The i3 is an astonishing thing.
Looking like a motor show escapee, it achieves the road presence of a Range Rover in a car the length of a Ford Fiesta. Thanks to a revolutionary lightweight carbon-fibre bodyshell it even weighs about the same as the small Ford despite the chunky lithium-ion batteries. But it also costs twice as much.
BMW claims that despite the SUV height and the very un-petrolhead electric propulsion the i3 is every bit as fun to drive as a regular BMW. So far only Tesla with its slinky but lengthy and mighty pricey Model S has managed to make a properly cool electric car (the brilliant Twizy is just a little too tiny and niche to count). Is the much more urban-targeted i3 good enough to join the list?
Sitting in it
That design. Is the uneven side-window arrangement ugly or are we just not cool enough to appreciate it? Let's move on.
Inside it’s a delight. Get the spec right, and the 10.2in central screen appears to float above the undulating strip of matt-finished eucalyptus wood. The seats are covered in a lovely modern wool in Lodge trim and the SUV-elevated view out is expansive. It’s a great place to spend time in traffic.
Rear passengers enter via back-hinged ‘suicide’ doors, but it’s not as roomy behind as we’d pictured. The rear-mounted electric motor robs boot space, too. The Nissan Leaf EV is a tad more practical, but it certainly doesn't have the aesthetic impact.
Oh my giddy aunt does this thing fly. A career spent driving cars of all stripes does not prepare you for the sheer accelerative force of the i3. Neither does BMW’s claimed 0-62mph sprint time of 7.2 seconds – it feels so much faster because of the electric-car trick of accessing all the torque muscle instantly.
That it’s delivered so smoothly and quietly will surely be the killer premium selling-point for city-based execs.
Even more impressive, our car was the heavier extended-range version with another 120kg of BMW motorbike engine and assorted gubbins in the rear. This doesn’t join in, but instead tops up the battery when needed to increase usable range from 80-100 miles to 150-180 miles, according to BMW - they wouldn't let us take it quite that far in our test.
As promised, the i3 does love to corner. The only downside of the ultra-stiff carbon shell is an unbending, pain-is-gain approach to potholes.
Interacting with it
Tesla was the first maker to really yank cars into the smartphone era with its huge touch-screen dash, and with the i3 BMW isn’t too far behind.
There's no touch-screen, but the wheel-guided menus are easy to access and the graphics some of the nicest we’ve seen in a car. There’s a wealth of battery-related info including how many miles extra range we’d have if we turned off comfort functions such as the heating fan, while wave graphics show how much smoother and economical you could be (judging by the stormy seas, quite a lot in our case - perhaps BMW shouldn't have made it so much fun to drive).
We loved using the i Remote app for Apple (or Android) phones. This is part of BMW’s SIM-embedded ConnectedDrive service and shows battery life, charging status, efficiency in the last journey, miles to service, etc. You can even lock and unlock the car using the phone. Slower than the standard blipper, yet a million times more glee-inducing.
More after the break...
The really clever bit about the (optional) navigation system is not the ability to see your destination on Google Streetview (although that is cool in itself), but the list of local charging points.
Wanting to try this, we discovered central London is actually pretty well served, with many in NCP car parks. One day hopefully the system will tell you if they’re already in use or not.
Charging is slightly annoying in that the car’s plug socket is on the continental side facing the traffic, but the heavy cable is long enough to reach. The Source London operated point had a choice of 3kW household charger and a 7kW fast charger – BMW reckons that filling to 80 percent from empty on the latter takes around three hours.
Paying for it
Remember that Mastermind champion who couldn’t figure out the energy companies’ baffling tariffs? Trying to work out whether the i3 is good value would finish him off. We’ll split this by pros and cons.
Pros: The government’s £5,000 plug-in discount is already factored into the £25,680 start price, but owners pay nothing for the annual tax disc. There’s zero company car tax on the pure electric version and both it and the extended range version duck the London congestion charge. According to BMW, 10,000 miles will cost you £140 in electricity using EDF’s nighttime Economy-7 tariff (i.e. charge it overnight), compared to £854 to fuel a frugal Audi A3 1.6 diesel over the same miles.
Cons: A similarly practical BMW 116i costs £100 less to finance per month than the cheapest i3 lease (£369). And no-one will keep it that low: the i3’s long list of must-have extras includes a charge-point cable at £169 and the charge-point finding sat nav for £960, so that monthly price is going to creep up steadily once you get to the options list.
This is definitely a premium electric car. The astonishing kick of acceleration is delivered with all the unruffled insouciance of V12 limos of old and the interior combines modern technology and natural materials in a truly beguiling way.
The smartphone interaction is delicious, too. But affordable? Not for everyone. For most, the electric-car range limitations means this will be a second car and in that role the costly i3 is pure, pricey indulgence. But that's not to say we wouldn't buy one in an instant if we could.
The i3 has so much clever tech to engage with, brag about and revel in, the high price will feel like good value to the more affluent technophile