Stand out design inside and out, packaging, weight, efficiency etc
Stilted, jiggly ride is the only real downside
What is it?
Still one of the most complete, cleverest and best thought through electric cars of them all. And yet it’s been on sale largely unchanged since 2014. Yes there was a facelift in 2018, but beyond tidying things up and introducing the faster i3S model it didn’t do much. Because it didn’t need to.
OK, it would have been nice if BMW had thrown some more investment at the stilted dynamics. The i3 has always been a brittle driving experience, stiffer and more jittery than it should be. We forgave it because it did everything else so well, so intelligently.
Let’s carry on before you get another question in there. The i3 is built around a carbon monocoque (a huge investment at the time for BMW, and one that also underpinned the i8 supercar). Some early versions had a range extender engine to top up the battery, but this was done away with after 2018 in favour of a bigger battery, initially 33.2kWh, now 42.2kWh. That’s not big by most standards, yet gives a range of 177-193 miles, and combines that with sprightly performance. The regular 170bhp i3 hits 62mph in 7.3secs, the faster 184bhp i3S in 6.9secs.
The latter is as much a cosmetic upgrade as a dynamic one. A black roof swatch, different bumpers, 10mm lower sports suspension, a 40mm wider track, 20mm-wider 20-inch wheels and black arches – and it looks pretty good. It even gets Dynamic Traction Control (DTC) that ‘enhances agility and enables controlled drifts’. And yes, it actually says that in the press material. About an i3.
And can it do ‘controlled drifts’?
Of course not. Well, maybe if you have a handy ice lake since it does have the right constituent ingredients: rear motor, rear wheel-drive. But we want to talk about something much more relevant. Weight. The reason the i3 is relatively swift, always efficient and goes a decent distance on a compact battery is that it doesn’t weigh much. Just 1,270kg thanks to its carbon construction, which is a third of a tonne lighter than a smaller Honda e for instance.
That raises an interesting point, where does the i3 fit?
It’s bigger than a traditional city car, it’s packaging actually more aligned with a Golf than a Polo, let alone an Up. Electric cars, as we have learned, can break down boundaries and none has done that better than the i3.
The fresh, modern interior is simply one of the best fitted to any car available today, four adults fit and the boot is more than adequate. It’s the right size to be a second car for any family.
But you do have to get on with the doors…
You do. The front opens forwards, the rear opens backwards, so when parallel parked you can be corralled into that area. Depending on the age of your kids you might find that handy.
It’s a very design-led car, and has been dividing opinions ever since it launched. If you don’t like it, BMW will gladly sell you a much more conventional Mini Electric. It’s lower to the ground and scoots around corners very well. The i3, as we mentioned above, is easily buffeted by the road surface and that can knock your confidence and ease. It’s better around town, but puzzlingly BMW never quite got on top of the driving manners.
And now they won’t?
The i3 is due to die this year. It’s reached the end of the line and won’t be replaced. It established BMW's kudos and relevance in the electric market, but neither it nor the i8 clearly did what was needed for BMW to persevere with carbon construction and radical design. Now we have the i4 saloon, iX3 crossover, oh, and the questionable application of radical design and carbon construction seen in the iX SUV…
What about charging for the i3?
As we said above, BMW claims a range depending on options and equipment of between 177 and 193 miles for both i3 versions. Expect to get 140-150 miles in real world use, averaging at least four miles per kWh. It’s an efficient machine.
The 42.2kWh battery can be charged to 80 per cent in 45 minutes on a 50kW fast charger. It can’t accept charge any faster than that, though.
Our choice from the range
What's the verdict?
The i3 remains the best small premium EV out there. After eight years of life nothing has come along to usurp it – which not only says a lot about the quality of the original concept, but the mostly lacklustre competition. The i3 is a wonderful car to be in and around. The design still looks fresh and interesting, the cabin is light and airy, beautifully made from tactile materials, the driver controls are logical (VW nabbed the gear controller idea for the ID.3 and ID.4) and although the ride is knobbly, it’s an eager, responsive car to drive.
And in the grand scheme of things it’s not too much money. A starting price of £33,820 is a bit more than a Fiat 500e or Mini Electric, but lines up alongside the Honda e, Peugeot e-208 and Nissan Leaf. Eight years on from launch and we’d still have the i3 over any of them.