Car reviews - BMW - i3 - REX
Effortless electric performance, design, dynamics, safety, quality, manoeuvrability, REX’s go-anywhere capability, individuality
Room for improvement
Pricey, fat pillars, hard ride on optional 20-inch wheels, annoying suicide doors, lack of rear-window opening, adaptive cruise control fail
26 Jan 2015
Price and equipment
BMW’S award-winning i3 is a car that begs to be experienced to be truly understood.
Offbeat styling, boxy proportions and weirdly skinny tyres do the aesthetics no favours in some punters’ eyes, but for others seeking something genuinely fresh and progressive, the car becomes more beautiful the closer you look.
BMW’s pricing policy is typical of the marque – upmarket and not for everybody, and even arrogant – but the numbers do come into context when you consider the level of technology permeating every single aspect of it.
Two models are available – the $63,900 (plus on-road costs) BEV (Battery Electric Vehicle) and $69,900 REX (Range Extender), tested here.
Both use a 125kW/250Nm electric motor, but the latter adds a 28kW 0.65-litre twin-cylinder petrol engine (from BMW’s Motorrad scooter division) to act as an electricity generator for the 230kg 360V 96-cell lithium-ion battery pack that provides a 21.8kWh output.
But looking beyond the baffling Star Trek-esque tech, which also includes a separate aluminium drivetrain module, carbon-fibre reinforced plastic passenger cell, recycled thermo plastic material body panels, carbon-fibre roof and a specially thinned glass tailgate, the i3 is a four-seater hatchback designed for urban commuting.
Albeit one with a wind-cheating 0.29 Cd figure – astounding for a stubby city slicker.
While not oozing luxury features, both cars include LED lighting, AC rapid charging capability, an occasional use charger cable, automatic climate control, auto-on/off lights and wipers, a rear camera, parking sensors, automatic parking and an acoustic warning for pedestrians.
Also standard is an iDrive controller with a 10.3-inch display screen featuring BMW’s Professional satellite navigation with maximum range routing as part of a full range of Connected Drive services, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, digital radio, 19-inch alloy wheels and a punctured tyre inflation kit. No spare wheel exists.
Options include a bisected sunroof, keyless entry/start, an efficiency enhancing heat pump climate control system, DC rapid charging, LED headlights, up-spec Harmon Kardon audio, 20-inch alloys, and BMW’s Driving Assistant Plus package with lane-departure, forward collision warning, pedestrian warning, adaptive cruise control with stop and go and tyre-pressure monitors. Our test car had almost all of these fitted, and then some, taking the price beyond $80,000.
Note that a smartphone app is also available for charging data, remote heating/air-conditioning control, remote unlocking, and even crowded car-park-finding information.
At four metres long, the i3 is a tad shorter than the new Mazda2 that’s more than four times cheaper, shares the same 2570mm wheelbase length, but is quite a bit wider.
After the oddball design, the first thing you notice are the ‘Coach’ clap-hand/suicide door-opening system, which need the front ones to be open first. There’s no middle pillar so entry and egress is easy, even before folding the front seat forward via an accessible latch. The doors feel BMW-solid.
We’re yet to be as instantly impressed with an interior layout on first viewing as the i3’s. What a knock-out! Our car was fitted with the standard Interior Design Lodge trim – basically Houndstooth-style wool combined with two-tone light leather, and contrasted with blonde Eucalyptus wood inlays. It’s all recycled, lightweight, hardy, elegant, and finished to a degree expected from the brand.
Admittedly some passengers weren’t crazy about the rough and raw appearance of the exposed kenaf plant-fibre extract trim in lieu of normal plastics, but it helps with the i3’s claimed carbon-neutral production ethics.
Horizontal, uncluttered and futuristic, the dash itself is like no other found in a BMW. Divided into four sections, a tablet-style screen is perched high in the centre, ahead of an easy-reach vent and climate cluster with vents below that. Both are controlled by the iDrive knob located on a solid console between the seats, while the pleasingly old-fashioned two-spoke steering wheel and electronic instrumentation screen that sits directly ahead of the driver are both a cinch to operate.
Old car fans: there’s something about the Citroen DS about the whole look of it all. We especially love the simplicity of the twist-action transmission lever, as well as the standard sat-nav system’s remaining range info, shown as a deflating distance bubble on a map. Nice.
Positioned high in a quasi-SUV manner, the front seats are unusually thin and narrow but supportive over long distances (nearly 1500km of highway as well as city and urban testing was undertaken over the Christmas and New Year period) there’s ample room to splay too.
The sunroof combined with the rear-door side windows do wonders making the cabin feel airy, but in darker-trimmed cars we’ve also sampled it’s still a bright and inviting interior anyway.
Out back on the SUV-level two-person theatre-seating row, the reclinable backrests are comfy, though a bit more thigh support in the cushions would be appreciated. There’s no armrest or face-level vents back there either, which can get a bit stifling in our hot summers.
Other bad points include rear doors that can’t be opened until the front ones are, which is a pain for regular rear-seat passenger use. Their windows are fixed, adding to that stuffy feel. The roof-mounted latch can scalp a few heads during entry/exit moves. The front pillars are so thick that they can obscure trucks driving through a roundabout. The rear seat cushion gets worryingly hot after a long trip. And more storage would be handy.
Having said that, an adult’s bicycle can fit without any problem when the rear backrests are folded, though the cargo area isn’t very deep. A summer-break trip down to the coast saw the bike, bedding, clothing, large monitor, food and a heap more week-away holiday paraphernalia fit inside without an issue.
For the record, the boot can hold 260 litres with the rear seats up, increasing to a more respectable 1100L with the 50/50 rear seatbacks folded down.
Engine and transmission
Near silent, effortlessly strong, and remarkably seamless, the modern EV can be one of the most relaxing and calming personal transportation experiences known to mankind.
Driving the i3 is normal in that you press on the pedal and it moves forward – as slow or rapid as you like. Nothing strange or foreign here, except for a turbine-like whoosh. There’s very little noise, though you do become more aware of the slight wind rustle by the mirrors and varying volumes of tyre noise emanating from behind, depending on surface.
Normal, that is, until you throttle off. A strong regenerative braking system immediately slows the car the instant the right foot lifts off the pedal.
Working like an old-fashioned bicycle dynamo, it helps maximise possible range by ‘creating’ electricity via the otherwise-lost kinetic energy harnessed when braking it might be a little disconcerting since it feels like you’re driving with the handbrake on.
But then you learn to use it as a regular brake without needing to operate the middle pedal except in more sudden stop scenarios. The Germans reckon ‘throttle offing’ takes care of about 80 per cent of braking needs.
Being a BMW, the i3 adds a healthy dash of athleticism to the mix, with a 7.7-second sprint-time to 100km/h being achievable, on the way to a 150km/h top speed. It can also take just 4.9 seconds to accelerate from 80 to 120km/h, equalling a 435i coupe.
There are three performance modes – default Comfort (sporty), ECO Pro (limiting top speed to 110km/h but adding about 20km of range) or ECO Pro Plus (pegged at 90km/h and minimum-input heating/air-conditioning, among other economy-enhancing ploys, but adding a few more available kilometres). The last two feel slower but can be overridden easily for maximum boost.
Since it weighs 120kg less, the BEV is about 0.5s quicker than the REX, but then the latter will not run out of charge after about 120km of driving due to its 0.65L generator. Taking nine litres of premium unleaded, it will return 0.6L/100km for a 300km range potential.
BMW says the i3’s official electricity consumption is 12.9kWh/100km, which equals to about $3.90 of Green Energy per 100km in Australia. Charging from a regular 10-amp outlet takes about 11 hours, or about half that with a 16-amp supply. There are also 7.4kW 32A Rapid charger options available to cut that time again.
It’s worth remembering that when the electricity is close to running out – at say 10km of range left – the little generator engine located in a dedicated space beside the EV motor beneath the boot floor can sound a bit like a distant lawn mower – one that’s drowned out by other noises above about 75km/h, thankfully.
A setting in the iDrive system can turn it on or off from 75 per cent charge or less, to maintain the state of charge for as long as possible. Under load it can sound quite loud from the back seat.
Ride and handling
With a city-friendly 2.5 turns lock to lock and a 9.9-metre turning circle, the i3 is meant to feel agile, darty and utterly manoeuvrable around town.
It can also corner with steady and planted confidence over mountain roads, while the rear-engine and rear-drive REX also delivers beautifully talkative (electric) steering response. There is no doubt about it – the i3 is a properly dynamic and involving BMW.
It is pretty difficult to unsettle the car, though the initial sharpness of the helm might catch novices unaware the electronic safety systems are so well calibrated there is no real feeling of becoming unstuck. Weight distribution is 44/56 front/rear in the REX.
However, the ride is too firm at times on the optional 20-inch wheels on the REX. OK on smooth roads, the suspension pounds its occupants over rougher stuff, and throws in a dull drone to boot. We strongly recommend potential buyers stick with the standard set-up consisting of 19-inch 155/70-front and 175/60-rear rubber.
Maybe it was the sudden jarring road on our uneven highways that sent the optional adaptive cruise control system into a frenzy, shutting it down completely after a couple of unintentional panic braking stops. BMW clearly needs to work on that one more, especially for our unique road conditions.
The automatic parking system is simply the best we’ve ever used, steering, accelerating and braking the i3 into tight spots without the fails regularly experienced with other lesser systems.
Finally, a heavy load betrays the lack of road clearance. Be wary of those big speed humps.
Safety and servicing
The i3 has only earned a four-star crash safety rating from the independent European New Car Assessment Program, due to mediocre side-impact and pedestrian-impact results – is it due to the Coach Door set-up?The reality is though it has a full suite of active and passive safety gear, as well as the optional driver-assist tech for $2200.
There is no fixed-price servicing regime for this car. However owners can opt for BMW’s special ‘i service’ servicing scheme with the i3, requiring a one-off advance payment. It is available in five different packages, from three-year/40,00km to five-year/100,000 km schedules (whichever occurs first) and covers the car's scheduled servicing requirements.
There is also the BMW i Service Inclusive Plus, which in addition to scheduled servicing also covers maintenance items such as brake pads, brake discs and windscreen wiper blade rubbers.
There’s a lot to take in with the i3, but then, EV motoring was never going to be as straight forward as settling for an internal combustion engined car.
That the BMW lives up to the badge in so many ways, while providing a near zero-emissions urban transportation solution, shows how successful a concept the i3 is.
It’s not for everybody, granted, but the few who take a punt are in for a massive treat. If you’re in the market for something different and special, please take the time to check this out.
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