BMW i3 shocks electric car market into life

BMW’s clean-sheet approach with the i3 could pave the way for wider acceptance of electric cars.

BMW’s clean-sheet approach with the i3 could pave the way for wider acceptance of electric cars. - Credit: UWE FISCHER

BMW throws down the gauntlet to rivals with its funky-looking i3 promising a no-compromise driving and ownership experience. Iain Dooley, of the Press Association, is impressed.

The i3 is a big deal, not just for BMW but also for the electric car industry. Boasting an innovative approach to design, construction and its underlying technology, it could give the electric car market the shot in the arm it needs if it's to move from niche to mainstream status.

To date, early adopters have helped drive interest in electric transport. BMW is clearly keen to tap into this buyer demographic – witness its futuristic looks plus BMW's efforts at community building thanks to a smartphone app capable of remotely monitoring your pride and joy.

The bottom line is a carbon composite shell wrapped in funky-looking panels and room for four inside the radically-styled cabin. Wood trim blends surprisingly well with the posed composite shell and liberal use of natural fibres for door panels and the top of the fascia.

Still, this window dressing would all be for nought if the i3 failed to deliver the goods in the real world. Thankfully it's not, as the electric BMW offers possibly the most rounded driving and ownership experience to date. Progress is rapid in the electric car sector, but the i3 behaves more car-like than most.

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BMW has retained its trademark rear-wheel drive layout for the i3. At a whisker under four metres it's a genuine compact car, and this is reflected in its agility around town and tight turning circle. Narrow section tyres play a part and contribute to the car's slippery aerodynamic properties.

With BMW's clean-sheet approach to design comes the ability to place the 230kg slab of lithium-ion batteries under the flat floor for maximum passenger space, a decent boot and a positive effect on handling. The 170hp electric motor also plays a significant part in the i3's overall performance.

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BMW did research with volunteers and fleets of electric 1 Series and MINIs to observe driver behaviour. Mainly urban journeys were frequent but short so a real-world range of about 100 miles isn't bad.

Although different eco-centric driving modes can be selected to maximise range, in-built brake regeneration can return a meaningful amount of charge to the battery on a journey. You need to lay off the brake pedal though, as simply easing off the throttle at urban speeds is enough to bring the i3 to a steady yet prompt halt. While that happening the battery is getting a small but useful top-up. Conversely, lean hard on the throttle and you can experience 1 Series diesel levels of brisk acceleration.

The i3 delivers a surprisingly conventional driving experience. Largely familiar controls, a lofty driving position, good visibility and a high level of refinement justify the premium price and ensure its place in the BMW family.

The financial aspect of the car should be equally appealing for those with a lifestyle that fits the i3's strengths. The absence of road tax and fuel liabilities rank high alongside the ability to charge the car for very little – overnight via a domestic supply and in hours when connected to a high output wall box or public recharging point.

The i3 isn't a cheap proposition but it's a compelling one for savvy early adopters keen not just to make a statement but also exploit the car's considerable on road talents. Range aside, the ownership experience presents few compromises. While electric cars are still viewed as a gamble by many, BMW's clean-sheet approach with the i3 could pave the way for wider acceptance.

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