Bad News As BMW i3 Gets Only 4-Star Crash Test Rating, Poor Drive Report

Electric car safety has always been a number one concern of car buyers, ever since BBC Top Gear obliterated a low-speed G-Wiz (NEV) by forcing it to undergo a crash test designed for a highway-capable car.  Since then however, the majority of electric cars on the market — both in Europe and North America — have passed governmental crash tests on both sides of the Atlantic with flying colours.

EuroNCAP gave the BMW i3 a four-star rating.

EuroNCAP gave the BMW i3 a four-star rating.

But the BMW i3, which BMW executives boasted a few weeks ago to Transport Evolved was so strong that one of its cars used for official crash testing was unusually reused in another crash test, has been given just four stars in official Euro NCAP tests.

This places the car behind the Nissan LEAF, Chevrolet Volt, Renault Zoe, Toyota Prius, Volvo V60 Plug-in Hybrid and Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV in crash test ratings, and on par with the current generation Mitsubishi i-Miev.

The news also coincides with an mediocre test-drive review of the range-extended i3 REX car by The Telegraph in which the reviewer complained that in range-extended mode, his loaner i3-REX slowed to just 44 mph on the motorway trying to climb a hill.

Interestingly, the BMW i3 scored fairly well for both adult and child occupant safety, being awarded a rating of 86 percent and 81 percent respectively and losing points for marginal protection of the driver’s left leg and rear-impact whiplash injuries as well as weak side-impact pole protection.  On paper, it tested better for child and occupant safety than the Chevrolet Volt and Mitsubishi i-Miev.

Where the i3 lost most of its points however was on pedestrian impact safety and its safety assist ratings.

Marginally better than the Mitsubishi i-Miev in terms of pedestrian safety, the i3’s short bonnet — whose edge scored zero points — and stiff windscreen pillars lost it the most points on pedestrian safety, while the bumper area was given maximum points.

But without many of the features now considered standard in many premium cars — like seat belt warning bells for rear-seat passengers and standard-fit speed limiter — meant that the i3 was awarded just 55 percent for its safety assist technology.

The BMW i3's short bonnet lost it a lot of crash-test points

The BMW i3’s short bonnet lost it a lot of crash-test points

We’ve looked at the i3’s EuroNCAP tests figures in detail, and think that the i3 would have received a five-star rating had it not fared so badly in the safety assist and pedestrian safety categories. Moreover, the i3 fares better than many cars in occupant safety, thanks in part we’re sure to its carbon fibre reinforced plastic passenger cell. Yet that very same structure has caused the i3 to fare less well in pedestrian bonnet impact tests.

While changing the bonnet isn’t exactly easy at this time, we think BMW may be able to improve its crash-test rating by simply standardising a lot of the existing safety features it offers as build-to-order options, as the official test report says that because they are options at present, they are “not expected to reach Euro NCAP’s minimum fitment rate to qualify for assessment.”

The BMW i3 and i3 REX have yet to receive their official U.S. NHTSA crash test ratings, or ratings from the IIHS, so it will be interesting to see how they fare in these two important tests compared to EuroNCAP. Given the NHTSA has awarded the Mitsubishi i-Miev a four-star rating, along with a four-star rating for the 2013 Nissan LEAF (dropping a star from the 2011-12 model) we think it’s likely the i3 will also get four stars.

While the Euro NCAP crash test ratings may put a few buyers off however, we’re more concerned more about the report that the BMW i3 REX’s engine really can’t cope with high speed travel if the battery pack is almost depleted.

As Chris Knapman reports, a recent test drive in the i3 REX from London to Maidstone and back left Knapman in trouble on the M20, a major UK motorway (freeway) stretching from London to the South East. Having used up the i3’s claimed 80 mile range in just 50 miles, Knapman’s loaner i3 switched on its 600cc gasoline range-extending engine.

As The Telegraph discovered, the BMW i3 REX's range-extending engine has to be engaged before the battery runs flat for optimum performance

As The Telegraph discovered, the BMW i3 REX’s range-extending engine has to be engaged before the battery runs flat for optimum performance

He writes:

“I’d just come through a heavy but localised rain storm on the M20 when the i3 started to slow. It was a gradual process, from motorway cruising speed all the way down to 44mph. By this time I was travelling up a slight incline and had effectively become a slow-moving obstacle. Lorries were catching me with quite frankly terrifying closing speeds. It was three or four minutes – which was long enough to make me consider pulling over – before the i3 recovered; just as slowly as it had lost speed, so it crept up.”

Knapman says the i3 did return to more appropriate motorway speeds, but left him a little shaken. The i3’s range extender, he discovered, isn’t designed to power the i3 without assistance from car’s battery pack.   As a BMW spokesman admitted, once the i3’s battery pack was depleted and the range extender was running “if you keep driving at 75-80 mph, it can’t maintain the charge,” meaning a slower top speed under certain situations.

The solution, says Knapman, is to engage the range-extneding engine earlier in the trip, when there’s still substantial charge left in the battery pack.

But here’s what we don’t understand — and sadly with our limited time in the i3 so far, we can’t figure it out: the BMW i3 will quite happily run its battery pack down to empty, but the range-extender can be engaged at any time by the driver. If the battery pack gets too depleted, performance will suffer.

In most situations, we don’t imagine it causing a massive problem, but we’re worried that the presence of the range extended — combined with how most range extenders work and how most consumers expect them to work — will lull drivers into a false sense of security.

Will the underpowered i3 REX's 600 cc engine give rise to another form of range anxiety?

Will the underpowered i3 REX’s 600 cc engine give rise to another form of range anxiety?

It seems then that as long as you plan to do a trip longer than the i3’s all-electric range, and turn the range extender on early enough in your trip, there won’t be any impact on performance. But get caught short by a detour or a faulty charging station, and you may find yourself limping home.

Which we think is going to put a lot of consumer off.  More than the i3 getting just 4 stars out of a possible 5 for crash-worthieness.

Do you agree? Should BMW handle the tiny range extender’s operation differently? We await your thoughts in the Comments below.




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  • Michael Thwaite

    They’ve said from the start that the range extender was only that. In some respects I’m quite pleased that its performance was meagre as that does confirm that BMW intends the unit to be an occasional, not daily part of the driving experience as it is with the Ford C-MAX Energi, Plug-in Prius and Chevy Volt.

  • Bob G

    “… the reviewer complained that in range-extended mode, his loaner i3-REX nslowed to just 44 mph on the motorway trying to climb a hill.”nnWho was the Einstein who thought it would be a good idea to put a 600 cc motorcycle engine in a Road Elephant SUV?!nnI understand BMW’s intent: On a journey that is longer than the nbattery’s range, you can leave the motorcycle engine screaming away for nthe *entire* trip, thus gaining a few miles of range by supplementing nthe battery’s energy. But who in their right mind would want a tiny, but over-worked gasoline engine roaring at them in a vehicle that is advertised as “electric” *before* the battery is depleted?!nnGM was *very* careful to avoid this problem with the Volt/Ampera. They even did tests climbing Pike’s Peak, starting with a depleted battery at the nbase. Even though the engine is only 1.4 L / 80 HP, it can generate nenough power to maintain speed over worst-case hills (And most of the ntime, it is so quiet and mellow that I don’t even know it is running.). n I’ve even tested my Volt with the car overloaded, air conditioner nrunning, and at very high speeds over several steep and sustained nmountain passes.

  • vdiv

    All BMW has to do is add rear seat occupancy/rear seatbelt sensors and the software to set the speed limit as a standard feature.nnnEt. voila! 5 stars!nnnThis is where Elon Musk had a point. The 1-5 star rating is not detailed enough as most people would not look into the details where in reality the i3 may be safer than other better rated vehicles.

  • CDspeed

    How is 4 out of 5 poor? I admit I too thought the carbon fiber structure would ace all crash tests. But CFRP is a fairly new technology and as we know few new technologies are perfect from day one. A 5 out of 5 is excellent, 4 is good, 3 is marginal, a 2 would have been poor.

    • vdiv

      There two stories mixed together in this article. The crash test was good but not excellent, and the drive test was poor.nnnBut that is exactly the point, the shiny appearance of the i3 after all of BMW’s marketing magic seems to have been tarnished a bit. This is enough fodder for the haters.

      • CDspeed

        It’s not really tarnished, but yes it’s less then perfect score is giving some people a tiny reason to kick a lot of sand in BMW’s face.

  • George B

    Thanks for reporting on this, Nikki! Chris Knapman pulled a Broder in my mind. Had he driven 65 mph instead of 75 mph to intentionally deprive the system of an opportunity to store away some energy, this problem would not have happened. nnHe might have even read some of the prior discussion on the topic, and have adjusted his driving style to achieve this goal. I believe that BMW never published any specifics, but it’s been written frequently, and on different venues, that based on the real-world numbers available from the LEAF, the 25 kW available from the REx would propel the i3 at about 75 mph on flat terrain. Slowing down to 65 mph would charge the battery at about 7 kW while driving. Having about 20% SOC in the battery will allow the i3 to traverse approximately 4,000 foot of elevation without any impact on speed (so long it’s below 75 mph). nnThis is not a problem of the motorcycle engine. It’s a problem with the CARB requirement to deplete the battery down to 5% SOC. That’s unlike the Volt, where the REx kicks in at about 20% SOC. nnYes, the system is somewhat limited, and favors lower speeds. But the REx is far removed from the infamous “limp-home mode”. If autobahn drivers will wanted to go more than 130 km/h, for example, all it takes is pushing a button to start the REx while battery SOC is still high enough in order to keep the system happy. nnPersonally, I did not expect the 5% SOC limitation coming. I think we can thank CARB in Sacramento for throwing this wrench into the gears. The design is pretty clever and the price is right otherwise.

    • GCO

      Agreed, the test-drive here seems disconnected from what most people will actually do, possibly on purpose.nnThe decision to restrict when the REx can be fired is the manufacturer’s, not CARB.nHere it’s a deliberate move by BMW to have the range-extended i3 be considered an “EVx” instead of a PHV, and therefore have it qualify for better incentives (extra 1k$ state rebate, white HOV lane sticker).

  • As long as you “turn the range extender on early enough in your trip, there wonu2019t be any impact on performance”, or carry a 2 gallon jug of petro. Just thinking of pragmatic drivers, and next drive after an unexpected chage in performance. (I don’t recommend carring an petro jugs, due to safety considerations, and possible out-gassing on warm day; but temptation may exist for someone)nnMore important is what test the i3 rated poorly in than overall rating. (~50% of vehicles get a 4-star rating) eg: 2013 Leaf star-reduction from 2011/12 in US was due to a new offset frontal test on essentially the same Leaf body.nnBeyond the Crash-Test, a potential owner may need to consider “repair costs” of the carbon fibre structure. If repair costs (even for minor repairs) is higher/lower, it could impact future insurance premiums. Tesla Model S is in a similar stance given its mostly alumium body structure. Just an unknown until real-world data is available.

  • rarnedsoum

    Its just as well. Its the ugliest car I’ve seen in decades. It will make the lists along with AMC Pacer.

    • Mark Chatterley

      It looks a whole lot better in person. Something about the design does not lend itself to being forced in to 2D.

  • You can’t turn the motor on early in the i3 in the states so I can see issues going up inclines, negative press etc… it doesn’t come on until only 6% of the battery is left.

  • Markwbrooks

    Still not as good as the chevy volt, and its 10k more too… Come on BMW try harder!