forward motion back into stored electrical power.
The effect is strong. So strong, in fact, that we were able to cruise through the inner suburbs encountering multiple traffic lights without ever touching the brake pedal.
Lifting your foot off the pedal entirely results in quite an abrupt deceleration, but smoother braking is achieved by progressively easing off the accelerator.
It takes some getting used to, but once you’re accustomed to it the process feels entirely natural.
ANCAP rating: The BMW i3 has yet to be tested by ANCAP
Safety features: The i3 is equipped with stability control, traction control, ABS, brake assist and six airbags.
It also features an acoustic warning system for pedestrians which operates at speeds up to 30km/h.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: BMW's vehicle warranty of three years/100,000km applies to the i3, while the battery is warranted for eight years.
Service costs: BMW's conditional servicing scheme means servicing costs can vary according to vehicle usage.
However, given the absence of a conventional combustion engine and with regernerative braking taking a great load off the brake pads, you can expect servicing costs to be lower than a conventionally-powered BMW.
HOW IT COMPARES | VALUE FOR MONEY
Holden Volt ($59,990) - The only real competitor in the i3's size and price bracket is the Holden Volt.
The Volt has the advantage of a range-extender engine being standard, but its maximum electric-only range of 87km is well short of the i3's 160km.
Its interior is also a fairly underwhelming place to be, especially compared to the well-executed i3's cabin. (see Volt reviews)
Note: all prices are Manufacturer’s List Price and do not include dealer delivery or on-road costs.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
Let's face it, most of us don't need "a car", as such, we need an "appliance". An appliance that will take us from home to work, the kids to school and the groceries home.
For the bulk of the population, those tasks don't require a car with a big range or a big engine. They don't, as the new BMW i3 and other electric cars have proven, even require a conventional engine at all.
And this is where the i3 proves its worth.
As an everyday runabout that's got plenty of room for four, can fit in tight parking spots, is easy to drive, is far from slow, costs substantially less to run than petrol-powered equivalents and isn't lacking in mod-cons... this i3 from BMW is the perfect city car.
Yes, it's priced out of reach of most of us, but consider that the i3 is barely more expensive than a Holden Volt yet boasts a greater electric range and a much nicer cabin.
This is quite possibly the best city car ever created. As a sign of things to come, of high-quality EVs with appeal to the driver, the future is looking very good indeed in cars like BMW's amazing i3.