2017 BMW i3 94Ah review: Long-term report one - introduction

The BMW i3 94Ah brings an important update to the electric hatch's driving range, but is it enough to put 'range anxiety' to bed? Over the course of this long-term report, we'll explore that question - and so much more.

When I picked up the new 2017 BMW i3 94Ah from the company's Australian head office in the Melbourne suburb of Mulgrave, I had a moment of panic.

"The wall charger – we were going to put it in the back of the i3 for you, but it won't fit," BMW communications staffer, Erin, told me as she handed over the slim cartridge-like key fob.

"So we'll have it delivered this week, and then arrange installation."

Delivered, sometime this week? And then wait for installation? Yikes. I hadn't even left the building yet and the dreaded 'range anxiety' was upon me.

With a brave face, I soldiered on. And, with 200 kilometres of indicated driving range showing on one of the $65,900 electric hatch's two display screens, the 25-kilometre drive home would hardly tax the thing. Hell, I could even run the air con with the windows down. (Wouldn't be very 'green' of me, though…)

Over the next few days, I discovered that range anxiety – the idea that you'll spend all your time worrying you won't make it to your destination or a charger – doesn't need to be a bother. If you're not commuting from country Victoria to the Melbourne CBD via Adelaide, you'll rarely need to even think about the range.

But, more on that in a later report. Let me tell you about the i3 94Ah 'Battery Electric Vehicle' (BEV), an upgrade on the original 60Ah model – which continues to be offered, known simply and smartly as the i3.

Firstly, it has a silly name. It's derived, you guessed it, from the car's 94 ampere-hours battery pack. If you're wondering how that compares with the more commonly specified 'kilowatt hour', you're looking at a 33kWh battery pack.

Speaking of silly names, we've dubbed our long-term i3 94Ah BEV, "Beverly". Creative!

The basics: the i3 is driven by a rear-mounted 360V DC electric motor, producing 125kW of power and 250Nm of torque. Power is sent to the rear wheels through a single-speed transmission, and BMW says it's good for a 0-100km/h sprint time of 7.3 seconds. The i3 94Ah weighs in at 1245kg – up from the regular i3's 1195kg.

Charging the 94Ah model takes 14 hours from empty to 80 per cent (the usable maximum) with the supplied occasional-use charger, while the BMW i Wallbox reduces that to eight hours. But, skip out to a ChargePoint location – the cost of which is included with your i3 purchase – and you'll be done inside four hours.

Each charging option means advance planning and some thought, but only on days when you expect to do a good deal more than the usual A-to-B driving. Worried about an unexpected rush to the border? Well, how prepared you should be for that situation, is your call.

If you suspect the BEV model's range just isn't going to satisfy, or you don't want to wait around for a charge to finish, there is also the option of a petrol-powered two-cylinder 650cc Range Extender (REx) engine with each model. Its nine-litre tank increases range in the i3 to 300 kilometres and, in the 94Ah variant, to 390 kilometres.

Admirably, BMW freely admits that in the real world – where one is likely to use the air conditioning and might spend a good amount of time on the highway – driving range in the 94Ah models stands closer to 200 and 330 kilometres, respectively. In our i3 94Ah, range is listed as "up to" 245 kilometres.

Beyond the basics, the i3 represents an interesting commitment to producing an electric vehicle that not only runs clean, but is built clean. For example, the German plant where the i3 is made draws its power exclusively from four huge wind turbines. Building the car, BMW says, uses around 50 per cent less energy and around 70 per cent less water than its more conventional models.

Inside the car itself, around 80 per cent of its extensive aluminium use is either recycled or produced with renewable energy. The door trim panels and dashboard are made from renewable natural fibres – kept visible for effect – and the dash features a large section of open-pore eucalyptus wood "sourced from 100 per cent Forest Stewardship Council-certified forestry".

Some 25 per cent of the interior components are of recycled plastic and renewable raw materials. Even the upholsteries are made entirely of recycled polyester, while the leather pieces are naturally tanned. Woven wool is also featured, making up about 40 per cent of the seat cover materials.

Perhaps its greatest feature, though, is that up to 95 per cent of the i3 can be recycled or repurposed at the end of its life, including the ability to give the batteries new life as part of a home energy storage system.

Beneath and around all of this is BMW's 'Life' module, a carbon-fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) architecture that reduces the vehicle's weight by 350kg when compared to a steel structure of the same design – again making for an overall more efficient package.

As for styling, and as with most EVs, the i3 was designed to make a statement. The thinking goes that if you own an electric car, you're an early adopter and you probably want the fact to stand out.

Launched in 2013 (locally in late 2014), seemingly a lifetime ago when it comes to EVs, the i3 embodies that concept. It's tall and narrow in appearance, with bulbous bumpers at both ends and a bizarre rear passenger window design – ostensibly for greater visibility but nonetheless another example of the i3's statement styling. Oh, and the rear doors are rear-hinged, making access easier – but not in all situations, as we'll cover in a later instalment.

Those ultra-narrow 19-inch pizza-cutter wheels add to the quirky vibes, but, as with other aspects of this super-green hatch, their low-rolling-resistance design plays its part in making the car as efficient as possible.

The introduction of the 94Ah model can be considered a mid-life update for the i3, but, unlike most mid-life updates, this one has brought just about no styling changes. Even for BMW, that's unusual. And, depending on who you ask, that can be attributed in some part to internal pressure on cutting costs in the 'BMW i' division.

Again, little has changed about the i3's interior styling, but if the general reception in the CarAdvice office is anything to go by, that's not likely to bother many. This is one cool cabin, properly futuristic in look and thoughtful in its production.

Get past the look, though, and it's all fairly standard BMW. The air-conditioning and other switches will be immediately familiar to anybody who has driven another of the company's models, and the control systems are likewise similar. Except, of course, for that column-mounted, chunky and weirdly reversed rocker-style gear shifter.

Standard features in the i3 94Ah includes exterior LED lighting, a 10.2-inch main display and a smaller 5.7-inch instrument cluster display, Parking Assistant and rear-view camera, Navigation System 'Professional' (including traffic condition overlays), and DAB+ digital radio.

BMW's renowned iDrive infotainment system is on-board, offering all the usual control screens and a few additional ones unique to the brand's electrified models. The system runs on the larger main display in the centre of the dash, with a smaller screen set behind the steering wheel working as the instrument cluster.

The iDrive system is accompanied by the i ConnectedDrive environment, which allows iPhone and Android users to connect to the vehicle remotely for a view of its battery charge status, the vehicle's location and the location of charging stations, and the ability to remotely lock or unlock the vehicle.

Options fitted to Beverly include the 19-inch 'Turbine' wheel designs (a no-cost option) and the Innovations Package ($2700), which adds the Comfort Access System, LED headlights and Driving Assistant Plus – which we'll cover in greater detail in a later instalment.

The last option, again at no additional cost, is the 'Loft' interior theme, which includes a Carum Spice Grey finish to the instrument panel, combination Cloth/Sensatec (BMW's name for the vinyl it uses) Carum Spice Grey upholstery with an 'Electronic' pattern, and – you guessed it – a Carum Spice Grey finish to the roofliner and steering wheel (with a bright blue contrast ring). A 'Fine-Wood Oak Dark matt' trim also features in the cabin, again a no-cost option.

The i3 gets a three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, but there's an eight-year warranty on the battery system alone, which includes an additional 100,000km applied when the first three years of the new-vehicle warranty are up.

Interestingly, BMW has yet to confirm a specific plan for replacing battery packs beyond the eight-year warranty period.

Speaking with CarAdvice, BMW Australia product communications manager, Adam Davis, said that even the oldest local i3 cars are only two years into their warranty period, "so it's six years before purchasers would need to consider this eventuality".

"Therefore it is difficult for us to price up any post-warranty battery requirements, thanks to the rate of change in battery technology and associated costs. It is something we are aware of and will have solutions in place before this timing is up.

"At this stage we can replace cells within the battery [locally] and Europe can swap out the whole unit, however no warranty claims have been made in Australia to date."

What else is out there, apart from the i3? Well, elsewhere in the tiny local EV market, you'll find a 24kWh battery in the $46,990 Nissan leaf, with a 120-kilometre range (overseas markets recently got an upgrade to 30kWh and 172km).

The bigger and pricier $100,800 Tesla Model S features a 60kWh battery pack (well, it's actually a software-limited 75kWh pack) at the entry end, with a 400-kilometre range.

Apples to apples? Not really. There's a lot to consider, but in simple terms, the i3 isn't likely to be cross-shopped with either of those offerings.

We'll consider the i3's purpose and value, testing it as a day-to-day commuter in an inner-Melbourne setting but also – in my own case – its ability to ferry me to and from the outer suburbs of Melbourne without leaving me in a panic over whether I'll make it.

Of course, we'll be tracking the day-to-day energy consumption to see just how far it goes versus how much those trips take out.

The i3 isn't a cheap little unit, so we'll explore whether it's a super-pricey hatch for childless families and downsizers, or whether it can serve as a proper family hauler and load lugger. Can it fit much? Does carrying a family and their belongs sap the i3's energy dramatically faster? We'll see.

And, to ensure these aren't simply the views of biased revhead motoring journos, we'll be sharing the i3 around the CarAdvice Melbourne office, giving our IT, sales, marketing and executive branches – a far more 'conventional' breed of human – an opportunity to have their say.

If there's anything in particular you'd like to know or have us focus on more closely, let us know in the comments below.

Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.