In many ways the 2018 BMW i3 S is just like the Apple iPhone X.
Both were revealed last year, they use lithium-ion batteries, and each lobbed as the fastest and priciest model. The X and S also ask more for less compared with rivals.
Few complain that Apple’s X is smaller than the cheaper 8 Plus, but can buyers cop that this battery electric vehicle (BEV) only seats four and is a hatchback, while costing the same as BMW’s 330e plug-in hybrid EV (PHEV) five-seat sedan?
In this country – where incentives for ‘going green’ are few – the i3 S is expensive, and after driving 200 kilometres it needs to be recharged for hours. It sounds compromised, sure, but this new S-for-sport model grade is at least out to prove that it can provide greater driving enjoyment between those powerpoint visits.
Price: $69,900 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 135kW/270Nm electric motor | single-speed automatic
Fuel Economy Claimed: 14.3 kWh/100km | tested: 15.5 kWh/100km
Priced from $69,900 plus on-road costs, this i3 S BEV commands a $1200 premium over the i3 BEV. It raises the electric motor’s outputs from 125kW of power and 250Nm of torque, to 135kW/270Nm, lowering the 0-100km/h claim from 7.3 seconds to 6.9sec.
Meanwhile, a 330e PHEV costs $70,900 (plus orc). Combining a 2.0-litre turbo petrol four-cylinder and electric motor, it claims a 6.1sec 0-100km/h, drinks 2.1 litres per 100 kilometres and can travel 500km-plus on a tank.
The i3 S’ claimed usable range of 200km then requires a circa-four-hour recharge at a fast-charge facility, or eight hours via a home- or work-installed BMW i Wallbox, and about 10 hours from a regular household powerpoint. Before we begin, though, there is an alternative to boost range up to (in a 330e parallel…) 330km.
BMW still offers a range-extender (REx) version of the i3 that adds $6000 to each i3. It features a tiny two-cylinder petrol engine and nine-litre petrol tank to help quickly recharge the batteries that feed the electric motor. Claimed consumption is 0.7L/100km, but the 0-100km/h claim of this i3 S increases by eight-tenths to 7.7sec.
- Standard Equipment: Adaptive cruise control, power windows and mirrors, multi-function trip computer, single-zone climate control air conditioning, automatic on/off wipers and LED headlights, and auto-dimming rear-view mirror.
- Infotainment: 10.25-inch colour screen with USB input, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, Spotify/news/weather/Google app connectivity, digital radio, satellite navigation with traffic reports and speed-sign detection, and four speakers.
- Options Fitted: Comfort Package ($2000 – keyless auto-entry, front seat heating and 12-speaker Harman Kardon audio), i Interior Design Suite ($1538 – natural leather, including on the instrument panel, and LED cabin lighting).
- Cargo Volume: 260 litres.
BMW is at least giving buyers loads of choice. Yes, the 330e will be roomier and plusher, but the i3 is also surprisingly roomy inside, with greater design flair.
It’s claimed that over 80 per cent of the interior surfaces of this S are made of renewable materials. Yet the i3 doesn’t feel like a recycling bin inside, with lovely open-pore wood inlays, natural-fibre trim materials and olive-leaf-extracted leather.
The German production plant uses 50 per cent less energy and 70 per cent less water than other BMW facilities – such as with 330e. But it’s hosted by wind turbines that create 100 per cent renewable energy anyway. Even 80 per cent of the aluminum used around the carbonfibre-reinforced plastic (CRFP) body is recycled.
The point in mentioning this now is because the i3 is incredibly laser-focused on efficiency. Whether you ‘believe’ in climate change is irrelevant, because in a world increasing its population and waste this BMW makes a right-way turn regardless.
And just as carbon-offsetting costs coin, so too does this i3 S.
The front seats are narrow but comfortable, some storage spaces are lacking, and the rear seat and boot are more sub-$20K Volkswagen Polo than $20K-plus Golf in terms of size and comfort. There is no escaping that this is a $70K light-to-small car.
On the flipside this BMW maximises every last millimetre it has. The body is so light and strong that no B-pillar is used. Therefore the rear doors open backwards to enormously enhance entry and egress for rear riders. The rear boot may be small, but there’s also a (tiny) front boot where an engine would normally be.
Even the ‘floating’ centre screen and all-colour driver display manage to pack in a premium feel and features within their relatively small real estate. BMW’s one-shot voice control for navigation is impeccable, and a digital radio is also standard.
The biggest issue is the rotary transmission selector to the right of the steering wheel, which requires a driver to flick up for reverse, down for drive, and press a ‘P’ button for park. Why turn electric cars – which already take some getting used to – into a very different, anti-ergonomic mess?
Another downside concerns pricing. Yes, the i3 S is expensive, but keyless auto-entry, a premium Harman Kardon audio system, full leather, heated front seats and Apple CarPlay shouldn’t still be optional. Together they add $4161 to the pricetag…
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 135kW/270Nm electric motor
- Transmission: Single-speed automatic, RWD
- Suspension: Strut front, independent rear
- Brake: Ventilated front and solid rear disc brakes
- Steering: Electrically assisted mechanical steering
The i3 S gets a perfect score for its performance and urban agility manoeuvrability. Just as buyers wanted smartphones to get smaller and smarter, this BMW excels in every way around town with its immediacy and agility.
Being made of strong, light carbonfibre means the i3 always feels frisky on its feet. Even after adding a 33kWh battery pack, its tare weight of 1265kg is in the ballpark –as is its performance – of a $15K-cheaper Golf GTI hot hatchback.
Only the instantaneous torque of an electric motor means the S feels more rapid than any hatch off the line. Just like sports bikes are rapid to leave a set of traffic lights, this BMW instantly thrusts forward. Through the seat of the pants, the first half of acceleration to 100km/h feels like it’s a 4.5sec 0-100km/h star – then it tapers off.
Its braking regeneration is also astonishingly effective. A driver can bring the i3 S to a halt by only backing off the throttle slightly, with the brakes really never required. Best not shut the throttle off entirely – you’ll make your passengers sick doing so given the aggression of the braking – but you quickly learn to lean on and off it.
And that braking regeneration also means that the i3 S can ‘add’ kilometres to its tank so effortlessly – something a petrol car can’t do.
In still-quick EcoPro+ mode we achieved 15.5kWh/100km and a 200km range from the i3 S around town. On the freeway, meanwhile, it managed a 175km range, and in Sport around town it claimed that too.
In the 18 months since this tester last steered an i3, both vehicle and urban infrastructure have also improved dramatically. Where in 2016 a fast-charge point around Sydney had to be sniffed out, now there are at least four around the city.
Two are in shopping centres, which means both free recharging and not having to change plans at all to suit owning an EV.
Back on the road and BMW has widened the tracks of the i3 by 40mm to create the S, it has lowered the suspension by 10mm, increased wheel size from 19in to 20in, while boosting tyre width by 20mm to (a still-narrow) 175mm front/195mm rear.
Indeed the i3 S feels far more planted than before, with its immediate turn-in to corners now complemented by an ability to sit plump on its backside to encourage early (and full) throttle on corner exit. It still can’t offer the chassis depth and sophistication of a Golf GTI, for example, but rather it feels like a fast, darty go-kart.
While that makes for raw fun, it also makes for skateboard-like wooden ride quality. In some ways BMW has – in the pursuit of low-rolling-resistance efficiency – created the worst of both worlds in the tyre selection for this S: its tyres are narrow, but also low-profile, which means less grip and bump absorption respectively.
The ride of this i3 can settle into an acceptable, if still jittery, thrum. But sharp hits send it into a po-go like frenzy that just feels uncouth. While the steering is sharp and consistent, it lacks any feedback through corners as well. Fit a set of chubbier, broader tyres, and this S could be a true sports model.
ANCAP rating: 5-Stars – the BMW i3 scored 33.57 out of 37 possible points when tested by Euro NCAP in 2014.
Safety features: Six airbags including dual-front, front-side and curtain protection, ABS, ESC, pre-collision and pedestrian warning, front and rear parking sensors, and rear-view camera.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Three years/unlimited km.
Servicing: BMW Service Inclusive package to five years or 80,000km costs an incredibly affordable $950 – or about $190 per service.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
The 330e is the safe, roomy, conservative but also intelligent pick – certainly more so than the dreary and underdone, albeit cheaper, Outlander PHEV. Meanwhile the untested Zoe looks to be delightful, and its range is competitive, but it’s a $50K-plus proposition for something that doesn’t look or feel as premium as this i3 S.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
The i3 S is tough to rate overall, with its score dependent on where personal priorities are placed.
BMW gets five stars for drivetrain and packaging efficiency, sustainability and also performance, which is so far beyond its merely competitive 0-100km/h time. Thanks to that instant torque, the S feels faster than almost anything around town.
However, this i3 ultimately can only get three gold merit points for overall interior size and handling ability for the pricetag, and just two pointy and shiny emojis for value for money and ride quality.
Pragmatic assessment and pricing aside, though, it was a delight to ‘own’ and steer for the entire week-long loan, especially around town where most people spend their time – and that could be the biggest deciding factor for on-the-fence buyers.
- Interested in buying BMW i3? Visit our BMW showroom for more information.