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Is this a new BMW i3? It’s the sporty BMW i3, the i3S. It arrives at the same time as the uprated i3 120Ah, the fresher, longer-ranged version of BMW’s entry-point electric car. Upgrading your i3 to an i3S costs around £2,500 and brings inch-bigger 20in wheels, another 14bhp (for a 182bhp total) to knock 0.4secs off the 0-62mph time (now 6.9secs), 10mm-lower suspension and a 40mm-wider track, which also means extended wheel arches. Then there’s a new Sport mode in the drive select system and a bespoke steering set-up, as well as a slightly more assertive appearance on the outside. Each tweak is pretty subtle on paper – this appears a smaller step up than going from a Golf to a Golf GTI, for example. And is it?
The i3 has always been a brisk and enjoyable thing to drive, but the i3S does noticeably lift it to another level. It’s flipping quick up to 60mph or so, the first 40mph especially, and enough for its quoted performance to seem a touch pessimistic. Though perhaps that’s a placebo affect brought about by the instant and seamless single-gear acceleration that EVs have made their own. Slowing things back down is no chore either; there’s tons of energy recuperation as soon as you lift off the throttle, so quite often simply lifting off can shed off enough speed for turning into a bend or negotiating a speed bump. Adjust to the i3S’s controls and you might end up only using the brake pedal to come to a complete halt. Does it handle? To an extent. With rear-wheel drive and the heaviest portions of its 1.3-ton weight fixed nice and low, there’s an inherent rightness to the way it goes down a road. Which is handy when there’s such a tall body and some very flighty steering to contend with. But you learn to cope with – and utilise – its roly-poly nature and will soon be using the regen to tuck the i3S’s nose neatly into corners before getting on the power to cleanly exit them. It’ll even indulge a small amount of silliness if you slacken off the stability control. It feels mischievous to do so; you can’t turn it all the way off, and merely loosening its reins involves several clicks and turns of the iDrive wheel rather than a simple button press. But with enough momentum into a turn, and juvenile enough use of the throttle in the middle of it, you can enjoy daftly inappropriate nano-slides. Stop it. It’s an electric car. We would, but the i3 – whether an S or not – sort of eggs you on to drive it quickly. A huge, McLaren-esque fishbowl windscreen gives you a commanding view of the road ahead, with a simple digital speedometer punctuating the bottom of it to ensure your attention is never split between several places at once. The modest grip of its skinny eco tyres and a general flat-lining of its acceleration at the national speed limit also mean you’re quickly reaching the interesting zone of its dynamics without pushing too hard. Far from a criticism, that means amusement is way more accessible than in a properly focused hot hatch. A similarly priced Honda Civic Type R, for instance. Naturally your electric range will be zapped in the process, mind. BMW claims around 160 miles in the real world but it’ll drop at a stark rate if you’re driving hard. Especially uphill. Slow down, then. Fine. But you already know how superbly matched electric cars are to the urban crawl, and a slightly bitty ride from its ginormous 20in wheels aside, the i3S is exemplary at it. Instant, silent urge of its powertrain, narrow body, quick steering… there are few greater four-wheeled things for the in-town duck and weave. What’s present here – and not in a Leaf, Zoe or Ioniq – is a real sense of humour, and layers of fun beyond those first few hits away from the traffic lights. Isn’t it vital to know as cars fundamentally change, their sense of fun is still tangible? I suppose. What else do I need to know? While the i3 used to have an optional range-extender version – a weeny petrol engine sitting aboard to top the battery up – it now only comes in full EV flavour. BMW’s i range is due to grow, however, so if you’re unduly bothered, hang around for future products. Or buy a second-hand i3 REx, prices for which are now a bargain £15,000. But the i3’s climb in battery capacity since launch means a 120Ah EV will likely prove nearly as useable in day-to-day life as an early 60Ah REx, so long as you do have regular access to a socket. And you won’t ever have to take it near a petrol pump, an activity that feels like wimping out when your car also gets plugged in. 8/10 Images: Mark Fagelson