BMW i3: City life sweet for baby power play

BMW i cars are a whole new breed and the i3 in particular is definitely one of a kind.

Pros: Fantastic interior, lots of personalisation opportunity, perfect for city use.

Cons: Limited range, poor open road ride, aggressive brakes.

Score: 4.5/5

BMW is a numbers brand - to the point where all model designations are alpha numeric – but it has achieved the ultimate count w

ith the eco-acknowledging 'i' models, cars that start a fresh chapter and introduce a whole new vernacular.

The i-brand ethos is all about sustainability and with Munich having worked on electric mobility since 2007 nothing has been spared.

The real genius of the $85,000 as tested i3 is with the bespoke structure based around a carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) passenger cell, the ‘Life Module’ in BMW-speak. There is hardly any steel in this car.

Powertrain and performance:

With electrics producing 125kW/250Nm the i3 is no candidate for an ‘M’ badge, but the 120kg combined weight of the motor and that 25kW/55Nm 650cc two-cylinder (from the Motorrad bike division) that acts as a generator and see-me-home direct drive power source doesn’t hurt it and there’s no reason to dispute the claimed 0-100kmh time of 7.2 seconds. 

The immediacy of the response loses potency at highway pace, but it still has enough zap to accelerate for overtaking. At urban pace you’d have no issue charging into gaps in the traffic.

Open road running patently depletes the battery faster; hence why there are various Eco functions culminating in ‘EcoPro plus’. The mode sounds innocuous but is the extreme setting, one that goes as far as switching off the climate control and limiting speed to 90kmh to maximise range.

Regardless of the mode, you feel another effect. BMW has deliberately engineered a great deal of regenerative drag into the powertrain when coasting. It’s called “one pedal driving”, because with a little practice you can bring the i3 to a stop without touching the brake pedal. The retardation is good for city but makes free-wheeling impossible.

You can run the car exclusively off the engine once the battery deplete but that’s not a priority aim. For one, it’ll drink at a rate of 7.8 litres per 100km (against an optimum 0.6L/100km when it’s battery first) and the fuel tank only holds nine litres. Secondly, the engine emits enough clatter to create a ruinous din when it kicks in. Still, it does extend the range beyond battery depletion by 120-160kms.

Driver appeal:

BMW makes no pretence that this is a city car (the concept was, after all, the ‘megacity vehicle’) that’ll share a garage with at least another vehicle better suited to open road driving. That’s the best way to treat it.

It has a handy feel. The steering is light but is quick, the thin 155/70 front and 175/60 rear tyres give more grip than you’d think and while hitting a mid-corner bump can invite awkward body movement, even then it stays planted.

Zipping down city streets is fun. It excels in environments that are cruel to larger, fatter, less efficient cars. The tighter the streetscape, the better it fits in. The turning circle is stunning, beaten only by a mobility scooter and the high-set seating and large glass areas afford good visibility (plus there’s a very good reversing camera).

Also, while light and glassy, the body feels really solid and, thus, very safe. The integrity is also, of course, backed up by some impressive occupant protection systems.

The i3 has ConnectedDrive, the internet-enabler that also provides no-cost access to a call centre, which will be handy when you’ve exhausted other ideas about where to locate public recharging points.

Ride, refinement and quality:

is it conceivable anyone would take an i3 on a holiday? I think not. In theory, yes, an i3 can cover Auckland to National Park on a singe tank/charge, but I wouldn’t recommend it for any prolonged open road driving. The performance is fine, the car is comfy and it feels solid, but compliance is not a byproduct of those narrow tyres, huge rims and its world first mass-produced carbonfibre bodyshell.

Ride quality is always firm; okay for around town but harsh off smooth tarmac. Coarse chip – the stuff that coats almost all our roads outside of the main centres – is a killer compound in its propensity to transmit vibration and noise through to the cabin. Maybe this is an unavoidable from of the whole structure being so rigid, and potentially our test car’s upgrade from the standard 19 inch rims to 20s won’t have helped, yet it’s less relaxing than the Holden Volt, Audi e-tron and Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. Not exactly a plus when all are bigger, more practical, more powerful and, erm, cheaper.

Better, then, to stick to the shopping run.

Practicality and packaging:

A body shape that takes cues from a 2012 Los Angeles show concept isn’t beautiful but it is beautifully rendered and obviously a magnet for instant conversation. That kooky rear window line doesn’t seem to serve any practical purpose, but the car as a whole is utterly polarising which, given the technology application, is a possible plus point.

The cabin design is a massive tour de force; I’ve met no other car this year that is so radical in interior design yet is so readily friendly its function. Adventurous use of sustainable material whose inclusion isn’t as dodgy as it might sound and the whole layout and presentation is achingly avant garde. You’re confronted by a pair of TFT screens  – one ahead of the driver and one that appears to ‘float’ above the centre of the dashboard. These display everything from speed to sat-nav information and can be controlled via an iDrive controller.

The i3 offers a lot room within that four metre body. That it presented as a four-seater says more about the tight shoulder space in the back than available head and leg room, but it’s genuinely comfortable with four aboard. The back doors are just small rear-opening (clap hand) coach doors but without a B-pillar in the middle access is easy, although you have to step over a wide sill. Luggage room is limited to 260 litres with all the seats in place, but this is still better than the i8 – which has a teensy one-bag boot – and it also increases to 1100 litres with them folded down. 

How it compares:

Range extender electric cars already seem the best fit for New Zealand, but they’re still rare fare. When the i3 arrived, it was conceivably only up against the Outlander PHEV and Holden Volt. Now the Volt has gone and the big challenger is probably the Audi A3 e-tron, more orthodox and better suited as an all-round car, yet somehow less of a ground-breaker.