Remember what the Mini did for superminis? Well, the BMW i3 could be about to do the same thing for electric cars.
It's available with either an electric-only powertrain or as a range-extender with a two-cylinder petrol engine that can generate additional electricity when the batteries run low.
The styling is deliberately tall to give the car real family-friendly practicality, while the low kerb weight and rear-wheel-drive layout hint at easy manoeuvrability and a dose of fun.
Even so, victory is far from assured. The Vauxhall Ampera is cheaper than the range-extender version of the i3 that we test here, and promises similar benefits: tiny company car tax bills, enough pure electric range to cover the daily commute and the reassurance of a back-up engine.
What are they like to drive?
Both cars have a single-ratio gearbox and maximum torque available from rest, so progress is rapid and linear in both. The BMW is the faster, delivering hot hatch pace.
In fact, the i3 feels surprisingly sporty a lot of the time. Its steering is well weighted and quick to respond to inputs – so quick, in fact, that it can make the car feel a touch nervous on the motorway. However, it also makes it agile and fun to drive on twisty roads.
Stiff suspension helps, keeping body roll to a minimum. Unfortunately, you pay for this composure with a firm ride; bigger bumps thump through the cabin, although it isn’t too bad most of the time.
The Ampera, on the other hand, is a softer, less focused offering. It soaks up potholes more effectively than the i3, and while the Ampera’s steering is slower and a little vague, the handling is predictable and composed.
It'll take you a little while to get used to the abrupt way the i3 slows down. This is a consequence of the heavy engine-braking effect that’s engineered in to recover energy whenever you lift off the accelerator pedal. The Ampera feels more conventional here unless you select its maximum engine-braking mode, but the brake pedal response is inconsistent and hard to modulate regardless.
Actual stopping power is also disappointing, with the Ampera taking five metres longer than the i3 to stop from 70mph in our braking tests.
However, both cars are eerily quiet when they’re running on pure electric power, and even when the engines cut in, refinement remains impressive. The i3’s two-cylinder engine note is a bit more noticeable than the Ampera’s four-cylinder motor’s, but this is mainly due to the unusual sound it makes – rather like a helicopter in the distance.
How far will they go on electric power?
We did our range test over a varied route of town, motorway and B-road, with the outside temperature a wintry three degrees. What’s more, we had the headlights, heaters and stereos on, and the cars in their default drive settings.
The test was about as range-draining as it gets, then, yet the i3 still managed 56.6 miles before its engine cut in, and the Ampera 28.2. In both cars, you could expect to go at least half as far again in optimum conditions.
While the i3 doubles the Ampera’s pure electric range, some will find the 80-mile petrol range offered by the BMW’s tiny nine-litre tank frustrating. On the other hand, the Ampera’s 35-litre tank and 1.4-litre petrol engine should get you more than 250 miles between fill-ups.
Both cars come with standard three-point plugs, but it takes around eight hours to charge them from a conventional domestic socket. A home-fitted fast charger costs £315 for the i3 or £477 for the Ampera, and will halve the time needed for a full charge.
Should I buy an electric i3 or a range-extender?
If you’re taken with the BMW, it’s worth considering the pure electric model. At £25,680, it’s £3150 cheaper than the range-extender and offers the same performance.
It’s also even cheaper as a company car.
Whether you can live without the reassurance of the petrol motor is a question of individual needs, but given the BMW’s decent electric range, the electric-only model is certainly the better option for those motorists that have access to a petrol or diesel-powered car for longer journeys.
What are they like inside?
Both cabins feel suitably futuristic, thanks to pulsing, backlit buttons and warning bongs that would do George Lucas proud. However, the i3 combines this theatricality with an aura of quality the Ampera doesn’t have.
The i3 is the more user-friendly, too, with well-placed switchgear and BMW’s intuitive iDrive rotary controller, which lets you scroll through menus on a colour screen. Even the separate digital display that shows information such as your speed and range is easy to read at a glance.
Features that you won’t find on any other BMW include a steering column-mounted gear selector that also houses the starter button, and the option of some eco-chic materials including eucalyptus wood, wool and plant fibre-based panels.
The Ampera, by contrast, makes do with coloured, gloss plastic inserts, while its centre console features touch-sensitive panels instead of conventional switchgear; they look good, but are fiddly to use and poorly labelled.
Finding a comfortable driving position is easy enough in both cars. However, you sit higher in the i3 and it’s much easier to manoeuvre in tight spaces, thanks to deep windows and a boxy body shape that helps you judge where the extremities of the car are. In the Ampera, steeply raked pillars and a narrow rear screen leave you with big blind spots.
Both of these cars are designed to carry four people; however, access to the i3’s rear seats is a real selling point, with its rear-hinged doors leaving a broad, pillar-free opening.
You need to be more flexible to get into the back of the Ampera, but adult rear passengers will find it the more comfortable car once they’re inside, because it offers significantly more legroom. Both boots have high load floors due to the batteries beneath, but with 300 litres available in the Ampera and 275 in the i3, there’s enough room for a decent-sized shopping trip.
Standard equipment is impressive in both. Alloy wheels, Bluetooth connectivity, a USB socket, a DAB radio, climate control and automatic lights and wipers are standard, while BMW also fits sat-nav. Ampera buyers have to upgrade to Electron trim (which carries a £1745 premium) to get sat-nav.
How much will they cost?
After the £5000 Government discount, the i3 costs £28,830 and the Ampera £28,255 (this includes an additional saving that you can haggle at Vauxhall dealers).
Vauxhall doesn’t offer official finance packages for the Ampera, whereas BMW has a PCP deal that, after you put down a £5000 deposit, costs £367 per month for three years.
The i3 also has an advantage when it comes to resale values. It’s expected to be worth around £12,500 after three years, marginally more than the Ampera.
However, buyers should bear in mind that these cars won’t necessarily work out cheaper than the best diesel alternatives.
An Audi A3 1.6 TDI costs £6455 less up front. You'll pay £4200 for 36,000 miles of diesel at today’s prices, whereas the same distance of pure-electric driving costs around £950. However, that’s still not enough to make up for the difference in purchase price.
Where the i3 and Ampera do make sense is as company cars. Both are taxed on just 5% of their value, which means they’ll cost a 40% taxpayer £56 per month.
So, which is better?
If you’re looking for an electric car that won’t leave you suffering from range anxiety, these two are both worth considering.
However, the i3 is more rewarding to drive, can go farther on electric-only power and is classier to sit in. True, it’s neither as spacious nor as comfortable as the Ampera, but the i3 is more suited to town driving thanks to its more compact dimensions and better visibility.
BMW i3 range extender
For Great interior; good electric range; fun to drive
Against Firm ride; tiny petrol tank
Verdict The new electric car benchmark
Vauxhall Ampera Positiv
For Comfy, cabin space; better overall range
Against Poor visibility; fiddly switchgear
Verdict Still good, but the i3 makes more sense