BMW i3 test drive

Friday 26th June 2015

Can't decide whether to buy a BMW or save the planet? Now you can do both (sort of), with the BMW i3.

I'd like our next car to be electric so I booked a test drive in the i3. I want to see whether it's the car for me, and to see how it stacks up against the Tesla Model S, which I drove back in March.

There are two versions of the i3, a pure electric that gets 80 - 100 miles on a full charge, and a range extended version (called REx, the mode I drove) which has a teeny (650cc) petrol engine that just charges the battery when needed - it's not attached to the wheels. REx gets 160 - 180 miles on a full charge plus a tank (nine litres) of petrol. 

The product specialist who showed me round the car said that BMW's aim is for half of all sales to be electric cars within five years. He also said that the nine litre petrol tank can be annoying because most petrol stations have a minimum delivery of five litres, so you have to wait until it's more than half empty before filling it.

It has suicide -- er, "coach" - doors for the rear passengers, which I've always loved and are done really well here - there's no pillar between the front and rear doors, which makes it easy to get in and out of the back.


The good bits

It's got all the usual BMW refinements, plus it's almost entirely silent - the electric motor emits a very quiet whine when you floor it, and I didn't hear the petrol engine at all.

It's pretty light at 1300kg for the REx version, the body is made mainly of carbon fibre and the insides are apparently some kind of recyclable plant material.

It's a lot of fun, fast and feels extremely smooth to drive - the acceleration is quick, but not as quick as the Tesla. But then it's about a third of the cost of a full-spec Model S. It feels more like a comfortable daily driver than the Tesla.

More importantly it doesn't feel like driving an electric car. It just feels like driving a normal automatic, which is great because if there's one thing most people hate, it's change.

The driving position is quite high up, so there's good visibility although I couldn't see the end of the bonnet which made me a little nervous of parking it.

There are three modes:

  • Comfort: normal driving
  • Eco Pro: improved range, limited to 80mph
  • Eco Pro +: maximum efficiency, limited to 56mph

In reality I didn't find it limited my speed in either of those modes - I read afterwards that hard acceleration (is there another kind?) will disable the speed limiter.

The regenerative braking is extremely aggressive, something I noticed with the Tesla as well. Coming up to traffic lights you need to keep your foot on the gas otherwise you'll stop way too early. The product specialist called this "one foot driving" because you rarely have to touch the brake. I get the same sense that only the right side of my body is driving the car, but then I'm not used to automatics.

Best of all, it's got a fairly sensible key, unlike the Tesla's showy model car.


The bad bits

As with any car, there are always negatives. With the Tesla, my main complaint was how showy the car looked, but with the i3 the problem is how weird the whole thing looks. I'm all in favour of interesting design, but the i3 has a face that only its mother could love.

To be honest, the front of the car reminds me of a snub-nosed middle white pig. In a car park it's easy to find because it's 10cm higher than everything else, and although it looks small it's only 50cm shorter than our tank-like Audi A4 estate.

It's got a teeny tiny boot, which we couldn't fit the dog in, and the frunk is dedicated to charging, so there's no space there either. I think we'd struggle to get all our camping gear into the car just for a weekend away.

Finally, I feel that the "open-pore eucalyptus wood" dashboard rather overstates the eco credentials of the car, and is bound to get stained the first time you tip coffee onto it.


Is it really an electric car?

This is what annoyed me most about the car. The sales pitch is focussed on how eco-friendly you will be if you give BMW £36,000, and I wouldn't be surprised if they bring out a version that runs entirely on your own sense of satisfaction at single-handedly saving the planet.

In reality you're going to want the range extended version, unless you only use it for driving to the shops, and in that case you've accidentally bought a hybrid. And if I wanted a hybrid there's a much wider range of cars that don't look like pigs and cost a lot less too.



It's great fun to drive and I like it a lot, but it's not pretty and I kind of feel like I'm cheating if I buy one. I'd like to see how BMW's electric vehicle range grows over the next five years.

Am I being too harsh? Leave a comment below.



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