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Car reviews - BMW - i3 - s 94Ah

Our Opinion

We like
Laugh-out-loud acceleration, tougher looks, clever iDrive6 infotainment system, alternative interior styling
Room for improvement
Harsh ride, regenerative braking is an acquired taste, long-distance range anxiety

Gallery

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BMW logo15 Feb 2018

Overview

TOUTED by BMW senior management as a significant step in the German car-maker’s transition from an automotive brand to a technology company, the i3 EV has broken barriers since its introduction in 2014.

Fast forward nearly four years and the i3 remains a low-volume player, with just 118 examples sold in Australia last year. Nevertheless, sales were up 28.3 per cent year-on-year, meaning EV demand is slowly growing.

To make matters more interesting, BMW has decided to the double the number of offerings, following the introduction of the sportier i3s alongside the facelifted i3. We drive the i3s in pure-electric from to see if its performance-focused upgrades are worth the extra outlay.

Drive impressions

It has been more than three years since BMW’s i3 EV hit the Australian market, which naturally means it is due for a facelift – or Life Cycle Impulse (LCI) in German speak.

While the i3 already received a significant update in October 2016 when a larger 94Ah battery was added to double pure-electric range, the boffins from Bavaria have moved to give the model a proper refresh with a catch.

What is this catch? Well, the i3 line-up has expanded with the addition of the sportier, more potent i3s flagship. Just like the regular i3, the i3s is available in Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) and Range Extender (REx) forms.

Specifically, the i3 and i3s BEVs are priced from $68,700 and $69,900 before on-road costs respectively, while their REx counterparts command a $6000 premium each.

We sampled the i3s BEV for a brief 20-minute stint across a 15km stretch of country roads and came away thoroughly impressed.

Admittedly, it is hard to tell the difference between the i3s’ 135kW/270Nm electric motor and the i3’s 125kW/250Nm unit without driving the models back to back, but the former is a real hoot nonetheless.

Push the start-stop button, move the column-mounted gear select to drive, punch the accelerator and laugh. If you have never driven an EV before, the i3s BEV’s startling acceleration is unusual but great.

The immediate rush of torque pins you back into your seat while the whine from the electric motor penetrates the cabin (if the sound system is muted). It really feels like the future, because it is.

BMW claims the i3s-exclusive Sport driving mode sharpens throttle response further and provides tighter steering feel, but the real-world difference between it on or off is hard to discern.

While the i3s’ outputs do not necessarily astound on paper, BMW claims the BEV can dash from zero to 100km/h in 6.9 seconds. For reference, that rousing effort almost sees the i3s BEV go toe to toe with the 169kW/350Nm Volkswagen Golf GTI hot hatch.

However, the i3s BEV’s most impressive figure is its 80-120km/h sprint time of 4.3s which is quicker than that of an M4 sportscar in fifth gear. Needless to say, overtaking is a breeze.

Enough about the acceleration, what happens when you take your foot off the right pedal? Well, for the uninitiated, regenerative braking comes as a shock to the system.

Lift your foot off the accelerator and regenerative braking engages, decreasing speed and feeding power generated from the brakes to the battery for extra charge.

At first this feels overtly aggressive, but the learning curve is not steep. In fact, if you master it well enough, the i3s can almost be driven completely without the traditional brake pedal.

For some buyers test-driving the i3s, they may be turned off by this feature, but we suggest more time behind the wheel shows how rewarding it can be – particularly when driving range is extended.

Speaking of which, BMW claims the i3s BEV offers 200km of everyday driving range with four occupants on board, the climate control pumping and the radio on. Meanwhile, its REx sibling lasts 130km longer thanks to a 28kW two-cylinder petrol engine that serves to charge the battery on the move.

While it is hard to assess the i3s BEV’s efficiency after such a short drive, it should be noted that it remains best suited to city-based driving or shorter home-to-work commutes.

Until the appropriate EV infrastructure is available in Australia’s regional areas, it will be hard for country drivers to get on board. Yes, range anxiety should not affect most, but it still impacts the few.

In order to the meet the i3s’ sporting brief, BMW included a sports suspension that reduces ride height by 10mm and includes specially designed spring, dampers and anti-roll bars.

The pre-facelift i3 already had a relatively harsh ride prior to these upgrades, so were keen to see what impact they would have. The result? It certainly is sportier, which means it is also harsher than before.

Our test route consisted of fairly unforgiving country roads that were uneven and featured potholes galore, meaning imperfections were noticeably felt. Given the condition of most Australian roads, moments when the ride can be deemed comfortable will likely be fleeting.

While the sports suspension is a necessary components of the i3s’ sporting brief, we are not sure it was the right move considering the vast majority of examples will find themselves in low-speed city traffic day to day.

Nonetheless, steering is typically BMW – precise with a good amount of feel and weight. Fans of the brand will be pleased that its prowess in this area has been shared with the i3s.

Compared to its predecessor, the i3 has redesigned front and rear bumpers, and blacked-out A-pillars and rooflines that create a floating effect. Tip in full-LED lighting for the headlights, daytime running lights, indicators and tail-lights, and you have a fairly substantial exterior update.

We think the i3s looks absolutely stunning in the metal. Its 40mm increase in track width is accentuated by black wheelarches that enhance the sporty, menacing look. Bonus points for examples finished in the new Melbourne Red metallic paint which is an absolute head-turner.

The good news continues on the inside where the i3s’ alternative style commands attention. A mix of eco-friendly finishes are unusual but just plain cool.

There is a real sense of space, too, thanks to the lack of a transmission tunnel for the single-speed automatic.

Nevertheless, the interior is similar proposition to before, save for the addition of BMW’s iDrive6 infotainment system which is projected onto a 10.25-inch display. This set-up has been progressively rolled out to most BMW models and is class-leading in most facets.

Interaction via the rotary dial is intuitive, enhanced by several shortcuts for major functions like media and satellite navigation. However, iDrive6’s party trick is its tile interface that features live content from applications like weather and phone. This is advantageous as the driver can quickly glimpse several pieces of information all at once.

Our suggestion? Forget the REx and opt for the BEV instead. Chances are, if you use the i3s as it’s intended, you will not need the extra range that the range-extender provides. Even better, you get to hold onto $6000 which can be better spent on the long options list.

Is the i3s worth the extra $1200 over the regular i3? Probably. But we will reserve full judgement until we get more time behind the wheel. Until then, BMW has done well in making an old favourite even better. The future of motoring is still exciting.

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