BMW i3 has proved to be a successful first stab at the all-electric vehicle market for its Munich maker and since the original 2013 launch, the Munich maker hasn't stopped trying to improve it. In 2016, the original 60Ah version was replaced with a 94Ah variant that boosted this model's all-electric operating range to over 200 miles. A year later, BMW gave the styling a minor refresh and added a slightly pokier i3s derivative into the range to create the model line-up we're going to look at here. For all buyers, the option remains on both variants to add in a small 'Range Extender' petrol engine to further boost operating mileage. The result of all these improvements is a car that's now even harder to ignore in this growing segment.
As you might expect from a BMW product, the i3 doesn't want for go. The electric motor is mounted low down within the rear axle which helps to keep a low centre of gravity and also to improve crashworthiness. The power unit weighs just 130kg and produces 170bhp in standard form, which means that the i3's power to weight ration of 141bhp per tonne is just 5bhp per tonne shy of a Honda Civic Type R hot hatch. If you're interested in a comparison of that sort, you'll be interested in the slightly pokier i3s variant, where the electric motor's power output is boosted to 184bhp, plus there's sports suspension with specially developed springs, dampers and anti-roll bars.
Whatever i3 variant you choose, as with all electric vehicles, a decisive advantage comes in its amount of torque. In a typical city scoot such as, say, a 1.2-litre Fiat 500, you can count on 102Nm of torque, but this BMW generates a hefty 250Nm of muscle in its standard form (or 270Nm in 'i3s' guise), offering instant urge with all that torque available from idle. It's sent to the rear wheels via a single-ratio gearbox that offers the choice of three driving modes: Comfort, Eco Pro and Eco Pro+. The i3s has an extra 'Sport' setting.
This translates to a car that's certainly not slow off the mark. The standard model will get from standstill to 37mph in 3.8sec and to 62mph in 7.3sec (or 6.9s for the i3s). Either way, any Toyota GT-86 sportscar drivers will have a very hard time keeping pace with an i3. The top speed is limited to 93mph in the standard model or 99mph in the i3s. Extremely direct steering, a low centre of gravity, a clever DSC stability control system and lightweight body structures add up to very focused driving characteristics. BMW has engineered in a little body roll, largely to clue drivers in to where the limits of those narrow tyres are, but this remains a car you can enjoy hustling along. Go for the 'Range Extender' version of this car, as is possible with either i3 or i3s variants, and a tiny 650cc two-cylinder petrol engine is added to cut in once the battery power is spent.
Think of the i3 as a car in two halves. The bottom half is almost all aluminium, the upper half almost all carbon fibre. Armed with this information, you can rightly surmise that it doesn't weigh very much. Even with the weight of all those batteries - some 230kg comprised of 96 individual cells kept at an optimum 20deg Centigrade by their own air conditioning unit - the i3 only tips the scales at 1,195kg. Compare that to the 1,395kg of the entry-level petrol-powered Mercedes-Benz B Class and you'll appreciate the lengths BMW have gone to keep weight low and efficiency high.
The styling is determinedly modern, with the kidney grille being the key BMW styling signature. The black hood, roof and glazed hatch will be characteristic features for future BMW 'i' cars. Adaptive LEDs headlights and floating LED tail lights are standard. The lowered belt line in the rear and absence of a "B" pillar improves visibility, while the rear "coach" doors make entry easier.
As for changes made to this revised model, well there aren't many. The trademark BMW i Black Belt running from the bonnet over the roof to the car's rear end is now complemented by A-pillars and roof lines that also sport a black finish. The front and rear aprons have been restyled and a smart chrome design strip now runs across the full width of the rear end. On the sporty i3s variant, there's a roof line accent with a high-gloss black finish and a rear apron composed of individually styled contours with a black surround frame featuring an extra-wide, body-coloured inlay.
As before, the i3 really isn't a very big car, measuring just 3,999mm long, which is only a tad longer than a Ford Fiesta. Despite that, thanks to the flat floor, the thin seats and the low window line, the cabin feels surprisingly roomy. The instrument cluster and Control Display comprise two screens, one behind the steering wheel and the other at the top of the centre console.
Interior materials are eco-orientated, with the dashboard and door cards made from dried grass fibres from the kenaf plant and eucalyptus wood being optional. The boot measures 260-litres but fold the rear seats and you get up to 1,100-litres. Expect that capacity to drop if you choose the range-extender motor. This is a modified version of the 650cc two-cylinder petrol engine used in the company's CT650 GT maxi-scooter, with a nine-litre fuel tank ahead of the front seats.
We said electric cars were going to get better: here's a great example of just how. BMW's i3 was already a very good product. Now, it makes more sense than ever. As before, this model is unashamedly high-end - you only need to look at the materials it's built from to appreciate that - but as a result, it's leagues more exotic than a conventionally-powered rival with a premium badge. Indeed, its carbon fibre and aluminium construction lends it a technical sheen of cool that's quite different to the usual electric vehicle proposition, which all too often gives off the distinctive whiff of anorak.
Costing around £2 to charge, with a real-world range of up to around 150 miles on batteries alone, the i3 will work for many suburban commuters looking for something stylish and a bit different to the norm. One day electric vehicles will be cool rather than nerdy and if that happens, we think the i3 will be seen to be the car that started that progression.Click here to find out more about our BMW i3 range