(Pocket-lint) - This is what's called putting your money where your mouth is: because this is a review of our BMW i3. Yes, Pocket-lint went out and bought an electric car many months ago. So think of this coverage - highlighting both good and bad points - as a truly-lived-with review.
BMW introduced the 'i' sub-brand back in 2013, with the i3 being the first car in that range (the i8 supercar came a little later). The i3 is a four seat, four-door city car, which is less than four metres long, looks unusual and features a set of 'suicide doors' on each side (basically the rear door is hinged at the back so both open from a central point and there's no B-pillar).
The big take-away from the latest i3, however, is that in late 2016 BMW upgraded its battery capacity (from 66aH/23kWh to 94aH/33kWh) for an extended range. Even now, BMW is in the process of updating the i3 again for greater yet range. But aside from a slightly more powerful, wide-arch 'S' model that's been added to the range, the changes the company has and will make are minute and cosmetic.
The big question: is the latest BMW i8 the ultimate all-round electric car?
Getting to grips with EV battery numbers
What do those battery letters and numbers mean? There are two key metrics with electric cars. The first is the size of the battery – normally, the battery pack is rated, as we mentioned, in kWh – and generally the bigger the number the further you'll be able to go. For example, the Tesla Model S P100D has a 100kWh battery pack, while the Jaguar i-Pace has a 90kWh pack in its highest capacity version.
A closer competitor to the i3 is the new Nissan Leaf (with a 40kWh pack). The i3's battery, at 33kWh, may sounds a bit piddling by comparison, but as it's officially rated on the Euro drive cycle test it's said to have a range of 300km/186 miles. BMW rather quickly qualifies this in its own press material as saying that realistic customer range is more likely to be 200km/124 miles. We've found it to pan out like this: in the summer, 120 miles on a full charge is no problem; in the winter, 100 miles can be a challenge.
The second metric to consider with electric cars is the power output of the electric motor, which corresponds to the horsepower a traditional internal combustion engine car makes. The i3's 125kW electric motor translates to about 170 horsepower. Which, given that it weighs 1300kg thanks to carbon fiber and aluminium construction, means this electric car rarely feels slow. It'll run a 0-62mph time of 6.9 seconds, which is VW Golf GTi-rivalling. In the city, where you rarely achieve such speeds, the i3 can actually best BMW's own M3 up to about 40mph.
There are two types of i3 available: a range extender model (commonly referred to as the ReX), which pairs the battery with a small two-cylinder petrol engine under the boot floor, extending the range of the car by around 100 miles; or the purely electric model, as reviewed here.
Doing the electric car maths
We've been strong proponents of electric cars, but we're not blind to their limitations and the fears that many people would have in jumping from a current petrol or diesel car into a purely electric one. So, you'll note by the number plate, our car isn't brand new. We've waited several months and lived with the car for a few thousand miles already to build up a real-world picture, through winter and summer, come rain or shine.
Beyond the range of the battery, one key barrier that's stopping electric cars is that they're expensive. Or are perceived to be. Our basic i3's price was £33,070. As it's a BMW, we felt the need to add some options in order to optimise it. Like any BMW, you can ladle on the options and quickly end up with a £45k i3. But the i3 is relatively well equipped as standard: you get sat nav, BMW's Connected Drive suite, the ability to control key functions via an app, plus heated seats, DAB, Bluetooth, a USB port, folding mirrors, air con, cruise control, a suite of airbags, and so on.
For our own car, we added Protonic blue metallic paint (£530) and the eDrive exterior sound (£85), the latter because we were worried people wouldn't here us coming. The two bigger options were the sport pack (£1700) and the Lodge World interior pack (£1500).
The sport pack consists of larger 19-inch turbine alloys, sun protection glass, LED lamps and a Harmon Kardon sound system. If you want a decent stereo and some sharper looks on the outside then this is worth its asking price.
The interior pack adds a wool-weave plus tan leather seat and door covering, a white colour scheme for the wheel and dashboard, and a eucalyptus wood dash section. Extravagant? Perhaps. But the bigger picture with the i3 is that BMW has really worked on the sustainability aspect of all the materials. The leather is vegetable tanned for instance, which is much more environmentally friendly than regular leather tanning processes. And we feel that the light colour schemes, with wood, make the interior feel unlike any other car. Given the futuristic vibe, that's what we wanted.
This lot added £3835 to the total price, bringing our total to £36,905. Handily, the UK government still offers a plug-in car 'grant' – which for Category 1 vehicles like the i3, gives you £4500 off this price. Ok, it's not cheap, but it's not as mad as you might think.
There are a couple of other 'buts' to consider when it comes to the price. First off, we didn't pay that headline figure. Electric car technology is changing all the time, and looking at the price of a two-year-old used i3 we could see that if we paid for the car outright we were going to effectively be flushing cash down the drain. Fast. So instead, like many people who buy electric cars, we leased. Because we know the costs over a set period. And BMW were offering some very attractive figures at the time of purchase.
Our i3 was bought on a business contract hire which runs over 24 months. We put £1764 down at the start of the contract, and the headline figure was £196 per month for two years. Our options cost us an extra £26 per month on top. So the final monthly total is £222. At the end we simply hand it back to BMW. Both those figures attract VAT at 20 per cent (if you're using it as a business vehicle some of that can be claimed back).
Fancy running a car for free? An EV is as close as you get
There's more to the maths than the headline prices though. Because the i3 is an electric car producing 0g/km of CO2 on the official rating, all of this cost can be offset against tax for a business. An individual using the car pays a benefit in kind (BIK) taxation in their personal tax, but again because this is an electric car, that's only about £400 a year.
You also pay £0 per year in vehicle tax (commonly referred to as road tax), and in some London boroughs (and UK cities like Nottingham, Leeds and Glasgow) you can park an electric car for free in certain places. That applied to us, which means the i3 saves us around £8 per day in parking charges.
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We charge up our i3 at home and have worked out it costs about £3.50 for a full charge. A charge which takes us around 100 miles. Given we mostly use it in the city, compared to our old car (which used to achieve barely 30mpg), we're therefore saving money on 'fuel' too.
Add that little lot up, and the monthly outlay of the i3 lease cost is partly offset by the savings elsewhere, when compared to our old petrol car.
Driving the BMW i3: What's it like?
Mention an electric vehicle to someone in the UK and chances are that the thing which comes to mind is a milk float. However, mainly thanks to Tesla that image is changing. When we decided we wanted to run an electric car for ourselves, we couldn't quite afford to a Tesla, and to an extent felt that the BMW was the more interesting and radical electric car anyway.
The i3 is a wild piece of styling; and not really in a way that you'd call 'pretty'. It's stocky and stumpy and tall and isn't exactly dynamic looking. And the designers have then taken liberal amounts of the panels and painted them different colours – so the bonnet and boot are all black. To some, the i3 looks weird and downright ugly. But it also looks like nothing else on the road, and those suicide doors, the carbon fibre structure (on show when you open the doors) and the Manhattan loft-style interior really speak of this being a futuristic car. We like that... enough to lease one anyway.
The rather different philosophy BMW has employed in the interior is apparent as soon as you start up the i3. Hit the start button and there's no noise, just a slight hum (which is the optional eDrive sound module we specified, so that at low speeds pedestrians can hear you coming). It's still really easy to take bystanders completely unaware, though, and we've had two very close calls with people stepping out right in front of us, because they didn't hear us coming like they would a normal car.
Stamp on the accelerator and the i3 gives you its first surprise – it feels truly quick, leaping forward with the kind of abandon that's usually the reserve of sports cars. But with almost no noise. Our own unscientific traffic light grand prix experiments over the past months actually suggests that it's as quick (or quicker) away from the lights than just about any other car on the road for the first 20 meters or so. Which is amusing (for us the driver) and enraging (for drivers of sports cars) in equal measure.
A totally different driving experience
The i3 doesn't drive like a normal car either. The surprise first comes when you lift off the accelerator, because the car decelerates like you've hit the brake fairly hard. BMW has setup the i3 to encourage what it calls one-pedal driving. Which means if you're smooth and read the road ahead, you never really need to touch the brake pedal – the automatic brake regeneration can easily bring you to a stop, without you hitting the foot brake.
It also means that on long downhill sections of dual carriageway, you can feed in about five miles extra range into the battery, because the car is recovering energy. It's amazing how quickly you get used to this, how relaxing and also interactive it makes the i3 to drive. The acceleration means that the i3 is tempting to hoon around in a lot of the time, but after a while you start to actually think more about your driving, start to lift off the pedal a little earlier so you don't need to manually brake, and think ahead. In some ways, we think it's made us a better driver, and in city driving conditions, a less bored driver.
Out of town the acceleration only really trails off above 70 miles per hour. The steering is fairly slow, too, but nicely weighted and quite communicative, while the steering lock (because the i3 is rear drive) is immense tight – you can shuffle into really very tight spaces with ease.
It's not all perfect though. The skinny tyres mean that understeer does come into play (especially in the wet) if you're really motoring round corners. The ride around town is stiff, too, thanks to the carbon fibre structure and BMW's standard issue suspension and 19-inch wheels mean. Oh, and wind and road noise above 60mph is worse than you might expect for something with such aerodynamic prowess, which is further buffeted on motorways.
Our biggest gripe is the boot: it's smaller than a Ford Fiesta equivalent. We find that limiting in terms of its usability for our small family. Our car seats fit in the back seats fine, but the buggy doesn't fit in the boot. Problem.
For many, we think that factors like the small boot and the limitations on the range will relegate the i3 to a second car status. And if you look at the price in this context, it makes the i3 almost a niche offering. Indeed, our i3 does live alongside another, larger estate car. But the BMW has become our everyday car for a family of four; it's used for nursery, school runs, commuting, supermarkets and just about anything within 40 miles of where we live.
Getting back in a petrol or diesel car also genuinely feels old fashioned. The noise, the vibration, the changing gears, the stopping at fuel stations, the idling in traffic. All are relegated to the past in an electric car. Sure, a massive V8 can be a lot of fun, but that's a proposition at the other end of the scale that you'll rarely to never see on many peoples' driveways, certainly not in an everyday context.
Despite being constrained to the city, we've not been caught out by the suicide doors yet. Their central opening point means that if other cars park too close, getting out of the rear seat can become nigh-on impossible. We love BMW's Connected app too, which is free, easy to setup and allows you to check range, lock doors, and preheat the cabin remotely.
In short: If we're not making it clear enough about what its like to live with a fully electric car then, well, most of the time it's amazing.
Real-world range: Answering the questions people want to know
The most common question we get asked is "what's its range like"? Well, we've seen it as high as 137 and as low as 82 miles.
Weather has the biggest impact on range. Lithium-ion batteries clearly hate the cold and love warmth (just not too much warmth). In a period of -5C overnight freeze, when we didn't preheat the cabin and then used the heater liberally, it cost the range hugely. If it's 21C outside then you'll squeeze 100 miles out of the battery because you probably won't be using the heater/air-con. Or you can switch to run in Eco-Pro Plus mode, where the car is limited to 56mph, limits acceleration and shuts down all non-essential drains on the battery, which is when we've almost pushed it to 140 miles.
We rarely do more than 20 miles per day, so rarely switch the i3 out of its full power comfort mode. This places no limitation on performance or climate control. And we've never got to the point where we thought the car was going to strand us because we suddenly ran out of range. It simply makes you think more about the trip you're doing and whether you can charge at your destination.
The next question most want answering, is "how long does it take to charge?". It varies depending on how you charge, so can be anything from an hour to 13 hours. You can check via the app, which is handy, if you're out buying tea/coffee/chocolate/various goodies.
If you take the government grant that's available for home chargers and install a special 7kW wallbox charger on the side of your house for about £250, then it'll take just under four hours from flat to full. As an added bonus you don't have to trail wires out of the kitchen window.
From a 3-pin plug it's more like 13 hours, but entirely possible. And from the units you find out and about in public car parks it's generally 3-4 hours, apart from Ecotricity's motorway CCS charges – which we've only used a handful of times and which took a charge from 69 to 95 per cent charge in just 12 minutes.
What does it cost to charge? From our standard British Gas dual fuel online tariff, it's about £3.50. If you're prepared to shop around you can probably get that figure down to under £2.50, depending on how fuel prices vary over time.
People also ask "why didn't you buy the range-extender model?". The majority of i3 buyers do, but for us it was simple: we pretty much always have another car to use when we need to go a long distance. The furthest we've pushed the i3 on a single charge is 92 miles. If we didn't have a second car, or a steady flow of other press cars which we build our schedule around, we'd probably have bought the range-extender version too, just to be on the safe side.
Launched nearly five years ago, the BMW i3 still feels like a car of the future. It won't be for you if you're looking to blend into the crowd. It makes a statement – both inside and out – and this makes it something of a 'Marmite design'. But we think there's a lot to like: it's fun to drive with its one-pedal driving technique, it's a lovely space to sit in, and it costs virtually nothing to run.
It can get expensive as an initial outlay, but it feels bespoke and futuristic. However, the new Nissan Leaf – with its larger battery capacity and greater range – makes the BMW look poor value.
The biggest surprise, however, is how little we miss petrol and diesel power. The electric range anxiety factor that everyone seemingly obsesses about, disappeared in little time. Yes, that's circumstance dependent, but if you're regularly driving, say, 50 miles a day then there's no concern.
Sure, we've come to realise that in a world of sat nav and smartphones and 700 mile range diesels, the distances between places isn't something that many people know well. So if you simply can't get your head around changing that approach to life, or if you regularly drive over a hundred miles each day, or you don't have a driveway or garage, then an electric car like the i3 may not be for you... yet.
- Future electric cars: Upcoming battery-powered cars that will be on the roads within the next 5 years
Right now, though, more than six months in, we can't recommend life with an electric car enough. This side of a Tesla, the BMW i3 provides arguably the most interesting EV on the road. And if you've room for just one car in your life then the i3 range extender might be just what you're looking for.
Alternatives to consider:
The recently revised Leaf has a 40kWh battery, which means it will go further on a single charge than the i3. You also get a suite of technology that's a little more modern than the i3, wrapped in a bigger car, that looks more normal and costs less. For many people that will make the Leaf a no-brainer choice over the i3, however the Leaf isn't as fun to drive, its interior is much less special, and its tech is less well integrated.
- Read the full review: Nissan Leaf
If you're looking for the most accessible way into an EV, the Zoe is right up there. Renault's affordable EV is the only one to start in the teens, and there's a new, higher-capacity 40kWh battery version available too. It looks conventional, but the Zoe doesn't offer the kind of performance and feels a little on the cheap side, particularly when it comes to interior plastics and interface design.
- Read the full review: Renault Zoe
The Golf is slightly cheaper than the i3 and has an official range that's slightly higher. If you're nervous about going electric, it's probably the easier option: simpler to drive, slightly bigger inside, and more normal looking. But it lacks the i3's verve, fun-to-drive qualities and futuristic get-up.
- Read the full review: Volkswagen e-Golf