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BMW i3 First Drive

By raccars Published

BMW will launch its first ever electric car in 46 British BMW dealers on 16 November – and RAC Cars has driven it. The result of six years’ development, we discovered an exceptionally well thought out car that may just change your preconceptions of electric cars…

Price: £30,680
Gearbox: Single speed transmission
0-62mph: 7.2 seconds
Top speed: 93mph (limited)
Electric range, approx: 100 miles
CO2: 0
On sale: November 2013
Insurance group: TBC

Three UK BMW i3 facts

1: BMW sells the i3 with four interior trim ‘worlds’: standard, Loft, Lodge and Suite
2: 46 BMW dealers will sell the i3, from a total of 147 in the UK. The launch event will be held on 16 November
3: BMW dealers will lease you an i3 for £369 a month on a three-year deal

What is it?

The BMW i3 is a brand new car for BMW. And by that, we mean entirely brand new – every single aspect has never been done by the firm before. This is why it took six years to develop, and why it has perhaps accounted for billions in investment.

The i3 is also an electric car. It is driven by a motor and batteries, rather than a combustion engine and a tank of fuel, and is charged up by plugging it in, not visiting a filling station. After years of waiting, electric cars are slowly coming to market, with the Nissan LEAF currently the most high-profile EV. BMW aims to change that, and supercharge their appeal, with the compact i3 electric car.

BMW has designed the electric motor and the battery pack in-house, for maximum efficiency. It has also created a new way of building it, using an aluminium ‘drive’ cell lower half that’s bonded to a high-strength carbon fibre ‘life cell’ top half. No other car is built in this way; BMW says the benefits are found across the board.

The car is also launched as the first model in BMW’s new sub-brand, i. This setup similar to its performance sub-brand, M: the cars get their own distinctive styling, separate product development channel and specialist dealers will handle sales.

All ground-breaking stuff for the German luxury brand. So you’d hope all the time, money and long-brewing promise had been worth it. As RAC Cars discovered on the international product launch for the i3 city car over in Amsterdam, it certainly has been...

Styling and interior

The i3 is a compact car, less than 4 metres long and not as wide as some other small cars either. It is, however, tall: with the ‘monobox’ styling theme, this could have led to a very boxy an unappealing car. Luckily, the i styling ethos means that, once you’re over the shock of the new, the i3 starts to grow on you.

It’s a very modern looking car, with lots of high-gloss surfacing, a big glass area and lovely details such as blue-accented trim, vivid LED headlights and remarkably complex but fluid surfacing. It’s at its best when it’s moving, letting the light play over its composite bodywork: believe us, there’s no missing the i3 on the road.

Inside, it’s even more appealing. It has the interior of a high-end modern furniture store, all quality wood, modern trim materials, simple but architecturally sound design and, of course, flatscreen monitors. These replaces regular instrument dials and form the basis of all interfaces – BMW is big on connectivity with the i3. It even has its own smartphone app! Check battery charge from this, charging status, and even let it guide you back to where it’s parked.

It’s a four-seater, not five, but each seat has enough room for adults. The rear is accessed by rear-hinged doors, which reveal an opening clear of a central B-pillar; getting in and out is easy once you’ve stepped over high sills. The boot is a bit smaller than a supermini at 260 litres but fold the seats and 1100 litres of space is revealed.

Overall, the interior is really light and airy, with deep windows, a low dashboard and the commanding feel of a seating position that’s set higher than in conventional cars. It’s a very feel-good car to sit in, and quality is, needless to say, excellent. So too is how it drives…

Performance

You don’t think of sporty performance when you think of an electric car. This is where BMW begs to differ. It has fitted a 170hp electric motor to the i3, with 184lb ft of instant-access pulling power. The petrol equivalent would be a modern high-output 1.6-litre turbo engine – and as the i3 weighs less than 1200kg, it combines to give it very responsive performance indeed.

0-62mph takes just 7.2 seconds; as it is a single-speed gearbox, this is delivered in one seamless surge, rather than punctuating it with gearshifts. The top speed is, purely to conserve battery power, limited to 93mph; BMW admits it could do 125mph if it wasn’t restricted. Acceleration on the go, thanks to all that puling power, is also excellent: this is a car with diesel-like muscle. Bet you weren’t expecting that!

The power delivery is immensely satisfying. An electric motor is already more reactive than a combustion engine and BMW’s setup is one of the best we’ve yet tried. There’s of course no engine noise either – that all this performance is experienced in gliding silence takes some getting used to. All you can hear is a faint whine of the electric motor, but BMW’s worked hard to keep this distant.

There’s something else that’s distinctive, too, which you’ll discover when you lift off the accelerator: engine braking. BMW uses the regenerative power from the motor to slow the car down and recharge the batteries – and because this is so strong, you can drive most of the time using just one pedal. That’s right, lifting off is enough to slow the car to a complete halt. It takes some getting used to but, once you master it, becomes incredibly satisfying.

Handling

The i3 is a rear-drive car, like all the best BMWs. It is also rear-engined, to give it perfect 50:50 weight distribution. And mounting the batteries low in the chassis mean the centre of gravity is really low. All of which makes a great recipe for fine handling, despite the car’s tall and relatively narrow stance. And the BMW i3 delivers.

For starters, the steering is firm and positive, with a really fast and direct action. It controls a car that’s eager to turn in and feels very nimble on the move – so nimble, you need to acclimatise to the sporty feel. Once you do, you discover how easy and confidence-inspiring the i3 is to drive.

It is extremely well balanced and the rear-drive chassis gives a very satisfying feel through bends. It has the fingerprint of a big-engined BMW sports coupe, not least because the electric motor is so laden with surging drive. People don’t expect an electric car to be a sporty thrill: to discover the BMW i3 delivers this is a revelation.

Ride quality is very good too. This is not always the case in small, pert small cars with big wheels but BMW has delivered. It is supple and measured at speed, yet always under firm control. It can be stiff into some bigger potholes but rides most others with little intrusion – and even the biggest bumps don’t crash or shudder through the structure. Impressive stuff.

Price and value

The BMW i3 costs more than £30,000, or similar to a BMW 320d. It’s thus not a cheap car. However the Government Plug-in Car Grant will take £5000 off that price, putting the BMW i3 in the same ball park as a very well-equipped family hatchback – or a range-topping sporting MINI Cooper S with lots of options. Still expensive, but a bit more attainable.

But it was never going to be a cheap car, and was never designed to be one. It’s comparable with electric car rivals though, and, what’s more, it’s actually excellent value alongside them when you consider its breadth of ability.

Here is a purpose built EV that’s constructed in an entirely new way and has a ground-breaking portfolio of attributes. It’s even fully connected to you wherever you are via the smartphone in your pocket – oh, and also enjoys a huge variety of Government and council initiatives designed to encourage EV motoring.

Fuel economy

How far does the BMW i3 go on a single charge? 100 miles. That’s not very far if you’re used to regular car logic… but if you are the average motorist and have a garage, it’s fine. Most of us don’t do more than 25 miles in a single day: BMW has intentionally designed the i3 to boast a 100-mile range because of this (and there’s a scheme that will loan you a different BMW for when you, say, need to go on holiday).

There are a plethora of on-board computers to help you best manage it, plus several drive modes that make best use of it. In an emergency, the ECO PRO + mode switches all non-essential gadgets off to give you as much battery range as possible.

The sat nav is fully integrated so, if you set a route, it will work out if you can get there on the remaining charge. It also shows you the nearest public charging points (and whether they’re occupied or not) and if you can’t get somewhere on a charge, it will automatically route you to the nearest one.

BMW also says intelligent use of the car’s regenerative braking feature will extend the range. Some say the stated range cab be improved by almost half if you drive it cleverly. If you can’t be bothered, fear not: BMW will also soon be launching an i3 with a tiny 650cc petrol engine, which acts as a range extender when the batteries run low. Brilliantly clever stuff.

Verdict: BMW i3

The BMW i3 is an electric car you’ll want to own. It drives like a sporting BMW, is appealing because of its electric motor not in spite of it, has a fantastic modern interior and is packed with clever gadgetry. It is also roomy for four people too, and the refinement is a real draw.

The range will be an issue for some, but won’t be an issue in reality for most. We hope people can see past this and realise the BMW i3 is the most convincing electric car we’ve yet driven. It’s a gamechanger, and a brilliant one at that.

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