The BMW i3 range hasn’t turned the world of motoring on its head in quite the way its futuristic looks might suggest. It is, however, a pivotal part of the foundation of what an electrified future might look like.
Since first going on sale in Australia at the end of 2014, the BMW i3 has almost doubled its potential driving range.
In the case of the 2019 i3, battery capacity measures 120 amp hours (Ah), or to use a more widely accepted convention, 42 kilowatt hours (kWh), with a 38kWh usable capacity.
Compared to the 60Ah battery available from launch, and an update in 2015 to 94Ah, the new-for-2019 update reveals one of the advantages of battery electric vehicles and the progress potential of improving battery technology.
It’s not a like-for-like example, of course, but in a petrol-powered car, doubling the driving range without changing the engine would mean doubling the fuel tank capacity. Essentially, BMW has done the same thing here, but unlike a fuel tank that would need to be twice the size to hold twice the fuel, battery density has increased while the physical size hasn’t.
That’s not some kind of black magic on BMW’s behalf, of course, as EV battery tech is still very much in its early days. The strides and advancements we see right now will slow with time, in the same way combustion engine efficiency gains are now incremental.
As a vote of confidence in the new, longer-range abilities of the BMW i3, the odd-looking little hatch now only arrives in Australia as a purely electric vehicle, retiring the previously available range-extending part-petrol version.
Despite the bigger battery, the updated model holds the same $68,700 (plus on-road costs) starting price as last year’s model, with the marginally more powerful i3s driven here asking for $69,900 before options and on-roads.
BMW states ‘real world’ driving range up to 260km. Not a solution for every motorist in every situation, obviously, but a still-useful distance as a second car for city dwellers with regular urban commutes.
The 260km claim is still a little optimistic. Off a completely full charge, with no accessories running (think heating, cooling, etc) and ideal traffic conditions, it might be plausible to get close to 260 clicks from an i3. But share the road with fast-paced traffic, drive like a normal person, or dare to turn on the ventilation, and 200km is a more reliable benchmark.
Officially, BMW suggests a power draw of 16.5 kilowatt hours per 100km, but after a week in the i3s, the car sat on an indicated 21.7kWh/100km. That’s a week free of hypermiling and power saving, using the car more as a regular runabout and less like a fragile science experiment.
In slightly sportier i3s guise, outputs are rated at 135kW and 270Nm – a step up of 10kW and 20Nm over the garden-variety i3. BMW also applies ‘sport’ labels to the steering, suspension, traction control, and adds a sport setting to the driving-mode controls.
Interesting to note, the recently announced Mini Cooper SE shares much of its drivetrain tech with the i3 in a far more conventional package, though seems unlikely for Australia at this stage.
Other i3s upgrades include 20-inch alloy wheels (up from 19s on regular models), gloss-black window trims and ‘sport design elements’ on the front bumper. The move to 's' trim does delete BMW's automated parking assist that's standard on the base i3.
A city car though it may be, acceleration claims see the i3s move to 100km/h in a decent 6.9 seconds – 0.4sec less than the non-s variant.
Acceleration times are all well and good, but equally (if not more) important are charge times. As there's more than one type of applicable charging, there's a heap more detail on what you can expect further down.
There’s no doubt that BMW buyers, in fact Euro buyers in general, like a sporting flavour. The popularity of M Sport, S Line, AMG Line, and similar aesthetic and suspension treatments bears witness to that.
Perhaps a little oddly for a car so urban-focussed, the i3s rides on lower-profile tyres and stiffer suspension in the pursuit of improved body control and sharper responses. The latter it certainly delivers, though body control could do with further refinement.
With a tall and narrow body, the i3 feels precariously perched above its chassis. The weight of motor and batteries might well be kept low, but there’s a jiggly, bouncy ride that’s impossible to overcome, and exaggerated by sitting high up above the battery stack encased within the floor.
Occupants get shaken and tossed about across most of the kinds of road surfaces that litter urban streets. Even still, the firm control and keen steering do invite a degree of driving enthusiasm.
The incredibly kart-like responsiveness also fuels the desire to treat the i3s as sporty rather than sluggish. There’s instant torque from any speed, lightning-fast responsiveness thanks to a transmissionless drivetrain, and a much more urgent power delivery than the more sedate i3.
The surge is addictive. Rolling up through rising speed limits invites a hearty shove on the go-pedal, the digital speedo numbers tick over in a blur, and all the i3s emits is an eerily hushed electric whir. It’s a neat experience that doesn’t dull with time.
Corners aren’t the natural environment of the i3s. Those of the 'in 300 metres at the traffic lights, turn left' variety are handled just fine, but skinny tyres and a hint of high-speed vagueness mean the i3 isn’t an open-road joy. Nor is it conceived to be.
With a dedicated life of city usage ahead of it, BMW has wisely invested not just in the electrification technology of this car, but also the interior. It’s not a complete carryover of regular BMW bits cut and pasted into the i3’s interior, but rather a more bespoke arrangement.
Part of that is to ensure the i3 meets weight and efficiency targets, but another (no doubt more crucial) factor is giving the i3 the look and feel of the future.
A post-$70K price (with options and on-roads factored in) means the i3s runs into some hard competition in the fast-emerging EV segment in Australia, though few carry the lure of BMW’s prestige badge.
A Hyundai Kona Electric Elite asks for $59,990 before on-roads with 449km (WLTP) of range, a Nissan Leaf claims 270km (WLTP) from a charge but starts from $49,990. The closest ‘prestige’ challenger for now is Tesla’s Model 3 Standard Range Plus from $66,000 but using less accurate NEDC consumption calculations to lay a 460km range claim.
To counter these newer – and either cheaper or longer range – competitors, the i3s flaunts a rather studio-like upmarket interior flooded with on-trend multi-hued finishes like grey-brown woollen cloth, and naturally dyed brown leather as part of the optional ‘Lodge’ interior design pack.
The front seats feel incredibly spacious, and enhanced by the floating effect of the dash and flat floor with no traditional centre console. The rears are more snug, though outward visibility is still good with stadium-style seating and deep side windows.
Getting in and out via the clamshell doors, which require the fronts to be opened first, is still more fussy than it should be, and feels like a trade-off simply to maximise the impact of the i3's carbon-fibre frame.
Seats are still manually adjusted, though, and climate control is single zone, but LED lighting inside and out, auto lights and wipers, proximity entry with push-button start, four-speaker audio with DAB+ radio, a 5.7-inch digital instrument cluster, wireless mobile charger, heated power-folding mirrors, rear camera and park sensors are all included as standard.
BMW’s iDrive infotainment system is ported over from the mainstream model, but despite the new-for-2019 update, the i3 sticks with BMW’s older 6.0 operating software and not the newest 7.0 system, meaning functions like ‘Hey, BMW’ voice commands aren’t available.
The system does feature a 10.25-inch display, pre-loaded navigation, a range of remote services via app-link to check on vehicle status and charging remotely, plus a three-year subscription to BMW ConnectedDrive, Concierge, Connected+, real-time traffic info and Apple CarPlay, with a range of subscription services available to continue connectivity after the first three years.
Boot space is at the smaller end of what you might find in a conventional hatch of a similar size, with 260L of storage available. Also, there's a fairly high boot floor owing to the tall electric motor that resides between the rear axle and the cargo area on one side of the car, and an unseen structural reinforcement on the other.
Safety carries a five-star ANCAP rating from 2014 with six airbags, stability and traction control, battery switch-off function (in the event of an accident), adaptive cruise control with stop&go function, traffic sign recognition, forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection and low-speed autonomous emergency braking.
Lane-departure warning, a 360-degree camera, and driver-fatigue detection aren't included, despite appearing on other BMW models.
While what most would consider ‘traditional maintenance’ isn’t required for an electric car, there are still checks and wear items that need to be tended to. BMW offers a five-year or 80,000km basic maintenance package for the i3 range from $950, or a more comprehensive Service Plus package including brake and wiper replacement for $3600.
On the recharging front, expect a full charge (from 0 per cent to 100 per cent) to take as long as 19.5 hours from a standard 10A wall socket (up to 2.4kW) or 12 hours and 15 minutes from a 16A plug (up to 3.7kW). With a single-phase AC BMW Wallbox times drop to 6h 15m (32A, 7.7kW), or if you have access to three-phase power, a 4h 15m charge is possible (16A, 11kW).
BMW’s Connected app also gives access to setting the charge times, should you wish to take advantage of off-peak electricity rates, along with charge rate settings and the ability to remotely stop or start the charging process. As electricity rates vary, your running costs will depend on your agreement with your provider.
The i3’s stated maximum rate of charge is 49kW via DC fast charging, which has the potential to top up a partially depleted battery from 10 per cent to 80 per cent in as little as 40 minutes. If you’d like to know more about EV charging and times, you can see our earlier article.
So, how would you live with yours? The CarAdvice office has dedicated single-phase wallbox charging available, which makes things fairly straightforward, but my house doesn’t.
It’s feasible to do the best part of a week’s commuting without needing to charge and plugging in to restore full capacity during a day at work.
The alternative is to do your day’s running around, get home at night and connect the cord. Sounds like a real inconvenience, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s just novelty, or maybe a fast-formed habit, but the act of plugging in seems like a fairly reasonable one.
Ultimately, the i3 won’t be for everyone. It doesn’t pretend to be either. It’s a statement car.
It looks the way it does to get attention and start conversations. It drives the way it does to offer something a little bit exotic without needing to relearn all the basics. It is neither the longest-range nor cheapest EV available, but the BMW prestige experience means it can get away with what it offers.
If you want maximum EV or minimum cost, this isn’t the right car for you. But if you desire something better than a low-cost hatchback dressed up with electric tech, the i3s delivers.
It may not be the best of what's available in electric tech right now, but at least BMW hasn't stopped developing its vision of what's to come.