Top Gear drives the mighty BMW i3
This real-world game-changer is a range-extended EV. And Paul Horrell likes it...
Posted: 19 Dec 2013
As this orange BMW i3 is weaving its way among the black cabs, red buses and blue bikes of Piccadilly Circus, I wouldn't be surprised if every living soul who sees it has an opinion. Our First Drive story on TopGear.com had the comments box lit up like no other time I can remember. This is by far the most controversial BMW since, well, since the Isetta. The army of haters and trolls might never be convinced by the i3, but even reasonable people have questions. Won't a tall, short city car inevitably be dull to look at and be in, and generally represent the very antithesis of what we all hope BMW does best? Especially if it's powered by battery? And does its limited range undermine the very freedom that defines an automobile?
So, forgive me if I get a bit defensive at times on the i3's behalf. Everyone at TopGear who's been exposed to the i3 has been warmed by it. Whether we approached it curious, indifferent or even hostile, we all came away affectionate. A car that can change minds (change open minds, at least) is to be cherished.
The charm of the thing is threefold. First: the stimulation it gives the mind, the new ways it proposes for engineering and building our cars, and because the execution is so good it fuels our passion for them. Second: the way it goes, its smooth acceleration, refined silence and even its nippy direction-changing.
And third: its design, the interior especially, but also the exterior, which is fascinating in the way it adds progressive touches to relatively mundane mini-MPV proportions, thanks to its aero details and the glossy black band from its bonnet over the roof and rear end, unifying its forms and lending it the enigmatic glamour of wraparound shades.
But let's park the charm thing for a moment. Does it function well as a car? Is it a good buy? Well, the price, £25,680 after the plug-in grant, is on the dear side for an electric car, but no more so than a 320d is on the dear side for a fairly small diesel car. It has decent room for four and good access to the back seat through the pillarless butterfly doors. The boot is a bit small, but then you won't be taking four people on a long holiday in it, and at least the seat folds.
Then comes the inevitable bogey question of range. I managed a real-world 80 miles the first day, and about 20 miles less, in a hurry, the next. It's not vast, but lots of people don't exceed that mileage in a day - even people driving £25k-plus cars. Despite all the talk of fast chargers doing it in an hour, the fact is that people who need a car for frequent motorway hauling shouldn't buy an EV. Does that mean the i3 is fundamentally crippled? I don't think it does.
Like a... Veyron?
Lots of the cars we love have intrinsic limitations: you couldn't use a Veyron (or an MX-5, to be more reasonable) as a family car. Everyone knows EVs have limited range; it's not like they hide the fact as some sinister trap for the unwary. But most i3s will likely be sold to suburban two-car households. And it's vanishingly unlikely that in such a household a day will ever come when both cars will be called on to exceed 80 miles.
Anyway, the i3 does a lot to help with the range thing. The dealer lets you borrow a petrol or diesel BMW for occasional long trips. You can also spec an optional petrol range-extender (a two-cylinder bike engine and little generator stashed under the bootfloor). The REx hums away quietly when in action, but it's only an emergency solution. It doesn't turn the i3 into a long-distance express because the petrol tank is only nine litres, which BMW says is good for 60 miles.
And you'd be scared of running out, so you'd feel compelled to stop at a motorway services after 40 miles, feeling a numpty for filling up with just six litres. Anyway, nine litres in 60 miles is an unimpressive 30mpg. So think of the i3 REx as an EV with a get-out-of-jail-free card, not as a regular hybrid.
The i3 has another emergency trick. Its satnav will, if you ask it to go further than the projected range, go online and find you a charge point, then send via the cloud a set of instructions to your phone to continue your onward journey: walk this way to the bus stop, take this bus to that station, take the train that goes at the following time, etc, etc. Use that routing method if speedy arrival is the priority too, because public transport across big cities such as London is often quicker than driving.
A driver's EV
But, of course, public transport isn't so much fun as driving. Not as much fun as driving an i3. Oh, really? A tall, skinny-tyred, one-geared box? Well, there's a lot going for it. The wheels are pushed right to the corners. And for urban driving, you have the best of several worlds. You sit high and get a commanding view out, but your legs are straight ahead in a fairly sporty driving position, and the centre of gravity is low. That's because the battery and motor lie in an extruded aluminium punt frame, with the carbon-fibre passenger cell mounted above and decorated in thermoplastic outer panels. This construction sounds exotic, and it is: the engineers say more than a decade's worth of R&D went into making it affordable and repairable.
But, because it's light, the i3 doesn't need such a hefty battery to give it decent range, and a small battery is itself lighter. So the i3 weighs just under 1,200kg, some 200kg less than a Volkswagen Golf GTD DSG. And it has 170bhp. So it goes well. And it's RWD, so it has heaps of traction. All good signs.
0-62mph in 7.2 seconds...
Acceleration around the suburbs is blissfully smooth and quiet, even for an EV. It steps away from rest as briskly as you like, but without any shunts or jerks, and it slows back down the same way, usually without your needing the brake pedal because you get pulled back pretty firmly (and the brake lights come on) when you release the accelerator, thanks to about 70bhp worth of regenerative braking. Driving like that becomes a game in itself, a curiously addictive exercise in anticipation and cunning.
Once you've got to 62mph, which takes just 7.2 seconds, you begin to feel another characteristic of the single-speed powertrain. The power tails off at high revs, but you can't shift up. So acceleration tails off, too. Even so, it's no slug. You can poke out into an 85mph stream in the third lane without getting anyone accelerating up your chuff. But a limiter has been imposed at 93mph, because big speeds draw huge current and flatten the battery in minutes rather than hours.
The i3 got showered in another torrent of web-forum abuse after it became clear it didn't oversteer. Apparently, all BMWs are supposed to. Huh? A 116d? An X5? Move along now, nothing to see. Anyway, the i3 has direct steering and doesn't roll much. You can twirl it round mini-roundabouts and open junctions. Yes, if you have the optional wheels with wider rear tyres and if you pile into a sharp bend too fast, the front tyres run wide. And if you indiscriminately shove onto the accelerator mid-bend, the nose goes light and they understeer again - like an early 911, actually.
The ESP is a bit keen too, but it can be part-disabled. But, mid-corner, if you settle it with a little lift, you can use the traction and feel the natural agility through the steering. And this agility is helped by firm springs. But the damping allows it to breathe, so the ride is more than tolerable, if a bit rocky from side to side. The rigid bodyshell damps suspension sounds well.
Your comfort and wellbeing is vastly boosted by the cabin design: flat-floored, furnished in natural fibres in shades of buff and taupe, the textures geometrical rather than mimicking the hide of a rhino. Because the heater/aircon unit is away in the nose, the dash is reduced in size and more distant than you'd expect, and the fan is much quieter too. It's an airy, glassy space, modern and surprisingly un-automotive. More like a mildly groovy hotel lobby.
Being un-automotive is part of the i3's trouble. Its specification hardly tickles a petrolhead's pleasure centres. But think of its innovative and clever engineering, and its design solutions. They'll provide a jolt to many areas of car development for the rest of us, areas that have got stuck in the mud. But that's just theory. The practice is that it just gets under your skin.