Driven: The BMW i3, The Car Cupertino Could Have Built


Chris Ratcliff gets behind the wheel of BMW's electric car, the i3, to see how it reveals BMW's vision of the future.

BMW have followed Apple’s lead into the world of iThings with their new i3 electric car. In terms of both design and function, the Apple example is a high standard to aim for. I took the i3 for a test drive to find out if BMW have succeeded in making an electric car that people will want to buy.

The exterior

The i3's styling is nicely cohesive with interesting touches like the rear window frames starting lower than the front, and the way the sills have neat flicks and edging. The wheels are large enough to look modern, but are narrow for low rolling resistance which gives an i3 parked with any lock on more than a whiff of the Citroen 2CV. The shape is tall and reasonably boxy, but this is form following function.

The carriage doors at the rear aid getting in and out of the back seats and look really cool, but luggage space is more Mini than 3 Series. The rear boot has a high floor due to the power unit underneath and is not terribly deep, while the space at the front is little more than a cubbyhole. Enough for the shopping, but not enough for a camping trip. For that, though, BMW offers i3 owners a package where they can use an internal combustion BMW when they need to, and the i3 for the rest of the time.

The interior

To call the inside practical would be true, but wouldn't do justice to a cabin that merges forward-looking (though not futuristic) touches with a sense of the familiar. The floating screens for the navigation and dashboard are well-placed, and the lines that flow up the doors and into the dash create some unusual but pleasing shapes that you appreciate more the longer you spend with the car. The slab of eucaplytus wood in front of the passenger looks like it could serve double duty as a tray to serve artisinal bread and olives, but somehow doesn't look out of place in the interior.

In fact, there's quite a few interesting materials used in the interior. The wood is sourced from sustainable trees and the leather is tanned in an environmentally friendly way. The recycled material used in the door and dash is textured in such a way to make it feel like recycled material, but in a pleasing fashion, like a sturdy felt. There's even an appealing glimpse of carbon fibre in the sill when you open the door.

While the driving position is standard BMW, the height of the whole cabin is raised which makes getting in and out very easy and provides a commanding view of the road. You also immediately notice the lack of a centre console. The dash is essentially a beam across the cabin, and there's a raised unit between the front seats that houses the arm rest, USB connectors, handbrake button and so on. However, once you go past the cup holder, you see flat floor and the back of the firewall. It's a well-sized space and it would be interesting to see how useful it would be day to day. It may only be coincidental that it's almost the perfect size and shape for transporting an Indian takeaway...

To start the i3, you reach for an extra stalk poking out a little clumsily from behind the steering wheel. Push the start button and the displays come to life, then push the rocker switch from P to D and you're ready to go.

The drive

Let's get the basics out of the way first. The ride is comfortable without ever becoming wallowy or hiding the road from you. The steering is as light as you'd want but as weighty as you'd hope, and while there's an occasional wobble from the tall tyres, it's nothing you'd ever worry about. The cabin is also very quiet; so much so, in fact, that you become far more aware of the other engines and noises around you. The reason I'm racing through these things is that the whole experience is dominated by the throttle pedal. Well, dominated twice.

As you press the throttle, the i3 happily rushes forward at a good pace which is more than sufficient to keep up with traffic and nip into gaps. In fact, 0-60 the i3 can parry with an M3, though once past 60mph, the aceleration of the M3 is too much for the i3 to live with. The magic of the i3 comes when you lift off the throttle. Being an electric car, the opportunity to harvest energy off-throttle introduces a braking effect which means for most of the time you can drive the i3 with one pedal. The real cleverness comes from the way BMW has calibrated this effect at different speeds, and it's completely intuitive once you've done half a dozen braking manoeuvres with it. Lifting off at speed will cause the car to bleed off a few mph, while doing so at low speeds will eventually mean you can comfortably pull up at a junction just by lifting off. It is as intuitive as the first time you used an iPhone and interacted with that touch screen. It's not something you adjust to, it's something that just comes naturally.

It's clear that the i3 focuses on utility. There is no sport mode, there are no paddles with a manual shift option because, well, there's no gearbox. Your driving modes are Comfort, Eco Pro and Eco Pro +. Engage an Eco mode and the throttle becomes a little longer and less responsive, and the air conditioning and seat heating is reduced to save power.

The most memorable moment of the whole experience was actually not behind the wheel of the i3, but going from it to my M3. On a similar city route laden with stop-start traffic all of the parts that help make the M3 special were working against the experience: the heavy clutch, the drivetrain clonks and whirrs, shifting gears. While I love the manual,  every run up to 40mph involved three gear shifts before going back down the box. It felt like a train driver operating valves and levers to keep the machine running sweetly. The i3 had managed to make a ten year old BMW feel like a Victorian motion engine.

That’s not to say the i3 is better than an M3, but it does give food for thought about the suitability of the cars a lot of people drive day in, day out and how much they would appreciate that single pedal driving style. The i3 would never be a car to take out for a Sunday morning blast, but for the role it’s been designed to fulfil, it’s a stunningly complete car.  While writing this, I keep thinking of my iPhone. The i3 is a car that is so competent in so many areas that you don’t think about the car, you just focus on the task in hand. You just get in and drive, without having to make allowances for those batteries and motors.

There are many reasons why people won't buy an i3 at the moment, or indeed any electric car. They're currently difficult to charge if you don't have a garage, drive or suitably equipped parking space. They also don't work if you need to drive long distances on a regular basis. Despite the cleverness of BMW's intermodal navigation, for some it simply won't be an option. I suspect the bigger problem for many, though, will simply be cost. The i3 is the most desirable EV currently on sale in Britain, but it's the leading edge. £25,000 for a second (or third) car is a lot of money. Add a range extender engine, leather, parking camera, and other options and you're soon over £30,000 even after Government grants are applied. While it's comparable to a brand new Mini or 1 Series, there will be an audience waiting for the used EV market to grow before they can afford to buy one.

Is it worthy of the i badge? In many ways it does remind me of those first iPods and iMacs, because of the level of thought and design that has gone into the i3. It’s not simply an electric transplant into an existing chassis, but a car designed for its role rather than its drivetrain. There’s a lot to admire in the i3 on so many levels, that for those with the cash to spend and the bravery to try it out, there's a big step forward in automotive technology to be enjoyed.