It's quirky, bold and fully electric. But is the BMW i3s able to survive a week of commuting without a charge?
The BMW i3 has always been a bit of an oddball. Now in post-facelift (or LCI) guise, the likeable electric runabout has been given a makeover. With a wider track, bigger wheels and lower suspension – not to mention its red-and-black paint – it still turns heads.
Even after a facelift, there are a few questions still hanging over its head, mostly in the form of range anxiety. Is 200km of range enough for the average weekly commute? And is the i3 suited to a sporty makeover?
To try and answer them, we charged the car to 100 per cent and, rather than topping up during the week, tossed the cable aside. My commute is 20km each way, or a 40km round trip, and the plan was to drive Monday night until Friday morning without topping up.
BMW claims a 200-kilometre real world (around 80km less than the NEDC) range, and my total week of driving is around 160km. Keen mathematicians will note the 40km discrepancy there.
First, good spotting! Secondly, there's no guarantee a car will actually match its claimed range, as anyone who's tried to beat the sticker on their windscreen will know.
Our idea was to conduct a lazy commuter's real-world range test. Forget lab coats, the i3 would be subjected to mixed loads, a heavy right foot and all the heated-seat goodness you could want. Monday night to Friday morning, no charging allowed.
A few things become clear the second you lay eyes upon the i3s – for one, it's still utterly unique. BMW has sold more than 100,000 units worldwide since its launch four years ago, and the car represents more than half the electrified Bimmers on the road, but they're not common.
Whether you like the rambling window line, stubby nose and Transformer-meets-cockroach profile is subjective, but as a way to get people talking, it's a home run. I happen to really like it by the way, especially in red and black.
If punters aren't talking about the i3s when it arrives, they'll be talking when you hum away at warp speed. Well, maybe not warp speed, but 0–100km/h in 6.9 seconds and 60km/h in just 3.4 seconds is nothing to be sniffed at. Unless you're facing a particularly determined opponent, it's tough to beat in a traffic-light drag.
Of course, the (all-important) traffic light grand prix isn't the focus of our challenge. Having started my Monday night commute with 215km of claimed range in Eco Pro mode, I arrived home with 200km remaining – 20km of driving down, 15km consumed.
Except the car didn't consume 15km of range the night before, because the on-board readout was showing just 195km on start-up on Tuesday morning, and 177km upon arrival at the office. Although the little BMW didn't look likely to run out, there's something unnerving about losing charge without driving.
Tuesday night started with 173km showing, and ended with 160km. Impressive, given there were four people on board for the ride home. My passengers were impressed with the suicide doors and eco-chic dashboard, not to mention the silken, silent acceleration.
Rear leg room was less impressive. This isn't a big car, as evidenced by the 260L boot. It's fine for shorter trips, and BMW has done an excellent job of extracting maximum leg room from such a compact package, but you wouldn't want to drive from Munich to Berlin with four adults on board.
You couldn't do it five-up, because there's no central rear seat.
Leg room issues aside, the i3 is – to these eyes at least – the most convincing BMW cabin in a long time. Whereas the rest of the range has its roots in old-fashioned ideals, the i3 takes the brand's standard components and lays them out in a way that feels airy and fresh.
You get a 10.2-inch floating iDrive display, DAB+ digital radio, satellite navigation and a four-speaker audio system, along with the usual gamut of semi-autonomous safety features including speed-limit monitoring, adaptive cruise control, auto-emergency braking and forward-collision warning as standard.
Our tester came with the Comfort Package for keyless go, seat heating, full leather trim and a 12-speaker audio system. Tick the box and stump the $2600 – you know you want to.
Coupled with the eco-friendly olive-dyed seats, recycled composite door and dash panels, open-pore wood trim and two-spoke steering wheel, that equipment list makes the cabin a lovely place to spend time. Shame the seats are manually adjustable, after electric motors were deemed too heavy.
As Wednesday morning arrived, the BMW promised 155km of driving, which dropped to 133km as I pulled into the CarAdvice garage. It was down to 99km upon arrival at home on Wednesday night. By this point, it was clear the i3 was going to complete our makeshift challenge with plenty of charge in reserve.
It's a good thing the charger wasn't required, too. When Mike Stevens took on a first-generation i3 long-termer, our garage was outfitted with an 'i' fast-charger. You could reasonably assume that BMW-branded wall box would work seamlessly with an i3s. It doesn't.
The i3s has a bigger 94Ah battery than before, and supports faster charging, which necessitates a new connector. Imagine how annoyed you were when Apple changed your iPhone charge cable, and multiply it by about 1000: that's how frustrated you'd be finding out your car needs a new wall box.
Without a garage at home, we turned to a BMW-sponsored ChargePoint station at Southland, only to find out the connectors there don't fit the i3s either. For what it's worth, BMW Australia says it can't comment on the behalf of ChargePoint, and wasn't able to confirm whether i3s owners would be offered a better deal on a new wall box if upgrading from the normal i3.
Charging aside, there are some really positive generational changes on board the little BMW EV. The i3s sits 10mm lower than the regular car, and benefits from a 40mm wider rear track, broader 175/70 and 195/70 rubber (front/rear respectively) and bigger 20-inch wheels.
Handling has improved accordingly, although you'd never call it an outright sports car. It still feels tall and narrow, but body control is markedly better than before, and the bigger rubber footprint makes a noticeable difference.
It's fun to sling the car into corners and boot the throttle, leaning on the regenerative braking on the way in and surfing a silent wave of electric torque on exit. I even managed to get the i3s a bit sideways around a slippery roundabout, although traction control was quickly on hand to clean things up.
Even when you're just traipsing around town, there's some fun to be had playing around with regenerative braking. Lifting off the accelerator pedal turns the electric motor into a dynamo, harvesting energy that otherwise would be turned into heat and brake dust.
From behind the wheel, this means you're able to drive with one pedal most of the time, only touching the brake pedal to completely stop the car or in an emergency. It takes some adjustment to start with, and you can find yourself out of sync with traffic – lifting off the accelerator and expecting to coast, only to be thrown forward in your seat as the regeneration cuts in.
But with a bit of time behind the wheel, it becomes second nature. After swapping back into an internal-combustion car, I almost ran into the back of the car in front of me, expecting it to slow down where instead it coasted.
Thursday morning started with 91km on the clock, and ended with 63km showing. Having started with 215km showing on the range meter and driven 140km, we'd burned through 152km worth of battery power. Rather than leaving us stranded on the side of the road, the official BMW calculation was essentially perfect.
Positive because being stranded would've been bad – negative because it gives me nothing to complain about.
By this point, you've probably decided whether you like the i3, or the concept of electric cars in general. The thought of electric power is scary for me, because it spells an end to all the stuff (noise, changing gears, pretending to be a race driver – the usual stuff) that made me love cars in the first place. A week of commuting has me thinking differently.
Driving a car without a transmission, with seamless torque and no noise, highlights how hard manufacturers work to cover for the inefficiency inherent in internal combustion engines. Transmissions with a million ratios, fancy sequential turbos and noise-cancelled interiors are laudable engineering achievements, but they still can't make an engine match an electric motor for smoothness or response.
Scary thing is, electric motors are only going to get better. Wearing my 'enthusiast' hat makes that irrelevant, because the process of extracting the most from an internal combustion engine is immensely satisfying. Swapping into a 'commuter' hat changes things, and the fuss-free refinement and performance of an electric car is, arguably, preferable.
The i3s is expensive: you'll pay $69,990 before on-road costs for our tester, jumping to $74,990 with a range-extender. Along with the polarising looks, that essentially makes it a toy for well-heeled early adopters.
It's also a precursor to what's coming from BMW when the iX3 launches, and a taster for the experience set to trickle down the market as the Nissan Leaf and Hyundai Kona EV arrive later this year. With usable range, a sub-$50K starting price and similar smooth, on-demand power as the i3, they promise to pick up where this little mould-breaker leaves off.