BMW’s eccentric and excellent electric city car just got even more fun to drive
The BMW i3 has been somewhat polarising since its debut, with big-wheeled, fantastical mobility-pod styling and a luxury-spec price tag. There’s a lot to love about a sporty, high-design, rear-drive, electric vehicle with a BMW badge, but the romance has seemingly been aimed at a very small slice of the EV-buy pie.
With the new BMW i3s – unapologetically aimed at a more “sportiv” audience – the slice would seem to get smaller, but the bite more delicious.
Before we get to the driving pleasure portion, let me say that the whole i3 model line will be better this year than before, because all trims, i3s included, get the once-optional 33.2 kWh, lithium-ion battery pack. That means that the pure electric i3 will have a real-world range of about 124 miles; the plug-in hybrid version with the 650cc two-cylinder petrol engine that functions as a generator for the batteries, gets a range of over 186 miles before you'll have to refill its tiny 9-litre tank. Both more than enough to deal with even city-spec commuting.
BMW specs 80-percent charge times that range from under 40 minutes (on 50-Kilowatt DC fast charging) to 11 hours (on a standard three-pin socket), depending on setup. The company’s preferred situation would be to install the “i Charging Station” in your home, which can deliver 90 miles of range in under three hours (11-kW / 16 amps). Pretty good.
The i3s definitely looks meaner than the standard i3. With those massive wheels and the body sitting lower (by 10 mm), the i3s is more aggro than the car it replaces. I doubt the visual tweaks will turn it into an overnight style icon – my wife still thinks it’s the dorkiest car I’ve ever driven – but you’re not going to miss one going down the road.
Where the sheetmetal has observers split, I have yet to hear a poor report from anyone’s first foray into the interior. My test car was trimmed in a demure black and dark brown colourway, with fabrics and surfacing that remind me of one of a high-end modernist luggage line. Recycled plastics, big-weave fabrics, and flat/matte colours abound, all while the bent-wood dash dominates the Scandinavian-feel space. With the added advantages of huge space and lots of light, this remains one of my favourite car-interior experience, in the BMW portfolio and anywhere else.
Plus, you can actually sit two adults in the back, albeit at the risk of some awkward logistical door opening, as you can't open or close the rear-hinged back doors unless the front door is also open.
You’re paying for that high design, naturally. The i3s EV starts at £36,975 before options or government grants, while the plug-in model costs £40,125. Factor in those grants and, as the legislation stands on the cusp of 2018, you'd get £4500 off either model.
This is far from basic electric transportation, and really not bad value considering things like the great iDrive 6 infotainment system, and carbon-fibre heavy construction. But even the standard i3 - at £34k before the grant - still requires a vastly bigger budget than cars like the Nissan Leaf or Renault Zoe, if all you want is an electric car.
How does it drive?
Of course, the conceit of the i3s is that it’s also quite entertaining to pilot, in addition to being a rational commuter car for city dwellers. And naturally, we’re already used to the thrills on offer from the combination of rear-drive and instant-on electric torque. But that “s” on the end of the model name also means more power – now 181bhp and 199 lb ft of torque – and wider rubber to deliver it to the road. Don’t mistake that last bit; the 175mm front and 195mm rear rubber on 20-inch rolling stock is still skinnier than your average hatchback. But it helps in getting the 0-62mph time down to a very respectable 6.9 seconds
That gap-shooting torque is exactly what the situation calls for, in the very unique drive BMW arranged for us in Lisbon. Rather than head out of town and towards winding roads, the route planners doubled down on the insanity that is driving in a 1200-year-old city.
Here, the light-switch quick acceleration proved quite handy in dicing with notoriously aggressive Portuguese drivers, bit it was the size (specifically width) of the i3 that I found most useful. Many of the streets I careened down turned from boulevards, to lanes, to friggin’ donkey paths in a matter of blocks. With pedestrians wandering around, and locals parked half in the street and half on the sidewalk, anything much wider than the i3’s 178cm would have gotten us waylaid half a dozen times, or more.
I was also impressed by the ride quality on those oversized wheels, and Lisbon’s rocky version of a cobblestone street. Sure, I could feel the bumps and cracks that characterised most of the city route, but they weren’t so jarring as to make me want to take a break (or slow down). The suspension in the i3s has been optimised for a little bit of hooliganism, but it’s good to know it hasn’t become bone-crushingly stiff in the process.
BMW has also included a “traction” setting for the multi-mode traction control, which allows the i3s to get slightly more playful than the standard version. Frankly, on the road drive portion of this event, I wasn’t cornering with a lot of opposite lock to test out just how loose she’ll get. But the organisers were kind enough to set up a short autocross course to demonstrate the system, along with overall nippiness, so I can report that one can indeed wag the EV’s tail.
My guess is that most i3s owners won’t take advantage of this broader envelope of operation, but there’s more to recommend the variant as the i3 to have, than just power and traction control.
Should I buy one?
There are going to be more folks that will love the basic EV premise of the already entertaining standard i3 than will probably require the up-tick in sportiness that the i3s adds. Still, in a world where electric vehicles are becoming more mainstream and simply better to drive, we're happy to applaud this advent as further proof that enthusiasts can find a hell of a kick in the brave new electric world.