BMW's i3 is one of the cleverest all-electric models we've seen. But can we really still call it an 'all-electric' car in 'Range Extender' form with a little two cylinder petrol scooter engine slung out the back. Actually, we can. Jonathan Crouch looks at the improved 120Ah version.
Ten Second Review
BMW's i3 is an electric vehicle unlike any we've seen to date. It can be bought either in pure electric form or, as tested here, with a Range Extender petrol engine added to prolong the period you can travel between potentially rapid charge-ups. Since the original 2013 launch, the Munich maker has improved this product significantly. In 2016, the original 60Ah version was replaced with a 94Ah variant that boosted this model's theoretical all-electric operating range to over 200 miles. A year later, BMW gave the styling a minor refresh and added a slightly pokier i3s derivative into the range. Then in late 2018, the brand introduced a larger 120Ah battery that promised a driving range increase of up to 30%, creating the model we're going to look at here. As ever, you get the kind of dynamic driving experience you simply wouldn't expect an electric vehicle to be able to provide. But then this is BMW's approach to EV motoring. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised.
Like its sister model, the hybrid i8 sportscar, BMW's i3 represents a very different take on EV motoring, designed from the ground-up as an electric vehicle and unusual in this segment in its use of rear wheel drive and its emphasis on an engaging at-the-wheel experience. It remains groundbreaking thanks to the lightweight chassis and bodywork solutions that have left this contender far less heavy than other pure electric rivals. It's become a more credble option too, since BMW fitted uprated a larger '120 AH' lithium-ion battery that has considerably boosted the all-electic operating range.
That hasn't lessened the demand amongst i3 buyers to add in the extra petrol-powered 'Range Extender' engine option though, pricey as it is. This variant, like the standard all-electric i3, has been recently improved, with minor styling upgrades and, more significantly, the extra availability of a slightly pokier i3s variant.
As you might expect from a BMW product, the i3 doesn't want for go. The electric motor is mounted low down within the rear axle which helps to keep a low centre of gravity and also to improve crashworthiness. The power unit weighs just 130kg and produces 170hp in standard form, which means that the i3's power to weight ration of 141hp per tonne is just 5hp per tonne shy of a Honda Civic Type R hot hatch. If you're interested in a comparison of that sort, you'll be interested in the slightly pokier i3s variant, where the electric motor's power output is boosted to 184hp, plus there's sports suspension with specially developed springs, dampers and anti-roll bars.
Whatever i3 variant you choose, as with all electric vehicles, a decisive advantage comes in its amount of torque. In a typical city scoot such as, say, a 1.2-litre Fiat 500, you can count on 102Nm of torque, but this BMW generates a hefty 250Nm of muscle in its standard form (or 270Nm in 'i3s' guise), offering instant urge with all that torque available from idle. It's sent to the rear wheels via a single-ratio gearbox that offers the choice of three driving modes: Comfort, Eco Pro and Eco Pro+. The i3s has an extra 'Sport' setting.
This translates to a car that's certainly not slow off the mark. The standard model will get from standstill to 37mph in 3.8sec and to 62mph in 7.3sec (or 6.9s for the i3s). Either way, any Toyota GT-86 sportscar drivers will have a very hard time keeping pace with an i3. The top speed is limited to 93mph in the standard model or 99mph in the i3s. Extremely direct steering, a low centre of gravity, a clever DSC stability control system and lightweight body structures add up to very focused driving characteristics. BMW has engineered in a little body roll, largely to clue drivers in to where the limits of those narrow tyres are, but this remains a car you can enjoy hustling along. Go for the 'Range Extender' version of this car, as is possible with ether i3 or i3s variants, and a tiny 650cc two-cylinder petrol engine is added to cut in once the battery power is spent.
Design and Build
Think of the i3 as a car in two halves. The bottom half is almost all aluminium, the upper half almost all carbon fibre. Armed with this information, you can rightly surmise that it doesn't weigh very much. Even with the weight of all those batteries - some 230kg comprised of 96 individual cells kept at an optimum 20deg Centigrade by their own air conditioning unit - the i3 only tips the scales at 1,195kg. Compare that to the 1,395kg of the entry-level petrol-powered Mercedes-Benz B Class and you'll appreciate the lengths BMW have gone to keep weight low and efficiency high.
The styling is determinedly modern, with the kidney grille being the key BMW styling signature. The black hood, roof and glazed hatch will be characteristic features for future BMW 'I' cars. Adaptive LEDs headlights and floating LED tail lights are standard. The lowered belt line in the rear and absence of a "B" pillar improves visibility, while the rear "coach" doors make entry easier.
As before, the i3 really isn't a very big car, measuring just 3,999mm long, which is only a tad longer than a Ford Fiesta. Despite that, thanks to the flat floor, the thin seats and the low window line, the cabin feels surprisingly roomy. The instrument cluster and Control Display comprise two screens, one behind the steering wheel and the other at the top of the centre console.
Interior materials are eco-orientated, with the dashboard and door cards made from dried grass fibres from the kenaf plant and eucalyptus wood being optional. The boot measures 260-litres, but fold the rear seats and you get up to 1,100-litres. Expect that capacity to drop if you choose the range-extender motor. This is a modified version of the 650cc two-cylinder petrol engine used in the company's CT650 GT maxi-scooter, with a nine-litre fuel tank ahead of the front seats.
Market and Model
Most i3 models will be leased but if you are looking at buying outright, you'll need to know that pricing starts at around £34,000 for the pure electric version. You can tack on just over £3,000 more if you want the Range Extender model. From these figures, you can subtract a £3,500 government grant. So think in terms of just over £30,000 as an asking price starting point. If you were looking at a Plug-in hybrid as an alternative to this car, remember that those types of models no longer qualify for a government grant. Which could make an i3 Range Extender a canny buy.
The Range Extender version of this BMW is the one that one motoring journalist dubbed 'the coward's choice'. Well, paint me yellow if you like, but as someone who routinely pulls his mobile out to find the battery pancaked, I'm not sure I'd be altogether different charging a car. It's certainly true that if you really get your act together and use the i3 as efficiently as possible, ownership of this version will see you paying for and lugging around a hunk of metalwork in the back that'll rarely, if ever, be used. But if I was buying this car, I personally wouldn't care about that. Peace of mind is hard to put a price on. BMW reckons that most customers will agree with me, over 80% likely to continue to choose the Range Extender option with this i3, which means we're either a nation of cowards or something different. Pragmatists, I'd say.
Cost of Ownership
The biggest draw for many with this i3 will be its personal taxation advantages. The all-electric version is, after all, BIK tax-free, while this Range Extender model's official 13-14g/km CO2 rating (15g/km for the i3s) means it qualifies for a mere 5% of benefit-in-kind liability. Corporate business customers benefit from a 100% capital write-down allowance and very low levels of National Insurance taxation. As for driving range, well here's a car that official WLTP statistics suggest can in this 120 AH guise offer a range of up to 192 miles on the European test cycle. Mind you, my experience with electric cars to date has taught me to deeply distrust official statistics: I'd work around an all-electric driving range of around 130 miles if I were you.
If just listening to those kinds of figures prompts you into an attack of so-called 'range anxiety', then the i3 Range Extender model we're looking at here is the version for you - to a point. The little motorcycle petrol engine here mated with battery power is reasonably efficient but unfortunately must operate with a tiny 9-litre fuel tank that offers you an extra driving range of no more than about 93 miles. In other words, your total real-world journeying distance is extended over that of the pure electric i3 to a figure that'd probably be in the region of around 225 miles in normal use, maybe a little more if you're a feather-foot and the season and the conditions are working in your favour. Based upon battery and engine combined use over that sort of distance, BMW claims the combined cycle i3 Range Extender fuel figure to be an astonishing 403.5mpg.
Based on its use of petrol alone, this car delivers only about 40mpg, which is what you'd get if you were to find yourself without electrical back-up for a few days. Given the fact that we're talking here about a tiny two cylinder scooter engine, that's far less impressive.
If, so far, you've been a bit sceptical about electric vehicles, then you need to try this one, especially in this improved 120 AH guise. Even if it doesn't change your viewpoint, you're going to have a heck of a lot of fun proving yourself right. It's distinctive, enjoyable and feels like a genuinely special ownership proposition. Compared to this i3, even a talented vehicle like BMW's own 1 Series seems a bit grey and two-dimensional. Like it or not, this is the future for small cars.
Like most British buyers, if I was spending my own money, I'd definitely go for the version with the Range Extender petrol engine fitted. It gives the car the added flexibility you'll appreciate when life doesn't quite go to plan and, apart from the premium being asked, other downsides are few. Quite frankly, why wouldn't you? That's a question you could ask of the i3 package as a whole. And answer negatively by citing prestige pricing, awkward looks and restricted rearward space. None of these thing though, are issues likely to unduly bother the vast audience BMW is targeting with this car. People who've so far stayed away from the electric vehicle revolution - but might well join it now.