The BMW i3 is like a big golf cart and I mean that in the best possible way. Like the aforementioned fairway buggy, you jump into the i3, press one button to switch it on, and zoom away with a surprising turn of speed.
The BMW i3’s tall driving position, good visibility and torque-filled electric power delivery make it an entertaining way to scythe your way through city traffic, beat most cars in a 0-30mph traffic-light Grand Prix and generally drive everywhere with a big grin on your face.
In that sense, you can see why BMW has added this new i3s to the lineup. Adding S to a car’s name, no matter what it is, suggests added sportiness. And, with this particular S being tacked on by the folks at BMW, self-proclaimed makers of the “ultimate driving machine”, I’d expect good things.
Good things, but perhaps not exhilarating ones. Let me be clear from the off. This is not a product of BMW’s legendary M division, responsible for turning its already fun cars into road racers with barking exhausts and performance to make a supercar look twice.
No, and nor is it really the world’s first electric hot hatch. For a start there is no exhaust to bark and, to give a small city-dwelling electric car an M badge, would be to defeat the point. The S signifies a sprinkling of sportiness instead of a smorgasbord of components honed by motorsport.
The differences between the £34,000 i3 and £36,975 i3s are subtle. There are visual tweaks to make the car look lower, wider and slightly more aggressive. The wheels have grown from 19in to 20in, the tyres are 20mm wider all round, the track is 40mm wider and the car sits 10mm lower on recalibrated springs and dampers. These details make the i3 look slightly more purposeful, along with a subtly redesigned front bumper.
Other sport additions include altered steering, updates to the traction and stability controls, and a ‘sport’ driving mode which increases accelerator response. Power is up by 13bhp from the standard car (now clocking in at 181bhp, all sent to the rear wheels) and torque is up by 15lb ft to 199lb ft. As with the standard car, the BMW i3s is available with an optional 650cc, twin-cylinder petrol engine for increasing range.
When I last drove a BMW i3 it was the original car without the range-extending engine. It had a range of less than 100 miles and, given this was three years ago and public chargers were harder to come by, came with a rather large dollop of range anxiety thrown in for free. Arriving at a broken charger with just 12 miles of range remaining has made me irrationally wary of chargers ever since. You just don’t get broken petrol stations, do you?
Back to the i3s and BMW claims an electric range of 174 miles, or a real world range of 125 miles. The range-extender (which costs an extra £3,150) adds a claimed 93 miles. From my testing I would agree with these figures, and was able to go on a 70-mile Sunday drive through Surrey without once worrying about whether I’d make it back again.
Of course, the range extender’s petrol diet helps massively here. It acts as a generator so doesn’t actually drive the wheels but instead whirrs into life when the batteries need a top-up. I honestly couldn’t hear the engine during my time with the car, and had to check more than once whether it was actually working.
To do this, head into the iDrive infotainment system and tell the car to maintain its battery level, meaning it will use the engine and energy created from regenerative braking to keep the battery at its current level, to be used later in the journey.
Once out of London, I’m quickly reminded about the difficulty electric cars have with motorways and sustaining high speed. I’m not saying the A3 south of Guildford is like an Autobahn, but i3 drivers – even i3s drivers – shouldn’t really try to keep up with the flow of the outside lane. I found I was best off setting the cruise control to 60mph and sitting in the inside lane. That’s not to say the i3s can’t get a move on when asked. Floor it and it’s still surprisingly rapid. However, battery range takes a massive hit if higher speeds are sustained.
But that’s fine, because I’d soon peeled off onto the A286 and headed for the village of Chiddingfold. The roads around here are flowing and sometimes quite steep. This means the i3s’ battery takes a beating on the way up, then gets nicely replenished on the way back down, as the regenerative braking system tops it up whenever you lift off, brake, or coast downhill.
Here I tried Sport mode and, beyond sharper response from the accelerator, there isn’t much to say. In Sport or Comfort (or even Eco, which limits the car to 56mph and shuts down the heating and air-con), the i3s corners surprisingly well for a fairly tall and narrow car sat on skinny tyres. There is far less understeer than you’d expect and chucking it around at even sensible speeds will always bring a smile to your face.
Less enjoyable is the firmer ride introduced by the S badge. As you might well expect from the sporty version of any car, the i3s thuds its way over speed bumps and lacks the pliancy of anything with suspension designed to actually cushion you instead of just feel sporty. I fear BMW has taken a page from the Audi S-Line playbook here and substituted “sporting” for “hard”.
Inside, only the Sport button and an ‘i3s’ badge on the carpet signify this is the hotter i3. But that doesn’t mean this interior is anything less than a massive breath of fresh air compared to everything else on the road.
While Tesla’s interior has remained mostly unchanged through the life of the Model S and Model X – that huge touchscreen no longer looks so sci-fi – the BMW i3’s remains boldly and beautifully different.
There are acres of space, large windows, curved wood panels and a pair of floating displays. In my mind, it’s more reminiscent of a modern Scandinavian airport lounge than the bridge of the USS Enterprise.
The main display, measuring 10.3in across the diagonal and new for this generation of i3, seems to levitate above the dashboard just as the dashboard itself cascades down at its middle. This non-touch display is controlled via BMW’s familiar iDrive system, comprising of menu buttons and a rotating, clickable, touch-sensitive dial between the front seats. A second display sits behind the two-spoke steering wheel to show your speed, range and how much the car is either filling or depleting its 32.2kWh battery.
As ever, this newest version of iDrive is simple to use and attractive to look at. Apple CarPlay is an optional extra but unfortunately Android Auto is not available. In brighter news, the optional 12-speaker Harman Kardon sound system is very good.
BMW claims a massive 95% of the i3’s components are recyclable after it has ceased being a car. This explains the interior materials, which as well as the typical wood and leather, include a sort of plastic/cardboard material made from hemp on the doors and upper dashboard. It looks cool, feels tough and I really like it. It’s bold, different and serves a planet-saving purpose but manages not to shout about it.
Also key to the i3’s construction is carbon fibre-reinforced plastic, or CFRP, which forms parts of the chassis and can be seen on the sills when you open the doors.
Speaking of doors, the rear two open backwards to make getting into the two back seats easier. It’s a fun trick and makes it easy for adults to slot themselves into the second row without clambering over the front seats. However, those same passengers are also unable to get in or out of the i3 without the front doors being opened first, so you’ll have to jump out before you can drop the kids off outside the school gates.
The two rear seats are large enough for adults but taller occupants will likely want to get out and stretch their legs more often than those up front. A couple of rear side windows mean there is plenty of light, helping the back row feel less cramped. It’s worth noting there is no middle seat, though, making the i3 strictly for four.
The i3s is not the electric hot hatch you might have expected it to be and I’m torn about whether I should be recommending it over the regular i3. Although purely subjective, I prefer the look of the i3s. The changes are subtle but help smooth off the most grating aspects of the i3’s design and the i3s definitely sits more comfortably on the road and doesn’t come across as tall and awkward as a result.
But the rest of the i3s’ additions are unnecessary. The sports suspension is harder than it needs to be, especially when the car is going to spend much of its life on city streets riddled with potholes and speed bumps, and the Sport driving mode is a gimmick. Being electric, the regular i3 is already surprisingly quick off the line and offers a fun, cheeky driving experience which doesn’t need any extra spice.
As range anxiety still lingers for now, I would say you should save your money intended for the S and pick the regular i3 with the range extender. That way you have a fun and nimble electric car with the added reassurance of being able to visit the occasional petrol station.