BMW wants to change the perception that cars with alternative powertrains might be a little bit boring.
To prove that point the German brand has revived its ‘s’ suffix (you may remember it from 3 Series coupes of the 1990s) and attached it to a new, more sporty version of its i3 electric car.
While it may still be a little awkward to look at, a series of changes to suspension settings and the way the electric motor delivers its power have created an i3 that’s truly worthy of the BMW badge.
Vehicle Style: Prestige small hatch
Price: $69,900 plus on-road costs
Engine/trans: 135kW/270Nm electric motor | single-speed transmission
Fuel Economy Claimed: 14.3 kWh/100km | Tested: 15.2 kWh/100km
As part of a mid-life update the i3 range gets a few minor styling revisions, some subtle trim changes, and of course the new high-performance i3s variant.
Don’t be fooled into thinking the i3s is an M division car in disguise though, compared to a regular i3 the i3s generates an extra 10kW of power and 20Nm of torque to bring totals up to 135kW and 270Nm.
The exterior appearance also gets a subtle rework with unique bumpers, and wheel arch extensions to cover larger alloy wheels shod with wider tyres. Those are subtle changes, but in Australia the i3s will be priced from $69,900 plus on-road costs - that’s a fairly insignificant $1200 step-up from the regular i3.
Of course for those that would rather do without the additional driver engagement of the i3s can still stick to the regular i3 if they wish, and buyers concerned that the suggested 200 kilometre ‘real world’ range isn't enough can opt for a petrol powered range-extender (basically an on-board petrol-powered generator) for extra peace of mind over long distances.
Interior changes inside the updated i3 are rather minimal, as a forward-looking product the i3’s modernity meant that BMW hasn’t need to drastically reconfigure the layout.
Thanks to a battery pack that lives beneath the floor, the cabin is unobstructed by any mechanical components, resulting in a large and quite open space for occupants.
The decor of the i3s follows a darker, more moody theme, but there’s no over the top styling flourishes.
The latest generation of BMW’s iDrive infotainment interface brings additional functions and features, but the i3 and i3s retain the compact digital instrument display of the previous version.
ON THE ROAD
As an urban runabout the original i3 could impress even the most sceptical EV doubters after a first drive, which would demonstrate the inherent torquieness of the electric motor.
The thing that perhaps stood in the way was the i3’s absolute urban focus. In an effort to be convenient and simple to use some aspects always felt a little overlooked with ride quality that was less than ideal and steering that felt a little over-assisted and under-developed.
The i3s seeks to remedy that by creating a car that’s more attuned to drivers, without being an unrelenting performance machine. Still perfectly urban when you need it to be, but with the potential for far greater enjoyment should conditions allow.
As well as a more powerful 135kW motor, BMW’s engineers have remapped the accelerator pedal characteristics. The result is a relationship between the pedal and motor output that owners of internal combustion cars are sure to find more familiar.
Steering has also come under scrutiny with added feel through the wheel that inspires extra confidence thanks to extra weight and improved feedback.
Handling changes see the track pushed out by 40mm and suspension lowered by 10mm. Numbers don’t tell the whole story though, as the ride, even over the rough-shod cobbles of Portuguese streets, where the i3s was launched, is entirely more settled.
Reduced roll tempers the hit-set feel of the regular i3, and the accurate road-holding encourages more enthusiastic driving.
A newly added Sport driving mode adds a more assertive acceleration map, with extra steering weight and give the i3s - essentially still a commuter car - an altogether more agile feel.
With 270Nm to play with (available immediately from standstill) the sportified i3s imparts a hot hatch feel. It’s not the most wild sprinter, but with 0-100 km/h taking 6.9 seconds, versus 7.2 for the standard car, the i3s is certainly no slouch in the traffic light grands prix.
Rolling acceleration feels better too, with no delay to allow any kind of mechanical kickdown, or engine spool-up when the throttle is squeezed the i3s feels as though it has the urge of a much more powerful car.
A new ‘traction’ mode for the stability control allows a tiny amount of rear wheel slip and some minor lateral movement, and with weight centralised low in the chassis, BMW’s commuter special shows promising signs of dynamic prowess.
Driving range, as always is sure to still be a key issue for buyers and, officially the i3s is rated at between 235 and 255 kilometres from a single charge using the new Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle test standard. In the real world that’s more likely to be 190-200 kilometres.
The new car is also still absolutely dedicated to city living with intrusive wind noise and steering that becomes light and quite twitchy approaching highways speeds.
Australia is a performance market, Aussies love capable cars, BMW’s own M performance cars, and the sales success they enjoy here can attest to that. It makes sense then, to capitalise on that no matter the vehicle segment.
Electric vehicles may only make up a tiny fraction of the new car market, but if the brands that sell EVs can make them cool (a bit like Tesla has, but without the nerd factor and constant broken promises) then Aussies are sure to take note.
BMW predicts that around the world 30 percent of i3 sales will go to the i3s. BMW Australia suggests that number will be higher here and after a first quick drive, and taking into account the small premium to step into the i3s, that seems entirely plausible.
Of course the science experiment styling of the i3 range still won’t appeal to everybody, but this update is a step in the right direction towards mainstream acceptance which is exactly what electric cars need.
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