2014 BMW i3 first drive review

Electric motoring doesn't come much more desirable than the BMW i3, with its fantastic cabin and futuristic styling, but new rivals, including the VW e-Golf, are vying for its place as our favourite EV.

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The Fiesta-sized BMW i3 is powered by a 168bhp electric motor mated to a single-speed gearbox that drives the rear wheels. Its top speed is a modest 93mph but it has a range of between 80 and 100 miles, does 0-62mph in 7.2 seconds (although our tests indicate 6.9 seconds is possible) and can reach a full charge in eight hours from a regular domestic plug socket.

Install one of BMW's wallboxes (£315) and the car's AC Fast Charging kicks in, though; it can go from zero to 80% charge is just three hours, and a full charge in four hours.

The car makes extensive use of lightweight materials, including carbon fibre for the main passenger 'cell', in a bid to claw back some of the weight that's added by the substantial battery pack under the i3's floor. The price you pay for this F1-style technology is £30,680, or £25,680 after the government's £5000 electric vehicle grant.

A range-extender version of the i3, with a two-cylinder petrol engine that just keeps the batteries alive once they reach a low charge level, is also available with a price premium of slightly more than £3100. Its nine-litre fuel tank will effectively double the car's range though, and of course, you'll be able to refill it with fuel if you want to go farther - as long as there is sufficient charge left in the batteries.

What's the 2014 BMW i3 like to drive?

The i3 benefits from the direct power delivery that you get with any electric motor, which means all of its torque is available from standstill; that makes it ideal for the city use that it is intended for.

You can pull away smartly from traffic lights, and the strong initial response gives you confidence to nip into traffic – up to around 30mph it is surprisingly quick. The electric powertrain is quiet, too; there's less of a whine from the motor than in the Nissan Leaf, for example.

The handling is perhaps the most surprising element of the i3 package, and due in no small part to the positioning of all that battery weight low down in the chassis. The i3 looks tall and narrow, and it is, but it manages to feel extremely agile from behind the wheel at lower speeds, with quick steering and very little body lean in corners.

It also has an extremely small turning circle of less than 10 metres (a full metre less than a current Mini's), so parking in tight spaces is a doddle, and all-round visibility is excellent.

However, start to push the i3 on faster roads outside of town, and its steering begins to feel nervous rather than quick, and its thin tyres struggle for grip in tight corners. Rivals such as the Volkswagen e-Golf handle this kind of driving better, although it's unlikely to be a priority for most EV buyers.

Ride quality is on the firm side. The i3 is fitted with 19-inch alloys as standard, and it feels choppy over some urban roads, while sharp potholes can send jolts through the cabin. Even so, it's not uncomfortable and the sharp handling is enough to justify the occasionally chattery ride. 

The range-extender version, meanwhile, is really for those who need to use their car for occasional longer journeys. Its two-cylinder engine cuts in when the battery reaches a very low level, providing enough charge to ensure that it never runs out completely (but not enough to actually recharge it).

The combustion engine can also be activated manually below around 75% of battery charge; this means you could travel a greater distance, knowing that you’ve retained the ability to travel on electric power alone once you reach a city centre at the end of your journey. 

There is a faint hum and a small amount of vibration from the two-cylinder engine in range extender mode, but it is a background noise that keeps you aware of its existence. At no point is it intrusive.

What's the 2014 BMW i3 like inside?

The front of the cabin mixes a deliberately high-tech look with natural materials such as eucalyptus and exposed strips of carbonfibre. The fit and finish feel every bit as solid as a regular BMW's.

The main instrument panel is a single LCD display that's clearly visible through the blue-rimmed steering wheel, but BMW is offering a choice of centre console screens for infotainment and satellite navigation. The standard unit, called Business, gets a 6.5in display – but we'd be tempted to splash out on the 10.25in widescreen set-up (called Professional) because it looks gorgeous and does a fine job of breaking up an otherwise-dull fascia top.

The sat-nav has extra functionality that will show you the current range on a map (based on your current driving mode and the range-maximising Eco Pro+ setting, and a number of other parameters, including your driving style). It will also point you towards charging points and, providing the network operators are playing ball, let you know if the plug sockets are free or not.

There's also a connected app for iPhone or Android phones that keeps you informed of your car's state of charge or, if you park up before the end of a navigated journey, transfers the remaining instructions to your phone so you can continue on foot.

That aside, the cabin features familiar BMW switches for indicators and the BMW iDrive controller is present and correct between the front seats. The gear selector is pretty novel, though; you switch the car on and off, and move it between Drive, Reverse and Park, via a large, clunky stalk unit mounted on the right side of the steering column. It'll take some getting used to, but it does free up space between the front seats.

Rear passengers have to wait until the front doors are opened before they can open up their own rear-hinged doors. Once they've done so, though, access to the back seats is decent enough, thanks to the lack of a central B-pillar, and you can also fold the front seats forwards to further open up the aperture.

Rear passengers will probably notice how high their feet and knees are – a result of the battery pack under the floor – so larger adults may grumble after longer journeys.

The boot is small by modern supermini standards – reasonably wide, but shallow because of the high floor. There are 260 litres of space with the rear seats in place, and up to 1100 litres if you lower them. There's room for a decent amount of shopping in there, though.


Should I buy one?

As with all electric vehicles, any recommendation of the fully electric BMW i3 has to come with caveats.

Our charging infrastructure is still far too patchy to take many risks on journey length. This is a very specific vehicle for a very specific task; one of the biggest responsibilities of BMW's designated i3 salesmen will be to talk customers out of buying what could be a car that's just not right for them.

However, if you have a commute of 30 miles or just live in town, have access to a charging point or off-street parking with a power point, you’ll love it. That’s why the pure-electric model makes more sense than the range-extender, which has a smaller electric range, is noisier and costs more. 

Before you sign on the dotted line, though, we'd recommend investigating Volkswagen's e-Golf. Its cabin doesn't have the wow factor of the i3's, but the e-Golf is more spacious and practical, it rides more comfortably and is even better to drive. 

What Car? says...

Rivals:
Nissan Leaf

Volkswagen Golf

Specification
Engine size Electric motor
Price from £25,680
Power 168bhp
Torque 184lb ft
0-62mph 7.2 seconds
Top speed 93mph
Maximum range 80-100 miles
Full charge 4 hours (fast AC), 8-10 hours (regular plug)

Engine size Range extender electric motor
Price from £28,820
Power 168bhp
Torque 184lb ft
0-62mph 7.9 seconds
Top speed 93mph
Maximum range 160-186 miles
CO2 emissions 13g/km
Full charge 4 hours (fast AC), 8-10 hours (regular plug)

 
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