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Car reviews - BMW - i3 - range

Our Opinion

We like
Breathtaking boldness, vision and execution, brilliant steering, commendable environmental credentials
Room for improvement
Expensive, not quite as refined as you’d hope from a BMW


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13 Nov 2014

CITROEN Traction Avant. Lancia Aprilia. Citroen DS. Morris Mini. Volkswagen Golf. Toyota Prius.

In over a century’s worth of motoring highs and lows, the number of true revolutionaries is small. Does the all-new BMW i3 have what it takes to join them?Sharing nothing with BMWs past or present except for premium pricing, precision engineering, a few cabin fittings and a scooter engine in the range extender version, the dedicated electric car from Bavaria is more of a gale force than a mere breath of fresh air, and not just because of its low-to-zero emissions.

From an aesthetic point of view, the i3 is like nothing on the road, offering unusual proportions and interesting, playful lines within an urban-friendly footprint designed to maximise efficiency. On the road it looks like one of the concept cars from the movie Gattaca.

Open the love-or-hate suicide doors and the sci-fi themes continue inside – albeit with a focussed green tinge.

Recycled materials abound, from the lightweight seats and exposed kenaf plant-fibre extract in place of the regular plastics used in normal vehicles to the Eucalyptus wood trimming the dash and other areas.

The airy cabin has been created to work as an urban mobility capsule, so there’s ample space for four people. Seating is BMW X3-high, aiding vision along with the deep side windows (though the base of the A-pillars are fat enough to hide whole cars through roundabouts), while most switches and controls are within easy reach, storage is generous and the luggage area is large enough to be considered practical.

And even though the column-mounted gear lever is like nothing you’ve ever likely used before, it works with exceptional ease the same goes for the BMW iDrive interface, and the standard sat-nav system will show you how far the remaining electricity will take you on a map. Clever.

Plus the wood, cloth and leather upholstery combo (called Lodge in BMW-speak) is both stylish and distinctive.

Niggles do abound though. Why did the Germans choose the clap-hand door arrangement that necessitates two be open to let rear-seat passengers out? Of more concern is the firm ride on the standard 19-inch alloys, escalating to busy and noisy if you choose the 20-inch option.

This is a city car where smooth roads are never that way for long. And why won’t the rear side windows open?Still, while form does follow function in the i3, you’d never know it by the sheer classy look of it all. It totally exceeded our expectations, imparting a quality look and feel despite the high use of recyclable materials. Some 25 per cent of it is renewable or recyclable.

Two rear-mounted drivetrains are offered – the BEV (Battery Electric Vehicle) and REX (Range Extender) – the latter with a 650cc twin from BMW’s Motorrad motorcycle division. And being electrified, the 125kW power delivery to the rear axle is near-silent, ultra smooth and, of course, naturally linear.

The BEV is obviously the purer (and 120kg lighter) eco solution, though both models’ rear wheels are always driven by the electric motor. Anyway, in either case, the full 250Nm torque amount is available from the instant the accelerator is prodded, so the i3 will leap off the line with an immediacy that leaves a lasting impression.

Up to about 120km/h, the performance remains strong and seamless in its delivery to the rear wheels, living up to brand expectations. Three modes are available – Comfort (normal), Eco Pro (economy focussed) and Eco Pro+ (ultra economical), with a progressive cutting of electricity-sapping devices such as maximum air-con and full throttle availability.

BMW reckons that although the vast majority of buyers’ daily commuting needs will be met within the 130-160km BEV range, up to 80 per cent will choose the REX for the peace of mind that its 300km between top-ups provide.

Living in a dedicated space beside the EV motor beneath the boot floor, the REX kicks in to help keep the battery charged it’s a curious thing, since you can’t really hear it above about 75km/h unless you really cock an ear, due to (normal) wind and (somewhat higher) road noise levels drowning it out.

Below that speed the REX sounds like the generator it is, beavering away in the background to charge the lithium-ion battery pack as required. It does sound a bit like a two-stroke mower when the i3 is almost out of charge, though.

Note also there is a strong regenerative braking system that, just like an old-fashioned dynamo on a bike, immediately slows the i3 down the instant you take your foot off the pedal. This helps eek out maximum possible range, but for some people it is a bit off-putting since it feels like you’re driving with the park brake left on. BMW says driving with just the throttle takes care about 80 per cent of braking needs.

That certainly makes sense from a dynamic point of view as well, for the i3 steers better than virtually every current BMW.

With the front axle free of any engine weight, the helm delivers instant and crisp responses from the first corner. Unlike in most of its Bavarian stablemates, there’s complete and unadulterated feel, connecting the car to driver in a delightfully keen way.

Better still, the lighter BEV is even sharper, with a small but noticeable agility advantage plus the benefit of a slightly more compliant ride thrown in.

This, we feel, is the crux of the i3’s achievements. It is an EV for eco-minded driving enthusiasts, yet speaks to buyers who seek progressive design, intelligent packaging and – yes – like to make a bold green statement.

At $63,900 it is just $4000 more than the conceptually similar but far more conventional Holden Volt, but the underrated Nissan Leaf EV is nearly $25K less. All are cheaper but none feel as progressive or as special as the BMW.

Still, that’s a massive premium to pay and for most people it’s too much money.

But that doesn’t stop the i3 being a great leap forward for the EV. We can easily see DS and (original) Mini owners aspiring to one.

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