29.2.2020BMW i3 120Ah review
BMW has seemingly given the i3 more updates that your smartphone's operating system, but that's all to the good for buyers. Having previously seen larger battery packs fitted, new styling come along, and the addition of a sportier i3s model, this latest update is perhaps the most significant yet; but more on that later. NGC tests the latest version of BMW's electric supermini - the i3 120Ah.
Review by Chris Lilly
The BMW i3 has never struggled in terms of performance, and this latest version is no different. Powering the rear wheels is a 125 kW electric motor, which is more than the unit that powers the Nissan Leaf 40 kWh. On top of that, the i3 weighs more than 230kg less than the larger Leaf, and as such, the 0-62mph time is 7.3 seconds. As with most electric cars, it feels even faster than that, with shorter bursts of acceleration dispatched quicker than almost anything else on the road. The responsiveness from the throttle is good even for an electric vehicle, and the i3 has excellent traction from what are unusually narrow tyres. Performance hasn't changed from the previous iteration, so drivers will know what to expect to a degree. It's always refreshing to drive the i3 though, as the performance on tap really can take you by surprise. It excels in built-up areas, where its responsiveness and pace can make light work of gaps in traffic or getting away from the lights. It's comfortable at motorway speeds too however, with enough power from the motor to make sure the BMW doesn't feel out of breath at pace. The i3 might not seem the most natural car to drive on rural routes, but again it does extremely well. You can have fun at almost any speed, and the strong regenerative braking means it's easy to back-off for corners without touching the break peddle. It's all very docile when you just want to react though, with no need to change gears, and the 'single-pedal' driving offer from the energy recuperation system.
Matching up to the smile-inducing performance is the handling, which again makes good use of the lightweight, largely carbon-fibre platform. Weight kills efficiency, performance, and handling capabilities, so the i3 proves nimble and sure-footed thanks to its set-up. Despite a small footprint and tall design, the car's relatively low weight, plus the heavy battery being placed in the floor, means that the centre of gravity is very low. It makes for an excellent drive both on open roads, and also in its natural habitat in town. The tight turns in urban areas and car parks are encountered easily, with a particularly tight turning circle on offer. As the motor is in the rear, beneath the boot floor, there is more space under the bonnet for the wheels to turn. This means the i3 is second only to a Smart car or Black Cab in terms of turning circle really. On the motorway, you can feel that the i3 is a compact car, lacking in length in particular. The wheelbase is as long as it can be though, thanks to the wheels being pushed into the corners. It's not a natural motorway cruiser, but it certainly doesn't embarrass itself, and the electric running gear makes for a refined drive. Wind noise is the most apparent intrusive element, but even this isn't too bad. The ride is fairly stiff, which I like, but some might find it too much so - particularly those that live in areas with lots of speed bumps of pot-holes.
The i3's styling remains from the previous model, which only saw minor changes from the launch version. Since it is so edgy and futuristic from the outset, there is no sense that the design is tired at all - the i3 still stands out from the crowd. I think it's a great design, though admit it's no traditional beauty. It's a fairly practical model given the car's constraints, with the engineers not having a whole load of interior space to work with. They've done very well with what was available, though if you prioritise practicality, a Renault Zoe - same market, but more conventional approach - will be a better bet. Opt for a different model however, and you won't get what is one of the most distinctive interior around. Access to the rear is very good thanks to the rear-hinged rear doors, though you do have to have the front doors open to be able to use them. It does mean that climbing in, or fitting a child seat for example, is pretty easy. The boot space is small, even for a supermini, but plenty practical enough for most day-to-day tasks. It's not a car to take on a family camping trip - there simply isn't a large amount of load space - but for running to the supermarket etc, the i3 will do just fine. Occupant space is good for its size, though again, there are more practical superminis on the market for buyers looking to regularly seat four adults. Up front though, the i3 feels very spacious for a supermini, and there is plenty of storage space about the place.
COMFORT & CONTROLS
Practicality isn't first class then, but the cabin's design and build are. The premium feel you would expect from a BMW is certainly apparent here, though in a very different way to usual. The driver gets a simple but well sized steering wheel, and a compact digital instrument panel. The graphics are good, though the displays kept simple for clear information. The drive selector is on a column set behind the steering wheel, tidying up space where a transmission tunnel would otherwise be, while the heating controls are arranged within easy reach on the edge of the dashboard. A high quality, wide infotainment screen sits on top, with a handy storage shelf in front of it. All of this description doesn't highlight the minimalist and excellent design of the dashboard and controls, which look great. A range of interior options mean it can change from a wood and leather set-up to a light cloth trim - all of which invoke the best principles of Scandinavian interior design. It looks fantastic and works well, really making the i3 stand out from the crowd. It's also made from lightweight recycled materials.
MPG & RUNNING COSTS
Here we return to the statement at the top of the review, where I said that 'this latest update is perhaps the most significant yet'. The reason for this is because BMW has always previously offered a range-extended version of the i3 - the i3 REX - alongside a pure-electric model. With this latest battery update, it has removed the REX, reckoning that the real-world range is enough for drivers to rely on now. Considering REX models outsold the pure-i3 two to one in the UK, it's a brave move. With an official range of 192 miles WLTP on a single charge, it looks like it may be a sound one however. In real-world driving, I found that official figure to be pretty reliable too. With longer stretches of motorway driving, the average range dropped to a little over 180 miles on a charge, and the average by the end of my time with it was 4.5 miles/kWh. That equates to 170 miles on a charge, though routes with a greater mixture of open and urban roads saw the range increase to 193 miles. That's in Comfort mode too, with Eco taking that to 206 miles, and Eco+ to 210 miles. It says much about the increased range available from the new i3 that I just left the BMW in Comfort the whole time, enjoying the performance on offer and not worrying about charge.
The biggest change to the i3 - the battery - is the main green feature to discuss. The battery capacity is now 120Ah - up from the previous 94Ah model. Looking at the more commonly discussed kWh, this means the i3 now has a battery capacity of 42.2 kWh - 38 kWh of which is usable. Putting it in to context, it offers a range of around 30-50 miles more than a Nissan Leaf in real-world conditions, despite having a similarly sized battery. Much of that is down to the lightweight construction and smaller outright size, but it's still an impressive achievement. The brake energy recuperation system is very strong and efficient, though it can't be turned off or adjusted as rival efforts can. This means that long distance i3 driving is made more comfortable by using cruise control, where usually I find that retaining control of speed with my right foot is a little more efficient. To 'coast' you have to hold the throttle at the right point, rather than just lift off with the regen system set to low or off. However, such is its efficiency, there are few complaints overall, and the i3 isn't designed as a long-distance motorway machine. In town, it is exceptionally good. There are the usual EV connected systems available, such as pre-conditioning, charge timers, and charge check available through a smartphone app. The i3 also has drive mode select as previously mentioned, and plenty of information available to help you drive more efficiently. Charging is carried out via the CCS inlet on the off-side rear flank, and it can take up to 7.4 kW on AC from home and public points, or 50 kW DC on rapid units. According to our calculations, the model tested has a Next Green Car Rating of 18.
The BMW i3 is a premium model, so costs more than rival superminis. You get plenty of kit to make up for this fact however, so it's not all bad news. Fitted as standard are 19-inch alloy wheels, BMW ConnectedDrive services, BMW Professional Multimedia navigation system with DAB, Bluetooth, and USB connectivity, LED headlights, rear parking sensors, heated front seats, multi-function steering wheel, and Atelier 'interior world'. This last point is the cabin trim, which sees materials ans styles bundled together into 'worlds', in this case cloth trim, recycled materials, and blue highlights. Other worlds available are Lodge, Loft, and Suite, which add wood trim - eucalyptus or oak - synthetic or real leather, amd a change in colours and highlights, and are the main way to change the specification. Options added to the test car included a Harmon Kardon audio system, reversing camera with park assist, 20-inch alloys, wireless phone charging, Apple CarPlay connectivity, and electric sunroof.
The BMW i3 was one of my favourite EVs before this latest version, and it's even better than before thanks to the longer range available. A REX version would still be useful to a number of buyers, but it's understandable why BMW has moved away from it. It remains reasonably practical with very low running costs, and is ideal to drive around town. It's also a hoot to drive on open roads, and for those wanting a little more performance, the i3s is available too. The higher OTR cost over rivals will steer some buyers to other EVs, but the i3 proves excellent value for money, and is a first rate supermini - competing well against electric and non-electric cars alike.
Model tested: BMW i3 120Ah
Engine / CO2: 135 kW electric motor / 0 g/km
Trim grades: Atelier, Loft, Lodge, and Suite
On-road price: From £31,495. Price as tested: £38,035 (prices inc. grant)
Warranty: Three years / unlimited mileage
In the showroom: Now
Review rating: 4.5 Stars