After spending time in the company of the new, electrically powered BMW i3 we came away with a clear thought in our minds: we’d just driven the future. Not into the future, of course, as the i3 is a production car in the here and now. You can pop to a dealer tomorrow and pre-order one for 2014 delivery.
But there’s much more to this story than just a car. BMW i - the company's sub-brand - is about a wholesale rethink of mobility; it’s futuristic in its thought process. And we like its vision.
More than just a car
The i3 takes the Bayerisch Motor Works guys into entirely new territory. It’s hard for us to fully describe what that involves here, not least because we didn’t spend long enough with the car to try out all its features and associated services.
But if you’ve ever wanted your car to be more inherently integrated into life and tech then you’re going to like the i3. You’ll be able to lean out of bed, fire up a BMW i App to check the car is fully charged and then heat it up or cool down the cabin before you leave the house in the morning.
But you can do that in other electric cars already. So far, so normal then.
But how about helping you get over range anxiety? Or if you’ve ever wondered why car ownership couldn’t go beyond just one single vehicle - allowing you to occasionally swap the one you use most days for something different? Or find parking for you. BMW i has answers for all of those.
It’s not going to solve congestion, pollution and parking problems overnight. But the whole "car" process has been rethought here. To build, it consumes less energy than a 1-Series - around 50 per cent less.
READ: BMW M135i review
There will be a BMW green electricity tariff for charging it at home. They brand has even bundled up the many disparate charge point providers in the UK into one "parknow" service, which gives you a single £20 amonth access card to use for over 85 per cent of them.
When is a car company not a car company?
And let’s face it, when did you ever hear of a car company that creates a set of services in a car that are so complete, that it will tell you the traffic ahead is so bad, that it has worked out if you take the train instead you’ll arrive at your destination earlier? Then check the timetable for you, see if there’s somewhere to park at the station and even book you a ticket.
For now though, we can tell you about the car - or rather cars. While the i3-range structure is far simpler than other BMW models, you do still have a choice: to go pure electric, or purchase what’s called a range-extended electric version of the i3.
In our first drive, we jumped into a range-extended i3 in the centre of London and drove it to Brands Hatch Race Track in Kent, where we then put a pure electric i3 to the test in a series of somewhat amusing challenges. One that showed how it’s faster to 30 mph than a BMW M3. Another how its turning circle is nearly as tight as a London black cab.
The merits of pure-electric cars versus plug-in hybrids, range-extenders and the like extensive. You’ll probably know already what you think and which i3 you’d go for.
Electricity for the win
But while the range extender is fantastic, having weighed up the fact that the pure electric model is over three-grand cheaper to buy, weighs around 150kg less and is faster accelerating, we’d go pure electric, especially if we owned another car. Unless we drove more than 75 miles in a day, regularly.
Whichever you choose, you’ll get a car that is generally a delight to drive and still feels like a BMW out on the road. And one whose exterior looks and interior experience are very different to almost anything else on the road today.
Much of this comes down to the i3’s unique construction. A large lithium-ion battery pack is contained within a lower aluminium frame and front and rear crash structure. On top of which is fixed a carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) structure, that’s so stiff BMW didn’t need to fit a B pillar. With all the usual petrol engine gubbins gone - or vastly reduced at least - there are other benefits too.
The wheels are pushed right out to the corners of the car, so although the i3’s barely four metres long, the wheelbase is as big as a 1-series’ and there’s a similar amount of space inside. There is no transmission tunnel. The passenger floor is completely flat, so there’s nothing getting in the way on the floor between driver and front seat passenger. The oddments bins and glove box are massive, because there’s just more space for that without internal combustion drivetrain stuff eating up space.
And if you do get the range extended version, you don’t lose anything in terms of practicality as the tiny little two-cylinder petrol generator - in fact a BMW motorbike unit - is super-compact and sits underneath the boot floor.
A new layer of BMW design
The i-series is an entire new sub-brand for BMW, so the design is very much differentiated from regular BMs. The classic twin kidney grille is still present, but note how BMW’s signature sky blue turns into a much brighter, more electric blue - if you’ll pardon the obvious pun - for its i-series cars. The colour is used as a highlight on various exterior parts and interior elements too if you so wish.
The whole car has quite a graphical look: like the sides are layers, stuck on because the entire centre section - bonnet, roof, boot - is rendered in a gloss black, regardless of what primary exterior colour you choose. The point is it looks lighter. We think it works.
The famous "Hofmeister kink" of the rear window line that regular BMWs have changes here into a dropping rear window line. Slightly kooky, yet also distinctive, it has a clear benefit in making the cabin really airy. Great if you have young kids travelling in car seats in the back as this means they’ll actually be able to see out.
A world of interiors - but better than DFS
Inside, how the interior of the BMW i3 looks is determined by which "interior world" theme you happen to choose. Select from: standard black and blue, which is a bit drab; Loft, the white, clean architectural choice; Lodge, the Scandinavian kind of finish with light wood - it would be our choice by miles, and; Suite, complete with full leather, that you see in the pictures of our main test car.
You’ll notice some key differences to regular cars - ones that tick the "green box" too. There’s an interesting textured plastic on the doors and the back of the dash, which uses recycled fibres. The leather is olive-tanned, because it is much less environmentally harmful than chromium tanning. The wood is European eucalyptus wood which is fast growing and sustainable.
The theme of the outside continues inside too - with lovely, lightweight-feel layers, including a section that wraps onto the centre of the dash and suspends the primary sat nav screen. As standard this is 6.5-inch, coupling with the 5.5-inch unit behind the wheel. But on our car, you see the upgraded 10-inch pro-nav system version.
It’s not all perfect though. You’ll need to open the i3’s front doors to get in the back, which will be annoying in some situations, but hardly worse than a 3-door car. And the boot is supermini small.
We were disappointed the screen behind the steering wheel only utilises a thin strip of the full screen for speed and driving data in most usage scenarios. And that it couldn’t replicate navigation turn-by-turn instructions as other BMWs do.
For a car made out of carbon fibre structure - which is super strong - we’re also disappointed the A-pillar’s so thick. It makes oblique visibility quite tricky at some junctions. At one point we lost an entire Mercedes ML behind there, and they’re not exactly small.
Nonetheless, these are largely minor gripes are outweighed by other things. BMW’s iDrive is still highly intuitive, and adds numerous functions for its new electric car setting, such as a dynamic overlay on the map showing how far your range will take you.
We love the steering wheel too, and the integrated column with the starter and gear direction selector on.
The ultimate electric machine?
Yet for all its impressive design, technology and on-paper environmental qualities, it is on the road that the i3 most impresses.
Quite simply this is the best electric car we’ve ever driven. Its 0-60 time of seven-point-something seconds is Mini Cooper S fast, but as the Brands Hatch event showed, off the line it will frighten much more powerful machinery. And of course, because it’s electric the torque curve is flat, which makes for easy overtaking and it’s disturbingly easy to speed in this car. Regular BMW drivers will be happy.
Yet more than the performance, it’s the relaxed, easy and highly refined overall experience the electric drivetrain brings that’s so enjoyable. It’s just effortless. It’s largely noiseless too. There’s none of the whine we’ve found in other EVs.
If you are going for the range-extended unit, you’re in for a treat. The system is designed to simply top up the battery to keep you going - it never clutches in to drive the wheels. But when it does - you can force it to come on when the battery drops below 75 per cent full, or it’ll do it automatically once the battery depletes after 80-100 miles - it’s barely audible. Wafting along to Lauren Laverne on 6 Music - on the i3's as-standard DAB radio - at about 50 miles an hour, we couldn’t tell it was running.
Cleverly, having buried it under the boot floor and by using a very refined motorbike unit, BMW has none of the wailing, straining qualities of other hybrids. Only at lower speeds, and with radio firmly off, do you know its there.
It’s accompanied by a 9-litre fuel tank, giving you a theoretical range of just under 200 miles combined for battery and petrol. If you still can’t find a plug after that, you could just fill it up with petrol every 100 miles or so and keep on driving. Oh, and with the regenerative braking as aggressively set up as it is, unless you drive like an, um, BMW driver, you’ll hardly ever need to touch the real brake pedal.
The car brakes so much under its own steam, it activates the brake lights when regenerating. This takes some getting used to, but after a while it adds to the ease and zippy-ness of the thing.
The ride is firm, but well damped and improves with speed. And the high-speed stability and agility will be familiar to owners of existing BMWs as we were shown when we got to fling it round part of Brands Hatch’s old grand prix circuit. Being a BMW, it’s a rear wheel drive machine, and it’s genuinely a pleasure to thrap around in. Only the hilariously big - they’re 19 inch - but skinny profile tyres limit its ultimate driving capabilities.
The future, here today
If we sound like a stuck record harping on positively about the electric cars we’ve driven recently, then we make no apologies. Stepping back into a regular car - even a very good one - feels depressingly like going back to a previous century after time with the i3.
Of course, you’ll be waiting for us to drop the bomb that it costs more than a house to buy, or that you have to give BMW an organ to get one. But no, walk into a BMW dealer next week and you’ll have one in early 2014, we’re told. And it's the price bit which we think really makes you stop and think about the i3. With the government’s 5k electric car grant applied, you’ll get into an all-electric i3 for £24,950 and a range-extender for £28,100.
But perhaps more importantly, given how most people buy cars these days, is BMW’s £2,995 down and £369 a month over three years personal lease deal. Which, having spent a day with an i3, feels like the bargain of the century.
For something that genuinely feels so well resolved, and so much like the future, we commend BMW. We’ll cover the wider spectrum of i-services another time and in a longer review as they deserve their own story.
Porsches, Lotuses, AMG Mercs - we’ve driven them all this year. And fun though they were, of all the cars we’ve driven and reviewed this year, the i3 is without doubt the one we most want to keep. It’s that good.
The future has arrived. Who would have thought it’d be wearing a BMW badge and still legitimately lay claim to being an ultimate driving machine?