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Car reviews - BMW - i3

Our Opinion

We like
Strong and silent performance, great design inside and out, sharp dynamics, safety, quality, incredible point-to-point manoeuvrability, vision (actual and outlook), reasonable distance range
Room for improvement
Pricey, hard ride on 20” wheels, compromised access to rear seat due to door design, back windows won’t open, nervous steering at speed, Apple CarPlay expensive option

More power and sportier dynamics inject more BMW into the i3s electric vehicle

Gallery

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BMW logo18 Jun 2018

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

Overview

 

BMW’S i3 is currently the cheapest new full-electric vehicle for public sale in Australia (the new Renault Zoe is fleet only for now while the new-gen Nissan Leaf won’t arrive for some time yet).

At $70K, that speaks volumes about this country’s lack of EV support from car-makers and governments.

Still, the Germans aren’t fazed, and have stepped things up with a ‘performance’ version of its brilliant but expensive little green machine, known as the i3s (with a little ‘s’, not plural).

Does it bring the EV experience closer to the regular BMW brand experience?

 

Price and equipment

 

Has it really been three and a half years since the launch of the BMW i3?

 

Now in its ‘Life Cycle Impulse’ (LCI) facelift phase, the four-seat, five-door, rear-drive hatch from Germany receives a number of visual, technological and trim updates devised to help keep it competitive against a coming onslaught of EVs.

 

More importantly for the performance luxury brand, there’s now a slightly more powerful and better handling variant known as the i3s. As in small ‘s’ for sport, not plural.

 

For $1200 over the base i3 Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV), the $69,900 before on-roads i3s BEV scores a 135kW/270Nm 360V DC electric motor upgrade (adding 10kW of power and 20Nm of torque), shaving 0.4 seconds off its 0-100km/h sprint-time (now 6.9s) while boosting top speed by 10km/h (to 160km/h). Aiding the above is a new Sport mode ushering in faster throttle and steering responses.

 

Besides costing more, the other flipside is 20km less range (to 280km) from the identical 94Ah lithium-ion battery pack, which offers between 27.2kWh useable and 33.2kWh nominal outputs.

Weight also rises by 20kg, but BMW reckons all i3s (that’s plural, not the sportier version) can manage 200km in everyday-driving between charges – which we can confirm, even during performance testing.

 

On the dynamics front, the i3s’ ride height falls by 10mm, a 20-inch wheel/tyre package is fitted, the suspension features unique springs, dampers and anti-roll bars, and special stability control settings allow for more play and improved wet-road traction.

The latter is a development of a new ESC set-up allowing for improved adverse-condition control and more efficient brake-energy recuperation.

 

Fans of BMW’s smallest EV can spot the MY18 changes by its newly-added LED lighting, redesigned bumpers, 40mm track-width increase, broader paint palette and blacking-out of the A-pillars, roof and wheelarches, for a sportier effect. A larger screen and some fresh materials denote the alterations inside.

 

Standard kit includes three-phase AC rapid charging, DC rapid charging, BMW’s Driving Assistant Plus pack with so-called ‘Light City Brake Function’ (a sort of autonomous emergency braking that slows down but doesn’t provide full braking), lane-departure alert, forward collision warning, pedestrian warning, adaptive cruise control with stop and go, tyre pressure monitors, climate control, auto-on/off LED lights and wipers, reversing camera, parking sensors, automatic parking, acoustic warning for pedestrians, satellite navigation with maximum range routing as part of a full range of Connected Drive services, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, digital radio, and a punctured tyre inflation kit.

 

Buyers can also again choose the i3 Range Extender (REx), which adds $6000 to the price as well as a 120kg to overall mass (upping the 0-100km/h time by 0.8s in the process), via a 28kW 80cc two-cylinder petrol engine tucked beneath the rear bumpers, recharging the batteries for up to 130km of additional range.

 

Our i3s BEV lacked the latter, but was fitted with a $2000 ‘Comfort Access’ package (keyless entry, front seat heaters and a Harmon Kardon audio upgrade) as well as metallic paint ($1090), bringing the as-tested price to $72,990 before on-roads.

BMW can also sell owners an ‘iWallbox Pure’ charger for home-convenience charging for around $2250.

As we said, one of Australia’s ‘cheaper’ EVs … little wonder that BMW only shifts around 100 annually.

 

Interior

 

Not much has changed inside.

 

The previous i3’s carbon-fibre reinforced plastic passenger cell, recycled thermo plastic material body panels, carbon-fibre roof and a specially thinned glass tailgate carryover from before.

 

Additionally, so do the rear-hinged back doors and four-seater configuration. The former provides an interesting design solution to in-car entry/egress as there is no central pillar to negotiate around. But, combined with the latter, the upshot is compromised practicality for everyday use, since the front doors must be open first, twin-cab pick-up truck-style, every time the back seats need to be accessed. And, of course, you can only carry two people out back.

 

Note, however, that the i3 is not trying to be a Volkswagen Golf alternative, but rather a low-impact, high-tech premium transport for four, albeit with strong driver appeal.

 

The BMW’s packaging remains wondrous. Its wheelbase is the same as a Mazda2’s at 2570mm but the roof is quite a bit taller and tracks are significantly wider, for a substantially more spaciousness.

Enhancing the airy ambience are deep side windows, a lofty driving position on narrow but supportive seats, revised wool/fabric patterns, Eucalyptus wood, high-quality plastic trim and some very intriguing plant-fibre extract grey material.

Solid, elegant, environmental and inviting, the i3’s imaginative cabin remains the brand’s most appealing right now.

 

For 2018, the centre screen is usefully larger, measuring in at 10.25 inches, and the iDrive vehicle systems has been updated, though note Apple CarPlay/Android Auto is optional.

BMW says it’s a more advanced wireless set-up than what a $14K Kia Picanto offers, pointing also to the inclusive advanced connected services requiring a 4G-compatible SIM.

 

Thick A-pillars can obstruct some objects, but otherwise the driver’s view is commanding. And some brief familiarisation is necessary to master the twist-action gear lever and iDrive layout. Once worked out, you realise that access to the multimedia, ventilation and storage systems are as simple as in a 3 Series.

 

Plus, being an EV, the sat-nav displays the car’s range potential and other related data on the map, to help reduce anxiety.

 

Passengers are perched even higher on the rear bench, which is firm, but not uncomfortable, while the split backrests do recline a little.

Sufficient storage, a central armrest and face-level ventilation are notable by their absence, and as the rear windows are fixed, the air-con does have its work cut out controlling the climate back there.

 

Additionally, and predictably, exiting the back means the front doors must be open, so it’s a two-person operation at all times – and watch that the roof-mounted central latch doesn’t snag a scalp!

 

Hatchback practicality and common sense return further back, thanks to a wide aperture and folding seat backs. But again, we’re talking supermini levels of cargo capacity, from only 260 to 1100 litres depending on configuration. No spare wheel exists.

 

Engine and transmission

 

Twist the transmission knob up (somewhat unintuitive; ought it not be down?) to ‘D’, and two things hit you immediately about the i3s.

Firstly, the car does not hang around and, secondly, the moment you ease off the accelerator a forceful degenerative braking system instantly slows the car, almost to a halt.

 

The latter’s a little disconcerting at first, but soon you realise that you rarely need to prod the brake, just on or off the go pedal – it’s a terrific way to not waste energy otherwise squandered on braking, since it’s captured and used to help recharge the system. Brilliant.

 

The i3s is almost embarrassingly quick off the mark, putting its power to the rear wheels instantly and cleanly. Up to about 60km/h, most traffic will be left far behind. And out on the open road, 120km/h arrives in no time.

 

And that’s in Comfort; select Sport and the performance feels measurably stronger again – almost incongruously so considering how high-up you’re sat. That turbine whoosh as it leaps ahead is actually quite thrilling, and totally addictive at first.

 

Conversely, the i3s continues the tradition in offering a relaxed EV experience if so inclined, especially in ECO Pro mode (pegging top speed to 110km/h but adding about 20km of range) or ECO Pro Plus (down to a 90km/h maximum and minimum-input heating/air-con, for a few more extra kays). Neither are slow but both are soothingly smooth, and after a while became the default choice when smoking Golf GTIs at the lights became boring.

 

Meanwhile, the i3s’ official electricity consumption is 14.3kWh/100km, which equals to about $4 of Green Energy per 100km. Charging from a regular 10-amp outlet takes up to 15 hours, or about half that with a 16-amp supply.

 

If you have access to a public Type 2 DC charging station, BMW states that it takes about 40 minutes for 80 per cent of charge – or three hours at an AC station with three-phase charging.

Ride and handling

From the moment you turn the retro-cool, two-spoke wheel into the first corner, you realise that Munich engineered the i3 to steer and handle like a true BMW.

 

Surprisingly direct steering gives this EV a sporty rear-drive character at all times, and it’s a boon around town or in tight parking spots, especially with the handy 2.5 turns lock to lock. A sub 10-metre turning circle helps here too.

 

At normal cruising speeds, the helm continues to impress with a directness and agility that is still hitherto unknown in this sort of vehicle.

The chassis feels planted and taut too, so turns can be taken at quite high speeds with unexpected athleticism and elan. Instant, strong braking is another bonus.

 

At higher velocities, though, the steering’s sharpness can become a little unnerving, particularly out in high crosswinds, but it’s only an illusion because the i3s’ ESC set-up is sophisticated enough to ever-so-gently reel in any impending unwanted motion in a very subtle manner. If you’re really sudden with applying force the electronic nannies will put their foot down more abruptly, but that’s rare.

 

Still, the overriding dynamic theme here is intimate, direct responses, and this BMW is satisfying to hustle about. Unsettling it is actually fairly difficult to do.

 

However, on the 20-inch alloys as fitted to the i3s (wearing 175/55 tyres up front and 195/50 rubber in the rear), the ride is simply too firm over the many and varied rougher roads found in inner-city areas.

It can pound over potholes and jar on joining strips, diluting the relaxing refinement of the rest of the mechanical package. The lowered suspension settings don’t help at all.

 

Interestingly, when we first tested the original i3 back in late 2014, we found that the then-optional adaptive cruise control system would shut down over sustained bad roads, and the same happened again this time around. Also, with all four seats used, be aware of larger speed humps.

 

Finally, with the wider tyres, there was plenty of road noise intrusion over coarser roads.

 

Safety and servicing

 

In April 2015, the i3 earned a five-star crash safety rating from the independent European New Car Assessment Program (Euro NCAP).

 

BMW says servicing scheduling is condition-based, meaning that the distance and time required between visits is worked out by the car according to how it’s been used. We suggest every 12 months at the most, or ask your dealer.

 

The company also offers a scheme called the Service Inclusive Basic package, which covers scheduled servicing for five years or 80,000km from $995. It includes annual vehicle checks, oil changes, all filters, spark plugs and labour costs for the duration of the deal.

There’s also a more expensive version known as Inclusive Plus, covering brake pads, brake discs and windscreen wiper rubbers.

 

Verdict

 

The i3 is not cheap, b ut for an EV it isn’t that expensive, brings distinctive and high design to the table, and – most importantly – feels and drives like a BMW.

 

In some ways, the ‘s’ is even more on-brand than the regular version. The stronger performance. The sharper steering. The harder ride. If you can put up with the latter – and in an urban EV, it might be an issue – then the relatively small premium is definitely worthwhile.

 

Either way, the i3 remains an extraordinary proposition. We celebrate its boldness and brashness and are glad BMW bothers to bring it into EV-agnostic Australia.

 

Rivals

 

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron 1.4 TFSI PHEV $62,490

Audi’s first e-tron combines a plug-in electric motor and 110kW/250Nm 1.4 turbo, for a total of 150kW/350Nm, resulting in about 50km of pure EV range. After that, it’s an appealing mix of quality, practicality and low-emissions smarts. But the price is high and the looks too normal-A3-like in this company.

 

Lexus CT200h Sports Luxury $56,900

Based on the outgoing Toyota Corolla, the CT200h is a beautifully made and well-equipped five-seater hatchback with exceptional fuel economy from its series-parallel petrol-electric hybrid. But it’s also noisy and hard-riding, making it surprisingly unrefined for a Lexus. A disappointment, buy the superior Toyota Prius instead.


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