What Car? says...
Ever since it was first unveiled, the BMW i3 has played a major role in bringing electric cars into the mainstream. With its funky looks, impressive performance and clever carbonfibre and aluminium construction, the i3 has shown buyers that electric cars don't have to be white goods – they can be lusted after.
Of course, keeping the i3 ‘current’ in a fast developing sector hasn’t been easy. Every few years BMW has taken the opportunity to update its sole fully electric offering by fitting larger, more energy efficient batteries. The latest 120Ah model now offers a claimed range of up to 160 miles in real world conditions and there’s even a sporty i3s variant that’s designed to deliver a more entertaining driving experience.
However, despite these constant upgrades, the world into which the i3 was born now looks very different. In the last few years alone, we’ve seen an all-new Nissan Leaf, a heavily revised Renault Zoe and an increasing number of electric cars based on existing piston-powered models, including the Peugeot e-208, Kia e-Niro and the inventively named Mini Electric.
In our in-depth review, we’ll let you know how the BMW i3 stacks up against these new electric rivals and also whether it will fit into your lifestyle if you’re thinking of switching from a petrol or diesel car.
So click through to the next page and start reading. And whichever car you end up deciding to buy, head over to our New Car Buying pages for a great deal with absolutely no hassle.
Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
Regardless of whether you choose the regular i3 or sportier i3s, the electric motor sends its power to the rear wheels. That's unusual because the vast majority of electric cars are driven by their front wheels. The advantage? Well, try to pull away swiftly in a Kia e-Niro on a damp road and the front wheels scrabble in vain as they try transfer power to the road. In the i3 things are much more composed.
The i3 is pretty fast, too: even the regular model can accelerate from 0-62mph in 7.3sec, whereas the slightly more powerful i3s cuts that time to just 6.9sec. You'll find it hard to resist embarrassing petrol and diesel cars away from the traffic lights.
Electric car performance isn't just about how quickly you can get up to speed, though – it's about how far you can go between charges. Officially, the more powerful i3s can manage 175 miles while the regular i3 can do 181 miles. However, BMW says 160 miles is more realistic, so if you regularly cover big distances, it’s unlikely that the i3 could be your only car. We've yet to put the latest i3 through our independent Real Range tests, but there's little doubt that rivals such as the e-Niro and Renault Zoe will manage considerably more miles between charges.
Suspension and ride comfort
The engineering brief for the i3 was clearly to prevent this fairly tall, narrow car from swaying about through bends, so the suspension is quite firm.
Even on standard 19in wheels, you'll notice plenty of thunks and bumps along pockmarked urban roads. The ride on the optional 20in wheels (standard on the sportier i3s) is even firmer – although comfort was improved markedly during revisions in 2018.
It may be an electric car but the i3 is still a BMW at heart, and the company's engineers have managed to make it feel surprisingly responsive and agile. The steering has a consistent, satisfying weight to it and a tiny turning circle helps make the i3 ideal for the urban fray. You'll be amazed at its manoeuvrability in tight spaces; this is a car perfectly suited to slipping into tight parking spots and winding up multi-storey car parks.
However, at faster speeds, the standard i3 can feel a bit twitchy and nervous, so it isn't quite as fun to drive along a twisting country road as you might imagine. While the skinny tyres provide more grip than you might expect, it tends to skip and hop over mid-corner bumps which instantly robs you of confidence – a characteristic you won’t find in more conventional rivals, such as the Peugeot e-208 or Mini Electric.
Thankfully, the i3s goes some way to correcting this imbalance. A 40mm wider rear track (the distance between opposing wheels), 10mm lower ride height and specially tuned suspension ensure this sportier version stays flatter through bends and feels generally more composed during quick changes of direction at speed. And, thanks to wider tyres, there’s less of the skipping and pogoing that you notice in the standard car.
Noise and vibration
The i3's electric motor is impressively quiet; there's none of the high-pitched whine that you get in some rivals. However, the hushed nature of the motor leaves you to hear more of the road and suspension noise that the i3's carbon-fibre construction struggles to suppress; there's a mixture of rumble and resonance that can become tiring, especially on longer motorway runs.
Unlike many electric cars, the i3’s brake pedal responds fairly consistently to pressure, but you'll soon learn to drive with a 'single-pedal' technique around town, anticipating when you're going to have to come to a halt and allowing the car's regenerative braking system to slow you down by simply lifting off the accelerator pedal. This happens in a smoother fashion than it does in rivals, such as the Nissan Leaf.
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