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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