Why the BMW i3 is the best electric car on the planet News TechRadar

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August Electric Vehicle

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The waiting is over. We’ve experienced the future of motoring. Actually, according to BMW the new i3 is more than that. It’s the future of personal mobility.

All new, all-electric, and an awful lot of carbon-fibre, the i3 is probably the best electric car yet. But that may yet not be enough. In the UK last year, electric cars were just one per cent of the market.

Think about that.

The basics

Before we dig down into the tech, let’s cover some basics. The i3 starts at £25,380 when your factor in the government’s £5,000 grant for electric vehicles. So a fair bit more expensive than the likes of Renault’s £13,995 Zoe (though that doesn’t buy you a battery, you lease it on top) or the £20,990 you’ll need to buy a Nissan Leaf complete with battery.

Open plan: The BMW i3 isn’t like other cars

On the other hand, £25,000-odd is probably a bit less than we were expecting and when you take into account all the technology, including the radical carbon fibre construction, suddenly it almost seems cheap.

Anyway, what you get is a car that somewhat defies categorisation, what with its semi four-door (the two rear doors are small … doors) open-plan configuration. It’s hard to know what class of car it feels like inside. Is it VW Polo / For Fiesta sized?

Or Golf / Focus sized?

Whatever, the standard electric model is rated just under 120 miles range on the official NEDC test. BMW is disarmingly honest and says the maximum real-world range for most owners will be 100 miles. There’s also a range extended model with a tiny 647cc petrol generator, the one we spent most our time in as it happens, that ups the real-world range to 186 miles.

Are you ready for a BMW that looks like this?

So, that’s a sort-of four door hatch in pure electric or range-extended formats that’s good for 100 to 180-odd miles depending on configuration.

The tech

So far, so not hugely revolutionary. Bring on the tech. Inside, it’s immediately obvious you’re in something a bit different. That starts with the aforementioned … doors and open-plan layout.

Open all the doors and you can look right through the whole car. There’s no transmission tunnel, of course, so the floor is flat, again contributing to a sense of airiness.

Next up is iDrive with the i3’s own version of BMW ConnectedDrive. BMW is pitching the i3 as coming with connectivity as standard. Indeed, all i3s get Bluetooth, DAB radio, iDrive Touch, cruise control, BMW Business Navigation, BMW Online, BMW Apps and Advanced ConnectedDrive as standard.

The BMW i3 gets dual LCD screen and no conventional instruments

You get all the usual features, including super screen quality, well-executed smartphone integration and a whole hill of clever connected and remote features. That means things like streaming music from the internet and support for sending navigation destinations direct from your phone or laptop to your BMW. Or unlocking it with a smartphone app.

To that BMW has added what you might call a more complete set of personal mobility functionality. That starts with fairly obvious stuff like building in operating range and charging stations into the navigation system. It’ll show you estimated range for both standard mode and the Eco Pro mode that reduces both performance and climate control operation to squeeze out a few more miles.

The BMW Remote app also gives you full access to charging functionality, allowing you to remotely check on charging status and schedule it.

Then there’s so-called last mile navigation, which transfers navigation to your smartphone and guides you to your destination on foot. BMW is planning full integration with public transport, but it’s not a feature we’ve yet experienced.

This kind of total mobility fusing car with public transport and walking is very popular from a PR perspective. It’s very right-on, too, to be a car company and publicly embrace public transport. Exactly how well it will work, is yet to be seen.

Operating range is built into the BMW i3’s nav system

On a related note, part of BMW’s mobility solution for i3 owners is a sort of subsidised rental fleet of combustion-powered BMWs that i3 owners can access. Basically, you’ll pay for points which in turn can be redeemed for a loan of a conventional BMW.

The idea is that for those few days per year when you need a long-range vehicle, you’ll have one. What happens if everyone wants one over Christmas, for instance, remains to be seen.

The drive

But what’s the i3 like to drive? Very nice is the answer, but possibly not exciting or different enough. Thanks to that carbon-fibre construction, BMW has kept the weight down very effectively indeed.

The BMW Remote app is integral to the i3 experience

The standard electric i3 is just 1,195kg, the range-extender version 1,325kg. The electric motor is good for 170hp, so that means nippy acceleration to 62mph of 7.2 seconds and 7.9 seconds respectively. Top speed is limited to 93mph.

The i3 is at its best around town. It’s quick, it’s super responsive and it’s super refined. Even the best combustion cars make noises, shift gears and take critical moments to respond to throttle inputs.

But the i3 is electric and gearless, so it’s instant to respond, makes almost no noise doing so and just keeps on responding. There are no gear shifts to worry about.

Out of town, it’s a slightly different matter. At speed, wind and tyre roar contribute plenty of noise in any car, so the i3 doesn’t feel quite as magical.

A full charge good for 100 miles will cost you just £2

Nor does it feel quite as dynamic as you might hope. It’s rear-wheel drive, but doesn’t feel it most of the time. In the end, it’s not a hugely exciting car to drive.

More a very polished, calming mode of transport. For most, that’s probably exactly as is should be.

BMW i3: First verdict

What to make of the i3 overall? As a technological achievement, it’s second to none. Whether it will actually sell is another matter.

It’s interesting that BMW went to great lengths to reduce weight but did not use that advantage to fit a bigger battery and thus achieve longer range than the competition.

Research shows that the 100-odd mile range is more than enough for the vast majority of people who might buy an electric car the vast majority of the time. But we think a longer range would still help acceptance of what is an emerging technology.

iDrive Touch is standard on all BMW i3’s

Then again, maybe the cost argument will win over. BMW reckons you can fully charge an i3 for less than £2. Try driving a petrol or diesel car 100 miles for £2.

Looks wise, the i3 is also a huge departure for BMW. That’s a good thing in the sense that it underlines you’re buying something new and technologically advanced. But, again, car buyers are a conservative bunch.

Ultimately, we think the i3 will be a lovely car to live with. It feels futuristic but upscale inside (if you tick enough of the options boxes, at least), it drives very nicely, it’ll cost you virtually nothing in energy or fuel and nothing has better in-car tech.

Whether that’s enough to win over electric car sceptics, time will tell. BMW could sell three or four times more i3s than any other electric car on the market and it would still be selling in tiny numbers.

In other words, BMW needs an order of magnitude more success with the i3 than any other electric car has achieved in the UK to make an impact. That’s a big ask. But the i3 might just be the EV to take electric cars into the mainstream.

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