The 2021 BMW iX3 represents a significant reset for BMW’s electric car plans. And not only because it holds the distinction of being the first BMW model to be produced in China for export to key markets, including Australia, where pre-orders for the new model have already opened ahead of planned deliveries in mid-2021.
It is based on the same BMW-engineered CLAR (Cluster Architecture) platform as other petrol, diesel and plug-in hybrid versions of the third-generation X3.
The new yet familiarly styled SUV dispenses with the German carmaker’s earlier strategy that called for its electric models to be based on a dedicated aluminium structure known under the name LifeDrive, as with the similarly named but largely unrelated i3 launched back in 2013.
It’s a move we’ll apparently be seeing a lot more of in coming years as BMW rolls out a wide range of electric-powered models based on its current platforms. That includes electric versions of the upcoming 4 Series Gran Coupe, as well as next-generation 5 Series and 7 Series – all of which will be based on the CLAR-based structure.
The use of an existing platform might sound like a compromise at a time when other rival carmakers are busy extolling the advantages of their own dedicated electric car structures, and Munich officials reveal some modifications have been undertaken to the structure in the electrification process, no less. But as BMW is quick to point out, “The [CLAR] platform was always conceived to house electric motors and batteries, so the decision to use it was not controversial but actually quite straightforward”.
The iX3’s single electric motor is mounted within the rear axle in quite a compact drivetrain housing that is claimed to be up to 30 per cent smaller, and a good deal lighter, than that used by the i3.
Described by BMW as a fifth-generation eDrive system, it delivers 210kW and 400Nm of torque to the rear wheels via a single-speed gearbox and an electro-mechanical Performance Control differential, with three different driving modes: Eco Pro, Comfort and Sport.
Despite its rather modest torque loading, there’s urgency in the new BMW’s step-off qualities, as evidenced by the iX3’s official 0–60km/h claim of 3.7sec. But as speeds rise and aerodynamic resistance builds, the performance begins to trail off, resulting in a 0–100km/h time that is ultimately 0.7sec slower than the four-wheel-drive X3 xDrive30e plug-in hybrid at 6.8sec in Sport mode.
This is not to suggest it is at all slow. You put your foot down and it responds with quite brisk acceleration, as shown by its rolling 80–120km/h figure of 4.1sec. But with 2185kg to haul, its single electric motor lacks the strength of the dual-motor systems of some admittedly larger premium brand electric-powered SUV rivals. Top speed, meanwhile, is limited to 180km/h.
What it lacks in outright performance, though, the iX3 more than makes up in refinement. Even by electric car standards, its electric motor and associated power electronics are truly whisper quiet.
At meaningful speeds, it is the persistent lick of wind around the exterior mirror housings and quite distinct roar of the tyres – substantial 245/45 profile front and 275/40 profile rear Yokohama Advans shod on optional 20-inch wheels on our test car – along the bitumen that you notice most.
The driver can choose a synthetic motor sound that rises and falls in volume in unison with throttle inputs in both Balanced and Sport acoustic modes.
Another impressive aspect is the iX3’s advanced energy-recuperation system. It offers the driver four different modes: Low, Medium, High and Adaptive. In High mode it allows one-pedal driving, in which your speed drops away quite dramatically as you step off the throttle, meaning you only really need to use the brake pedal to come to an early (or surprise) stop, in the interests of harvesting the maximum amount of kinetic energy.
It is the Adaptive mode that is the real breakthrough, though. It constantly monitors your driving, either in combination with the route the driver has plugged into the navigation system or independently, and then decides whether to actuate the brake energy recuperation system or a separate coasting function that sees the iX3 freewheel without any frictional losses for extended distances as you come off the throttle.
Despite all the technology packed into it, brake pedal feel is quite good. It is firm, easy to modulate and, most importantly of all, consistent in its action.
Electric energy for the motor – a BMW unit produced as its Dingolfing factory in Germany – comes by way of a 74kWh lithium-ion battery consisting of 10 modules, 188 individual prismatic cells supplied by Chinese battery specialist CATL, and weighing 518kg. Mounted beneath the rear seat and within the floor of the boot, it is claimed to provide the new SUV with a range of between 450 and 459km on the WLTP test cycle.
Charging, meanwhile, can be carried out on a standard 7.4kW or optional 11kW AC system. For speedy topping up of the battery’s energy stores on the go, though, the iX3 can charge at up to 150kW DC when suitably optioned, which is claimed to provide an 80 per cent charge in 34 minutes.
The decision to forgo the dual-motor four-wheel-drive set-up of some rivals, and mount the electric motor at the rear in combination with the battery, provides the iX3 with a distinctly rear-biased weight distribution at 47:53 per cent. And with it, the iX3 boasts many of the characteristic handling traits of BMW’s more traditional combustion-engine models.
The steering, a fixed ratio set-up, is typically weighty in feel, giving the driver instant confidence. Without any drive forces going through the front wheels, the electric set-up is very accurate and also manages to relay quite a bit of feedback.
Around town, the new BMW is quite wieldy, which is helped by the instant torque off the line, relatively tight turning circle and its ability to change direction quickly. However, it is out on the open road where its rear weight bias and rear-wheel-drive character really shine through that it is at its engaging best.
There is a general fluidity to the handling that marks the iX3 out as one of the more engaging electric SUVs you can buy today. Its overall dynamics are always going to be restricted by its substantial weight, but there is enough here to satisfy enthusiast drivers.
With a 20mm reduction in ground clearance over the standard X3 helping to enhance its already low centre of gravity, which is claimed to be 70mm lower than that of the standard X3, you can confidently carry speed into a tightening corner without lifting, at which BMW’s second dedicated electric model will oblige with oversteer. It is quickly quelled by the DSC (Dynamic Stability Control) system, though, which brakes individual wheels to bring it back on line.
First revealed in lightly veiled concept form at the Beijing motor show in 2018, the iX3 adheres closely to the look of the latest X3. There are some subtle exterior styling changes, including a new-look front bumper, a blanked-off grille, optional blue highlights and, as standard, unique 19-inch wheels, which alone are said to improve its overall aerodynamic efficiency by up to five per cent compared to the standard X3 wheels.
Inside, it’s all pretty familiar aside from the instrument graphics and switches for the various driving modes on the centre console. Accommodation, both front and rear, mirrors that of other X3 models, as does the safety package, which includes a long list of so-called driver assistance functions.
The packaging of its battery up back robs the boot of 40L compared to petrol and diesel versions of the X3, but its 510L is 60L more than that offered by the X3 xDrive30e plug-in hybrid.
Allaying any concerns about quality, the iX3, as mentioned earlier, is produced by BMW and its joint venture partner Brilliance in the Chinese city of Shenyang. The fit and finish, as well as the overall quality of materials used by our test car, were every bit as good as, if not better than, other X3 models produced at BMW’s Spartanburg factory in the USA.
Right now, the iX3 is pretty much out on its own. It is positioned above crossover-style SUVs like the new Volkswagen ID.4 and upcoming Mercedes-Benz GLA, but below larger and more powerful offerings like the Audi e-tron quattro and Mercedes-Benz EQC. Its most obvious rival, based on its €66,300 (AUD$108,340) German price tag, is the Jaguar I-Pace.
If you have decided it is time for an electric car and the iX3 fits your budget, you’d be foolish not to give it a good look. It is not the most powerful nor the fastest in its class, but it boasts great balance, entertaining handling traits, and quite a reasonable range as well.