TIMING is everything. Back in 2014, the brilliant i3 60Ah was the first EV to scoop COTY, bringing enigmatic and audacious design, packaging and engineering, while still encapsulating BMW dynamic appeal. Perhaps more so than many of its stablemates.
Created as a premium urban runabout, that early version’s circa-160km range was par for the course given its 22kWh battery capacity, though – for a price – Tesla’s Model S has easily doubled that. In the i3’s defence, it also offered a twin-cylinder generator in the $6K-pricier Range Extender (REx), adding up to 150km of range. Anxiety be damned!
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With a 2016 battery upgrade to 33kWh boosting range to 200km and last year’s facelift bringing tech updates, let’s see if the i3’s virtues prevail today.
The Bavarian EV certainly hasn’t aged badly, retaining a commanding presence, while the deep glasshouse and its vision-enhancing airiness, dashboard minimalism, ergonomic simplicity, creative (and mostly recyclable) material deployment, lovely detailing and pillarless access continue to enrich an impressively roomy cabin.
The driving experience, too, remains extraordinary. Perched high SUV-style yet sat back sports-car-style behind the achingly cool two-spoke wheel, the i3 is an enthusiast’s machine, whether leaping straight into action with startling speed in the regular default setting, or should the driver choose the efficiency-prioritising Eco Pro, gliding along with ample power in reserve. Whichever, the BMW’s acceleration always feels energetic. Opting for the 10kW/20Nm stronger 135kW/270Nm i3s (as tested) brings immediacy, oomph and a harder edge.
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With the front wheels free to steer only (as in all great BMWs), the i3’s steering brings delicious, crisp, connected directness, though novices may find the i3s’s helm a tad nervous initially. Just hang in, folks, because the rear-drive chassis is actually profoundly planted due to its low centre of gravity and seamlessly nuanced electronic nanny smarts, to ensure this tall boy stays on course.
We’ve never been enamoured with the i3’s firm ride quality, however, but the 10mm-lowered i3s/20-inch wheel combo is harder and louder again – classic case of more equalling less. Stronger regenerative braking force for off-throttle stopping would be welcome, the clap-hand doors won’t allow the rears to open independently of the fronts, and then there’s the price… north of $70K before options. The ‘E’ in BMW’s EV equals expensive.
Happily, our biggest i3 bugbear – that off-the-pace 200km range – has just been addressed with the larger, 42kWh battery upgrade, out from February in the i3 120Ah, with 260km between charges. At no extra cost. Not before time.