BMW i3 First Drive Review

Back in the hot seat of the BMW i3, this time though with the keys.

After getting some hands on time with a prototype i3 in October, getting to drive one was high on my list of priorities. Earlier this year, I called the Seat Leon a very important car. I wasn’t wrong at all, it is. But the BMW i3 may be the most important car I’ve ever driven.

In my time with possession of a driving licence I’ve had the privilege of taking to the tarmac in an array of excellent cars and while all have had their pluses there’s never been one that’s made me think of it as more than just a car. The Aston Martin’s are beautiful things, for sure. The Civic Type-R, quite the toy and the Audi A8 was one of the best ways to loaf around in comfort, but never before has one car made me think of all three at the same time and yet still be better as a whole package.

Has that set the bar in a confusing and high place? Yes, good. I’ll begin to explain.

In my first interaction with the i3 I covered the look of the car both inside and out in it’s prototype form. Few things have changed since that prototype and the final sale models. Seriously, you have to be one of BMW’s Product Geniuses to tell what’s different. This was my first chance to explore some of the different trim options though. In the lavish Loft spec, a showroom sitting RE EV (Range Extended Electric Vehicle) model was a pricey £41,000. Quite expensive, but that is excluding the £5000 subsidy that UK government offers on such cars, which makes a fully spec’d up BMW for £36,000 and next nothing in fuel and tax, it quickly becomes a bit more palatable.

My ride for the day though was the pure EV model in the basic spec. A more down to earth model that is still very generously spec’d. As ever, the BMW representative took us silently away so he could talk through some of the key points of driving the i3. Everyone who has been in an electric car says something like this but it has to be repeated; The BMW rep could talk, quietly. The absence of cabin noise is somewhat disconcerting if you’ve never experienced anything like it before. It’s a bit like being in the back of a limo.IMG_0565

As a passenger you immediately have a feeling of comfort. The space, ooh goodness the space. It was somewhat hard to determine properly when the i3 was sat in a room, just how cavernous the cabin is. With the rest of the world silently flowing by the large windows, you get a true understanding of light and space. With the lack of a central drive train tunnel through the middle of the car, you can fidget about with out banging your legs about.

When we pulled up, the BMW rep went through a few of the finer control points of the car and we switched places.

The i3 uses keyless entry and doesn’t have an ignition, so when you’re strapped in, you simply press the Start/Stop button on the drive select stalk to the right of the steering wheel, twist it to Drive and off you go. Silently and swiftly.

Swiftly is the operative word here. If you haven’t driven an electric car before, you won’t fully appreciate the potency of immediate torque. Revving an engine is fun, sure, but putting the hammer down quickly, you’ll get what the Tango adverts used to say ‘the hit of the whole fruit’. As the BMW rep was joyous to tell me, the i3 pulls away faster than an M3 at 0-32mph. I believe him. The M3’s engine then wakes up and disappears, with the i3 not too far behind. The near as dammit 7 second 0-62 mph time is accurate and usable. When joining a dual carriageway, at no point did I feel like a liability. I could match the traffic’s speed with complete ease.

Staying with the dual carriageway, considering the i3 can go for 80 miles on a charge, this gives a valuable ‘real-world’ indication of what living with the i3 would be like. I’ve driven and been driven in some super saloons with simply excellent comfort. The i3 is up there with them. The combination of skinny Bridgestones with a generous profile and well tuned suspension combined with a near silent cabin (there’s some unavoidable wind and road noise) make this a great place to eat up miles. Usually, that would be enough for me in a mile muncher but there was a surprising bonus, the seat and driving position.

Firstly, the seat looks flimsy due to how thin it is. That’s in no means the case. The composite plastic used gives the seats a really comfortable and supportive feel. The seating position is higher than a car and about on par with a crossover. This makes sense considering you’re sitting on top of the battery.

Sitting on the battery keeps it low, along with the car’s centre of gravity. A low centre of gravity and rear wheel drive? It must be time for some corners!

First things first, the road had gotten a little damp in some places, but I can confirm that the back-end will come out. The future of electrical hullaganisem is up on us. With that covered and the car’s onboard diagnostics checked we were able to take the car round some more corners.

The best word I can use to describe the handling in the i3 is nimble. Wherever you turn the wheel and the right application of the accelerator you’ll find that the card just wants to go. It’s very eager. This eagerness doesn’t come through in a straight line. Not from the steering that is. There’s no twitchiness and the car tracks straight and true. It feels significantly well planted on the road. This is a combination of the low centre of gravity and the carbon fibre structure.

With most of the driving characteristics covered; it’s fast, it’s comfortable, it handles very well. There is little else I can say other than you need to drive this vehicle. If you get the opportunity to, jump on it with both hands. If you’re considering purchasing a new car, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

There are a few considerations though.

  • Do you have somewhere to charge it at home and or at work?
    This goes for both the EV and the RE EV versions.
  • Do you frequently travel long distances?
    If so, this is not the car for you. Even with the range extended version giving you the opportunity to drive from London to Sheffield on one charge/tank of fuel that’s still not practical for somebody that needs to go from Edinburgh to London on a regular basis.

If you can get past these issues and get this is a company vehicle you do very well and be quite happy. If this is going to be a personal purchase however you might consider the lifespan of your vehicle. This is true of any vehicle but with the i3 there are some interesting things to know. For instance the vast majority of materials used in the vehicle are already from recycled sources and can be recycled again. The practical life of the battery is somewhere in the region of 15 years and guaranteed for 100,000 miles. At the end of the batteries usable service life on the vehicle, it is then taken back to BMW in Germany where it is hooked up to their solar PV facilities.

This is one of the reasons why I think this is the most important car I’ve driven. Not only is it great for a driver, great for the environment it should work out being great for BMW. The car has been thought through from its very beginning to the end of its life and how will be used and how it impacts everything around it. This holistic approach to both manufacturing and ownership give BMW a distinct advantage over the rest of the market.

It’s great. Go drive one and consider buying one.

Now I wait for the i8.