So, you may or may not know about BMW’s quirky i3 – a full-electric city-size hatchback with unusual styling, a cool fit-out and clever space packaging inside.
It’s been turning heads since its official launch in 2014, and a popular choice with the entire test team at CarAdvice whenever we’ve had one in the garage. It’s also guaranteed to put a smile on your face whenever you arrive at a set of traffic lights.
It’s like you’ve scored pole position on the grid every time you pull up, such is its propensity to scald more powerful cars off the line. The entire spectacle, along with the i3’s unique styling, tends to leave the driver next to you utterly gobsmacked, regardless of what they happen to be driving – AMGs included.
It’s been selling pretty well, too. In October, after four consecutive years of growth, total i3 sales climbed above 100,000 units, representing more than half the number of BMW electrified vehicles currently on the road.
And there are more on the way, too, with BMW CEO Harald Krüger this week confirming the group’s plan to offer 25 electrified models, including 12 pure EVs vehicles, by 2025.
Only now they’ve added a new performance model to the range – the i3s, with a tad more juice, better handling and a tougher stance.
Rather than make do with 125kW of power and 250Nm of torque, the new souped-up version bumps those numbers to 135kW and 270Nm. And while that might not seem like much, it’s enough to go from standstill to 100km/h in 6.9 seconds compared with 7.3 seconds for the regular model.
You can still get both variants with a range extender, which adds a tiny two-cylinder petrol motor and a nine-litre fuel tank to the mix – meaning it’s a bit heavier, so performance dips to 7.7 seconds, though fuel consumption claims of 0.7L/100km are still mind-blowing, as is an everyday range of 330 kays.
Just quietly, we’ve never thought of the old model as a tardy bit of kit. Quite the opposite, in fact. Those traffic-light drags always resulted in a victory – convincingly, too. Even sports cars were no much for the i3’s torque-rich launches from absolutely zero RPM.
But perhaps the more important set of numbers is the i3s’s 0–60km/h claim of a nippy 3.4 seconds – far more relevant to most of us here in Oz. And for those believing motorway travel is off-limits for Beemer’s neat little EV, how does a top speed of 160km/h sound? And happily confirmed, we might add.
Things are no less exciting inside. The i3 has always been interesting, if not impressive. It’s a fashionable blend of eco-friendly fabrics and naturally prepared bamboo with the very latest in technology.
Standard kit in the new model includes a 10.2-inch iDrive touchscreen atop the centre console, DAB digital radio, satellite navigation along with a four-speaker system, plus a suite of the latest active safety systems too, such as speed-limit info, forward-collision warning and adaptive cruise.
Oddly enough, the part leather, part fabric pews, which are beautifully contoured and very comfortable, are manually adjustable only. You can’t even option electric versions, which is all down to BMW’s weight-saving philosophy for its ‘i’ range.
But then you can also option the Comfort Package, which adds keyless go, seat heating and a 12-speaker audio system that replaces the standard four-speaker unit. For that alone it’s worth the two-grand asking price. Oh, and you also get full leather trim.
The dash layout is clean and simple, with just two large floating screens taking care of infotainment and trip information including a large digital speed read-out.
And given its compact stature, the cabin is remarkably spacious. We spent time in both seat rows, and were once again surprised by the amount of head, leg and shoulder room in the car.
The boot is a bit small, though. It managed to swallow two hard-cased cabin bags and not much else that filled its 260-litre capacity behind the rear seats. But these fold almost dead flat, expanding load space to a creditable 1100L.
Keen observers will notice the more aggressive bumpers, lower ride height and bigger wheels, but otherwise it all looks pretty familiar. The lighting is now exclusively LED lit, including headlamps, high beam and indicators. Overall, it’s a look that’s definitely matured, albeit slightly.
Not having driven an i3 for at least six months, it took a minute or two to familiarise oneself with the main control unit, which thankfully is just one stocky little stalk on the right side of the steering column. From there, you have a start/stop button and the simple-to-use gear selector. There’s also a Park button.
Naturally, there’s no noise as you pull away, at least from an engine, though there’s a fair bit of road noise. The good news is the i3s's petite dimensions made for stress-free progress through Lisbon’s sprawling maze of narrow cobblestone streets and even narrower one-way lanes.
Several times the pre-programmed sat-nav routes played havoc with real-world conditions, but the impact was lessened by a brilliantly tight turning circle of 10.31m getting us out of a real pickle on one such occasion.
To sharpen up its handling, the i3s gets wider tyres all round, in line with bigger wheels – up from 155/70 to 175/70 up front, and from 175/70 to 195/70s down back. The rear track is wider, too, by 40mm to give the car a slightly more masculine look.
Even in the default Drive mode, the i3s is quick off the line, though the throttle seems a tad doughy and requiring a decent boot-in approach for more rapid acceleration. Flick the switch to Sport and throttle response is in a different league – now this is good fun. Finding those gaps in the traffic just got a lot easier with an EV that feels much more alive.
The really big improvement, though, comes with much improved body control. The chassis is tight and well composed, but the ride is noticeably firmer, yet not annoyingly so. There’s still sufficient compliance in the stiffer springs and damper settings to effectively deal with those cobblestones.
The good news comes as we really start to lean on it across some fairly average backroads on our way to Estoril race circuit. Not to track it mind you, just to complete a road loop. The engineers have designed a new drive-slip control system that provides better traction when accelerating and decelerating, which you’re definitely aware of.
It now feels like an EV you can have some real fun with. You’re still aware of the relatively narrow rubber footprint, despite the upgrade, but the steering weight and feedback make for a more communicative driving experience. And it doesn’t feel wrong doing it, either.
But open it up on the motorway, and at 130km/h-plus the battery charge takes a hammering, physically draining in front of our very eyes, but at least you know it's capable on the motorways.
For those buyers bent on owning the full-electric i3s, there are a couple of charging options. For an 80 per cent top-up from a standard domestic power socket, you’ll need to set aside 11 hours.
The smarter way, though, is to install the latest version of BMW’s i-Wallbox, and with an optimised charging cable the charge time shrinks to just under three hours for a range of around 180km.
Pricing has barely nudged for the latest BMW i3 models, just $600 for both regular and Range Extender versions, while the i3s tested has by just $1200 but includes substantially more kit.
I suppose the environmentally conscious could mount a strong case against the need for a sportier edition of the i3, but the fact is it adds a bit of soul and more fun to the model range. It also might be enough to convince more of us to ditch the internal combustion engine completely. I guess only time will tell.
Do you buy the pure EV version or the Range Extender?
The new i3 and i3s will be in local showrooms from January 2018, and unlike Tesla I suspect there will be no production hold-ups.