2013 BMW i3 prototype driven

* Test vehicle of BMW's new electric car driven * Powered by a 168bhp motor driving the rear wheels * Production version unveiled in London on 29 July...

2013 BMW i3 prototype driven

The BMW i3 is the company's first all-electric car - and it promises to bring fresh technology to that fast-developing area of the market when it goes on sale later this summer.

Unlike the EVs that we've seen so far, including the Nissan Leaf and Renault Zoe, the i3 makes extensive use of high-tech, lightweight carbonfibre in its construction. BMW hopes that this focus on light weight will allow it to improve range without adding extra battery capacity (and the resulting increase in recharge times). The car weighs less than 1200kg - or, BMW claims, around 200kg less than comparable rivals.

The figures sound impressive enough. The supermini-sized i3 is powered by a 168bhp electric motor, mated to a single-speed gearbox and driving 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 (0-37mph takes just 3.7 seconds) and can reach a full charge in eight hours (or more quickly if you have a charging box installed on your house wall).

That sort of range ought to be enough for a large percentage of commutes, but BMW claims it can still offer solutions to those who need to travel greater distances. A range-extender version of the car, with a two-cylinder petrol engine that just keeps the batteries alive once they reach a low charge level, will be available at the same time as the fully electric version, at a price premium of around £2500. Its nine-litre fuel tank will basically double the range - and of course you'll be able to refill it with fuel if you want to go farther.

Other options will include leasing packages that incorporate access to conventionally powered cars for longer journeys. BMW has yet to define precisely how the scheme will work, but as an example you could have an electric i3 for most of the year, then switch to an X5 for winter months.

It all adds up to one of the most interesting car launches of the next 12 months - which is why we grabbed the opportunity for an early drive in a lightly disguised test vehicle.

What's the BMW i3 like to drive?

Our brief drive at a BMW test facility focused on agility and handling, but we had enough time in the car to note that the i3's electric powertrain feels quiet and smooth – with less whine, on this evidence, than rivals such as the Nissan Leaf.

Power delivery is instantaneous, as you'd expect – all of the 184lb ft of torque is available from rest, after all – and in the most performance-oriented of the car's modes, Comfort, you can easily squirt up to 40 or 50mph in refined haste.

It seems odd to say this, but the i3's agility at speed is likely to surprise you. It's a tall-looking car, after all, but its centre of gravity is extremely low thanks to the battery cells mounted in the base of the chassis. That means it has excellent change of direction at speed, and it also feels very secure under braking. Brake-energy recuperation alone can do the braking if you think far enough ahead in many situations, in fact.

Perhaps more relevant is a deeply impressive turning circle. The i3 feels astonishingly capable in tight spaces and, at 9.86m, its turning radius is almost a full metre less than a Mini Cooper's. The steering is also pretty quick, at 2.5 turns lock to lock, so it should have excellent manoeuvrability around narrow city streets.

We had precious little opportunity to seek out rough surfaces to test the suspension set-up, but on some patchy ground at low speeds the i3 felt just about supple enough for town use. Even after this short run, though, we'd advise against opting for the 20in wheels over the standard 19-inchers.

What's the BMW i3 like inside?

The production car's dashboard layout sticks closely to that of the concept car, which mixed a minimalist, deliberately high-tech look with natural materials such as eucalyptus. It manages to feel airy up front, but a little dingy and dark in the rear; the final production car will have an extra chunk of side glass, though, which may help matters here.

The main instrument panel will be a single LCD display, and BMW will offer a choice of central screens for infotainment and satellite-navigation (either a 6.5-inch standard unit, called Business, or a 10.25-inch widescreen system that will be called Professional).

The sat-nav will have 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. Future applications will include the ability to reserve parking spaces alongside public charging points.

That aside, the cabin features familiar BMW switches for indicators and the stereo, and its 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 pillar on the side – and you can also fold the front seats forwards to open up the aperture further. Rear passengers will probably notice how high their feet and knees are – a result, no doubt, 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. It has 200 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.

The car will come with a SIM card as standard, allowing owners to access it through either their smartphone or any internet browser and see information on the car's systems and current state/rate of charge.

BMW has yet to confirm matters such as servicing schedules, but sources say the costs of servicing the car should be roughly half that of a regular combustion-engined vehicle's, simply because there are fewer fluids to check and change. The i3's electrical architecture and connectivity will also make it possible for BMW engineers to run remote diagnostics, identifying problems before the car is anywhere near a workshop.

Should I buy one?

You can't actually purchase an i3 just yet - although BMW GB admits that 200-odd people have paid token deposits to register interest and be at the head of the queue when the order books open later this summer (the final production version will be unveiled in London on July 29).

Prices have yet to be confirmed, but the regular EV i3 is likely to cost around £30,000, or not much more than £25k after government grants are taken into account. That means that the BMW is an expensive supermini but, more impressively, around the same as a range-topping Nissan Leaf or many an optioned-up Mini Cooper S.

We'll wait to test the i3 on the road before delivering a final verdict, of course, but on the basis of this test it has the potential to be the sharpest, most focused electric vehicle on the market. It's going to be a high-end, premium addition to the small number of EVs on offer – but a significant, worthy one nonetheless.

John McIlroy