Unlike the i8 model, the i3 is more useful for daily errands— it's the family (or city) model of the BMW's sub‑brand i. But its performance is nothing like the performance of a small city car.
When you first sit behind the wheel of a car like this, it's hard not to be burdened with pre-formed opinions and ideas. For example: electric cars are rather slow. The i3 is not. Just the opposite, in fact: the kick in the lower back when you floor the accelerator is impressive.
Looks? Okay, the i3 sends out a clear signal that it is different. After all, the i brand is intended to do just that, but still, it could well be mistaken for a classic car, with an internal combustion engine. But if you think that environmental considerations mean that it has a stripped-down interior, you can think again. The materials used in the interior are excellent, and the car feels more like a modern living room on wheels, the electric car of our imagination, thanks to its form and the wood finish. Chalk it up as yet another positive quality of the i3.
But the greatest plus is the dashboard. Why do many manufacturers of electric (or hybrid) cars decide that the gauges must be lit up, blinking and bobbing with arcane symbols, reminding us of a sci‑fi film? Is it really necessary to have something flicker and shift before the drivers' eyes all the time? The i3 is proof positive that this is an unnecessary fantasy. In front of the driver sits a rectangular, not oversized LCD display, which only provides information relevant to the driver, doing so clearly and transparently. Speed, energy flow and battery power sit in the middle (it can also show the speed limit and cruise control setting or speed limiter), flanked by basic information from the on‑board computer and the selected mode of operation. Clear and simple. BMW's designers have transferred everything else onto a larger display in the middle of the central console, where you can see information about your drive, graph charting power consumption, and everything else, the interesting and the useful, but not actually a needed part of the dashboard gauges.
By the way: navigation in the i3 can show you, on the map, how far the i3 can get on its remaining battery power—and rather accurately too. It just needs a bit of time to make the calculation.
As mentioned before, the i3 can operate in your choice of three modes: Comfort, Eco and Eco Pro. The range is similar to the range of other electric vehicles, shifting from full power and normal operation of all systems, to very limited power of the engine and no air conditioning in the interior. The air conditioning is basically traditional, and thus not very energy efficient, but heating is possible with an optional heat pump. On cold days, opting for the heat pump significantly reduces power consumption, and you can afford to pre‑warm the car on cold mornings, even if it is not connected to the network.
Oh yes, charging. You can connect the i3 to a regular domestic electrical socket, and its battery will fill up during the night. That is enough for the average user. In addition to the traditional slow AC charging, the i3 offers two more possibilities for rapid charging: by a three‑phase AC (22kW), and at rapid charging stations with direct current via the CCS connector at 50kW. The latter significantly shortens the charge time, from approximately eight hours (the charge time on the slowest domestic connection), since this method offers 80% of an 18.8kW battery charge in under half an hour.
And how does 18.8kW translate into range? The official range is 190 kilometers, but that is too optimistic an estimate to rely on. Realistically, you can expect between 130 and 160 kilometers of a normal, but not necessarily energy‑saving drive, and less during the winter, up to 110 kilometers, with winter tires that up your energy consumption, and the heating on full- time (a particular problem when the i3 has optional no heat pump). That might not sound like a long way, but the kilometers you do travel between charges are both fun and comfortable.
The engine takes care of the fun part. The people at BMW wanted the i to be a sporty brand, so they did not save on power: the engine produces 125kW, which means the i3 goes from zero to 100km/h in 7.2 seconds. It's even more impressive in cities, where it can easily compete with small sporty city cars. It's also sufficiently confident on motorways but, as can be expected, energy consumption there is significantly higher.
And comfort? Yes and no. It is comfortable to have the gas pedal set so that the car begins full energy regeneration when the driver completely eases off the pedal. This slows you down emphatically, sometimes enough to drive through the city without actually using the brake pedal since, in the end, the i3 comes to a complete stop. The brake pedal in the i3 might as well be labeled "use only in emergency."
A disadvantage of the design, a byproduct of the car's low mass but slightly higher center of gravity (you sit comfortably high in the i3), is the rather hard feeling of the suspension, which rears its head on poorer roads, where the i3 could do with being more comfortable and driver-friendly. This is at least one area where BMW could look to improve, as the other characteristics of the i3 are excellent. Due to its aluminum design and artificial materials (CFRP), its mass is very low—less than 1.2 tons. Even a classic car without batteries would not be ashamed of that weight, and it is also approximately 300 kilograms less than the Nissan Leaf. The interior is spacious enough for four people (though the trunk is slightly smaller than expected), and since the i3 has no central roof pillar, you need first to open the front door and then the back door, which opens backwards, to reach the back seat. A nice touch, but it might take some getting used to, and it's not ideally practical.
But even these characteristics are there for a purpose: the i3 wants to be different. Not so different that it would scare drivers with its technical demands, or deter admiring gazes with too much of that "eco‑image," popular with certain other brands. But it is different enough to deserve the sub‑brand i distinction, and not simply be just a BMW with an electric drive.