Review: BMW i3

One of the things I’ve most admired about BMW over the years is its steadfast refusal to look backward. Oh, the company has a deep respect for its own history – a trip to their museum in Munich will tell you just how deep. But, limited-run Z8 excepted, it’s one of the few car brands that has really resisted the urge to use its back catalogue as a source for lazy new designs. From its tech-flagship 7 Series models right on down to the least expensive, entry-level cars, BMW has always been looking forward.

As the industry wrestles with what to do about electrification, car-sharing, and the changing role of the automobile in people’s lives, BMW has been the brand that has embraced the coming changes the most. While other carmakers rebel by bringing out retro-themed analog specials to tug at the heartstrings of auto pundits and enthusiasts, BMW has plugged wholeheartedly into an electrified future. It’s rolled out plug-in hybrid versions of its mainstream 3, 5, and 7, and X5; invested in car-sharing companies across the globe; and perhaps most impressively, was the first German manufacturer to develop a line of electric cars, rolling out the i3 that I’m driving here as well as the i8 years before any of its premium competition.
Unlike the more conventional “iPerformance” models, which continue to feature gasoline engines combined with plug-in hybrid capability with significant electric range, the i3 is built on an all-new architecture specifically designed for electric driving. Its structure is made of ultra-light carbon-fibre, to compensate for the weight of heavy batteries while preserving the dynamic handling you’d expect of a BMW; as standard, it is electric-only, with a range-extending gasoline engine and tiny fuel tank available only as a cost option; and it looks like it’s driven straight out of the future.
A friend of mine, upon seeing the i3, referred to it as a modernist toaster, and its profile certainly doesn’t fit the usual BMW mould – which is exactly the point. The tall, narrow, and somewhat boxy proportions are perfect for the city, and combined with the compact, rear-mounted electric drivetrain, make for one of the most efficiently-packed cars I’ve ever driven. Despite the tiny footprint, there’s tons of space for four (if not a huge amount of luggage space) and access is brilliantly easy thanks to the pillar-less sides.
Thanks to the battery pack sitting under the floor, the seats are mounted relatively high, but the driving position is quite sporty, and visibility out the front, sides, and rear is brilliant thanks to the huge glass area. Go for some of the more interesting interior trim options and you get naturally-tanned leather, moulded fabric, and open-pore wood that speak to the i3’s more sustainable remit. There are no conventional gauges, all of the important information being relayed through a pair of high-res LED screens, and because of the electric drivetrain, the controls are brilliantly simple: a pod on the steering column lets you start and stop the motor, and choose forward, reverse, or park. This means the centre console can be minimized, with a floating iDrive controller in front of a storage bin and armrest, and a flat floor that gives an added feeling of spaciousness.
Despite the unfamiliar, clever packaging and funky exterior shape, the i3 both feels and drives like a BMW. The materials, sustainably-sourced though they may be, are on par with anything you’d find in more luxurious models; build quality is superb; and the iDrive controls an infotainment system with the same clear logic (and great sound quality) as any BMW you’ve ever driven.
Most importantly, the i3 performs, too. Tromp on the, uh, accelerator pedal, and the instant torque from the electric motor leaps it off the line as the future toaster pulls off a convincing impression of an M car, the massive torque and lightweight carbon structure belying the relatively modest 125-hp power rating. With a single-speed gearbox, the flow of power is uninterrupted, and unrelenting, right up to speeds that would get your license and car confiscated, and the instantaneous responsiveness of the electric motor is addictive in an age when we’ve become acclimatized to turbo lag from gasoline engines. Let off the gas and the engine-braking effect – as the motor becomes a generator to charge the battery – is more aggressive than you experience in a gasoline car, but you soon acclimatize to driving the i3 with one pedal, letting the regeneration slow the car, even to a stop, instead of using the brake pedal.
While the skinny, low-rolling resistance Bridgestone Ecopia tires look barely wide enough for a shopping cart let alone a BMW, their tread pattern is aggressive, and the i3 actually enjoys being thrown around a bit; the heavy battery pack essentially fills the floor of the chassis, meaning a low centre of gravity that makes for stable, confident cornering; next year’s i3S, with more power, should be even more fun. Ride quality is very good for a small car, and the only real dynamic complaint is a slight sensitivity to crosswinds, thanks to the tall sides.
While it’s capable of big speeds on the highway and has plenty of passing power, the i3 is definitely more comfortable bounding around town, where regeneration means it depletes its battery more slowly than the sustained high speeds of the open road. (A range-extending gasoline engine is, of course, available as an option, but it’s really designed to be used infrequently, as it only adds about 100 km of extra reach.)
No matter: if your driving patterns involve regular use of the freeway, and much longer trips, the iPerformance models of the 3, 5, 7, and X5 will better suit your needs while delivering all of the i3’s advantages of clean running, instant torque, and minuscule running costs in town. Where the i3 excels is in the urban and suburban grind, where its combination of efficient packaging, torquey performance, and BMW dynamics make it uniquely, and surprisingly, compelling.
The BMW i3 is available at Town+Country BMW, and BMW iPerformance models are available at both Town+Country and Pfaff BMW. Browse Pfaff’s full selection of electric and plug-in hybrid cars here.