“The Ultimate Driving Machine” has been a slogan of German automaker BMW for as long as we can remember. They carry with them an expectation that they will be associated with a large, powerful executive sedan, a sporty coupe, or perhaps a luxurious SUV.
But does BMW’s latest car, the all-electric i3, deserve to bear that same association? We headed to London last week to find out.
In the interests of brevity, we’ve decided to split our first look into two parts: part one will tackle design and driving experience, while part two will deal with things like pricing and ownership packages. Here’s part one, and look for part two in the coming week.
Outwardly, the BMW i3 looks like nothing BMW has ever made before. Smaller than any of its current production cars — although thanks to BMW’s bubble car heritage not the smallest car it has ever made — the i3 has a short, squat nose, high rear tail lights and coach-style side doors which hinge backwards to reveal a complete lack of B pillar.
The lack of B pillar is a direct result of the i3’s construction. With a lightweight aluminum chassis and passenger cell made of Carbon Fibre Reinforced Plastic (CFRP) the BMW i3 is not only lightweight but incredibly strong, so doesn’t need the B pillar for structural rigidity as most cars do.
In fact, as BMW is happy to tell us, in its official crash-testing, the BMW i3 fared so well in its frontal impact crash test that the same car was used again to test the side-impact capabilities. Usually, one car is used and destroyed per test.
Despite its Mini-sized dimensions (we’re talking new, not original) the BMW i3 is deceptively TARDIS like inside, thanks to the aforementioned CFRP construction. Thinner than steel, CFRP gives the i3’s cabin a light and airy feel, with the front windscreen some considerable distance from you when you sit behind the wheel. A sweeping, low dash and lack of floor-mounted centre console completes the airy feeling, while two mini sunroofs, one each for front passenger and driver, complete the experience.
While the short nose does contain a bonnet, the only thing you’ll find there is a small tool kit for emergencies, along with a place to hold your charging cables. About the same size as the front cargo space in the tiny G-Wiz of days gone by, you won’t find much else fits.
Meanwhile the rear load area — accessible from both with the car and by lifting the rear tailgate, is large enough to hold a weekly shop or a few weekend suitcases. For larger loads, you’l need to fold down the rear seats — or find another car to take.
Unlike its contemporaries in the BMW stable, the i3 feels immediately more personal as a car. Driver and passenger aren’t separated by a massive transmission tunnel, while the surprisingly good sound proofing qualities of the CFRP makes the cabin refined and quiet, even at motorway speeds.
Behind the wheel
From the drivers’ seat, everything is within easy reach, partly because of the i3’s minimalist design. Unusually, the start/stop button (the i3 has keyless ignition) is located on the shifter stalk, which is in turn connected to the steering wheel.
Like other BMWs, there’s ample controls on the steering wheel for things like cruise control and basic audio functions, while BMW’s trademark iDrive system sits just below the drivers’ arm rest and controls the satellite navigation system, entertainment system, handsfree functionality and what information about the car is displayed on the main centre-mounted LCD display.
Next to the iDrive control are a cluster of buttons which allow you to choose between Comfort, Eco Pro and Eco Pro Plus driving modes. In Comfort mode, the i3 has access to the full power and torque of its 125 kilowatt, 250 Nm electric motor. In Eco Pro mode, power is reduced slightly to increase range, while Eco Pro Plus mode restricts not only power to the heater and motor, but also restricts top speed to 55 mph in an attempt to extend the range as much as possible.
The smaller LCD display, located directly in front of the steering wheel, displays pertinent information like remaining range, speed, odometer and of course, operating mode.
Getting the car moving is simple: press the start/stop button with your foot on the brake, select forward or reverse by twisting the gear selector clockwise or anti-clockwise, and then release the parking brake.
Like every other electric car on the market, the BMW i3 accelerates with the smooth, constant push of its electric motor. While BMW claims a 0-30 mph time of 3.7 seconds for the all-electric i3 and 3.9 seconds for the Range extended (REX) variant, it’s worth noting that the 0-15 takes more than half of this time, with the remaining 15 mph coming far quicker than the first.
Around town this gives the i3 a surprisingly sprightly feel, although for reasons we’ll come to, drivers not used to its heavy accelerator-fed regenerative braking system may find driving in town takes a little getting used to.
On the open road, the all-electric i3 races to 62 mph from standstill in 7.2 seconds. At 7.9 seconds to the same speed, the i3 REX is a little slower due to the extra weight of its twin cylinder range extending engine.
While most of our test drive was in the BMW i3 REX range extended model on public roads, a quick spin around the Brands Hatch race track gave us some time with the all-electric i3. Even though we did notice a slight difference in acceleration between the two variants, we think all but the most speed-obsessed drivers will forgive the i3 REX’s slightly slower 0-62 time.
Which brings us neatly onto the BMW i3’s party piece: regenerative braking which is so strong BMW says you can drive the car in city traffic without ever using the brake pedal.
Like most electric cars, the BMW i3 uses regenerative braking to simulate engine braking on accelerator liftoff. Unlike other cars which use a moderate amount of regenerative braking however, the i3’s regenerative braking on accelerator liftoff is much stronger, slowing it to a complete standstill at lower-speeds.
Around town, this means that it’s possible to accelerate from the lights, hit 30 mph and then slow back down to a stop without touching the brake pedal. To let other road users know what’s going on, the i3’s brake lights illuminate at lower speeds when regenerative lift-off is applied.
At higher speeds, the i3’s adaptive regenerative braking is less severe, allowing you to slow less aggressively at 70 mph than you do at 30 mph when lifting off the throttle.
To start with, we think new i3 drivers will struggle to get the hang of the very sensitive accelerator and its severe regenerative braking on liftoff, but given time one-pedal city driving should become second-nature. Similarly, learning to activate the i3’s coast function by carefully balancing the accelerator at just the right point, is likely to take time.
What we struggled to cope with however, was the different behaviors associated with braking and vehicle creep. Bring the i3 to a stop using just the accelerator pedal, and the i3 will remain stationary on level ground until you press the accelerator again. Brake with the brake pedal, and when you lift your foot off it, the car will creep forward.
Moreover, despite coming to a complete stop on the accelerator pedal alone, sitting in traffic without your brake pedal depressed puts you at risk in a rearward shunt: because the brakes are not applied in this instance despite being stationary, the i3 will move forward easily if hit from behind.
While it’s possible to drive with a single pedal then, we’d advise in the interests of safety that anyone driving an i3 gets into the practice of applying the brake as soon as they stop — and not over relying on regenerative braking to slow the car down for them.
Around town, the BMW i3’s incredibly tight turning circle and narrow form make it a breeze to handle in busy inner city traffic, while the steering itself is light and responsive.
On larger, faster roads, there’s less steering feedback than some BMW’s we’ve driven, but certainly more than most electric cars on the market today. Generally, our test i3 went where we wanted it to go while out on the public roads, but on the sweeping curves of the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit BMW had partially reserved for our benefit, there was substantial understeer at high speeds, despite the i3’s rear-wheel drive heritage.
Similarly, fast lane changing maneuvers prompted the i3 to feel a little less stable, partly due to its narrow tyres. Given that we were handling slaloms at speeds in excess of 25 mph however, we’re satisfied that the i3’s low centre of gravity and electronic stability systems will prevent handling problems in all but the most extreme of weather in the real world.
With the car set to Comfort mode, BMW says the i3 will easily achieve 80 to 100 miles per charge, but on our substantially shorter test-drive, we didn’t get a chance to test those figures out.
What we can say however, is that like any other EV, the range the i3 gives is completely dependent on how you drive and external influences such as road conditions and weather. While it may seem like an easy way out, we’re going to hold off on passing judgement regarding the i3’s range until we have chance to drive one for an extended test drive later this year.
What we can tell you is that the i3’s tiny range-extending engine — located under the rear load bay floor — is only just noticeable when idling. While we didn’t run the i3’s 19 kilowatt-hour battery pack low enough to force the range-extending engine to kick in, our hosts at BMW showed us how to force the REX engine into operation (pressing number 7 on the dashboard) to illustrate how quiet it was.
Driving for a few miles at motorway speeds with range extending engaged, we struggled to hear the REX above the normal backing track which accompany high-speed driving in any car, such as wind and tyre noise.
What we think so far
As with any car, it’s tough to get a real idea of what life with the i3 would be like after just a few hours. But we think fans of modern, minimalist design will love the clean, ultra-modern look of the i3’s cabin, while hardened BMW fanboys will love the car’s rear wheel heritage and brisk 0-60 time.
But while we want to spend more time with the i3 to get a better understanding of what it really offers, we were left feeling a little underwhelmed by our short time with this important luxury hatchback.
With 80 to 100 miles of claimed range, the BMW i3 doesn’t do anything that isn’t already achievable elsewhere. Sure, it has the option of a range-extending engine, and a plethora of add-on options, but we can’t help but wonder if BMW made a mistake by investing so much time and money in lightweight, energy efficient materials to produce a car which travels just as far — or as little — as most other plug-in cars on the market.
With a larger battery pack, we think the i3 really would work as an executive hatchback and stand out from the crowd. But as it stands, the only real things we think marks it out from the competition are its extensive ownership packages, — which we’ll cover in the next article — its sportier driving style and of course, its badge.
If you want the extra power the i3 offers over its competitors, or you really do need the flexibility of its range extending engine, the i3 could be a good buy. But with seating for four and limited luggage space, the i3 won’t fit everyone’s needs. Then again, BMW never set out to solve that particular problem.
It set out to design and build a unique, mainly urban-dwelling electric car for the world’s Mega cities. With its unique design and impressive city handling, BMW has certainly met its own goals.
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