Day one: The i3 looks normal sized in pictures. Yet seeing it in real life for the first time, it seems massive. It’s actually a bit shorter and narrower than a Golf. It just looks huge because it’s tall and it has strangely skinny 19-inch alloys. When you plip the locks the whole interior lights up with a soft blue glow which cross fades to conventional interior lighting colour as you pull the door handle. And the door handle itself looks normal but hinges from the back, not the front. All of these things combine to cause a small brain fart. This is not a normal car, you think. On first acquaintance it’s certainly not normal to drive. The windscreen seems massive, you sit a bit higher than most hatchbacks and there’s that easy, seamless acceleration you get from electric power. Quite a lot of acceleration, as it turns out. This is a brisk car. The only disappointment is the ride, which is a bit bumpy.
Day two: I have to go to the Top Gear studio. The Top Gear studio is about 50 miles from my house. The i3 is showing enough range to get there. Except the journey involves a bit of motorway and electric car range always plummets at speed. But wait. This i3 is the range extender model with a 647cc, two-cylinder scooter engine under the boot floor that kicks in to top-up the batteries if things are looking squeaky. At least, that’s the theory. Halfway down the A3 the battery range display is down to 20 miles. The Top Gear studio is still more than 20 miles away. Oh dear, I think. I’m about to become very late for work. Moments later there is a deep humming from somewhere at the back of the car as the petrol generator kicks in. Ruddy nora, it works. For the rest of the journey the range readout stays on 19 miles and I get to where I need to go. Phew.
At the studio I plug the i3 into the mains and then promptly unplug it again when TV’s Richard Hammond and TV’s James May arrive, both eager to have a go in it. I get into the back seat through the back doors, which are of a suicidal design. They’re a bit idiotic and I twat my head on the roof but once in it’s quite comfortable and that weird dip in the window line means you get a better view out. ‘I’m getting into the future,’ shouts TV’s Richard Hammond climbing into the passenger seat. ‘I’m switching on the future,’ intones TV’s James May solemnly, pressing the start/stop button. We drive out onto the roads around the Top Gear airfield. ‘I’m driving in the future,’ May says. ‘I’m opening the glovebox in the future,’ Hammond replies. They like the i3. Back in our office May excitedly gets out his iPad and starts speccing up a car on the BMW website whilst Hammond outlines his theory on how electricity demands a whole new road testing lexicon. TV’s Jeremy Clarkson appears. ‘There’s an Alfa Romeo Disco Volante in the studio and these two are more interested in an electric car,’ he huffs. It’s good, I say. You should try it. ‘I will,’ TV’s Jeremy Clarkson replies. But then someone asks us to go and do some work and he doesn’t. After a day on charge the i3 is brim full of electricity and gets me home without troubling the back-up generator. But knowing it’s there is one of the things that makes the i3 quite relaxing.
Day three: I have a meeting in the centre of London. I’ve looked online and there is an on-street charging point opposite the place where I need to go. This is brilliant. No congestion charge, no parking charge and my car gets topped up while I’m inside. There’s just one problem. When I pull up to the space there’s a Mitsubishi iMiEV in it. As more people buy electric cars this is going to become a problem. Charge rage, coming soon to a street near you. I stick the i3 in a normal space instead. Ignoring the re-electricityifying problem, the i3 is a very good town car. You sit high, the turning circle is tight and it can cream almost anything else away from the lights. If the ride was a snadge softer it would be perfect.
Day four: Another trudge across London. The i3 makes this perfectly tolerable. I like the interior a lot. The dash is low, the speedo is a cool little screen in front of you, the controls look like BMW stuff but laid out in a more interesting way. You can have it with a strip of wood across the dash that appears to have been nicked off a ‘70s telly and which looks excellent as a result. This car doesn’t have it, sadly.
Day five: Like a lot of electric cars, I think the i3 makes you a better driver. Even with the generator in the back, you get obsessed with maintaining a good range reading. So you use more anticipation and less aggression and a style which even Jackie Stewart would call ‘quite smooth’. Such is the power of the regenerative braking when you lift off the accelerator it makes the brake lights come on, even if you don’t touch the actual brake pedal. And you won’t, because with practise you can complete entire journeys without troubling them once. On the other hand, if you’re going to drive like a helmswright the i3 is okay. The steering is quite quick, and those skinny arsed 155-section front tyres have more grip than you’d expected, even in the damp. Blah blah blah bitch spankery etc
Day six: An evening trip to Islington for dinner. Islington is one of those right-on parts of London where you’d expect every parking space to have a charging point by now. Actually there are none near where I’m going. Boo hiss. Coming back to the i3 on the street is cool. Firstly, because people are unashamedly checking it out. They do all the time. This would not be a good car in which to commit a crime. And secondly because it looks so unusual parked amongst other cars that it’s like a one-off concept that’s been Photoshopped into a normal street. The optional alloys on this demonstrator have angled spokes. Unusually, they’re handed so the spokes on both sides face rearwards. Peace of mind for OCD sufferers who never recovered from the facelifted Ford Escort XR3i.
Day seven: If you want to save charge you can put the i3 into Eco Pro mode, or even Eco Pro +. I’m not sure what an ‘eco pro’ is. Jonathan Porrit perhaps, or that Swampy bloke who used to live in a tunnel. Like Jonathan Porrit or that Swampy bloke, the Eco Pro modes don’t seem like much fun. Far better to leave the car in normal, drive gently and know that if a van driver starts cutting up rough, as happened to me today on the Marylebone Road, you can teach him a lesson with the silent might of your electricity. There’s a shock and awe pun in there that I’m afraid I can’t be bothered to work out.
Goodbye: The i3 is going. Except it isn’t. Various Top Gear colleagues have been so keen to have a go in it they’ve asked BMW if they can hang on to it for a bit longer. We have access to all sorts of fancy cars in the course of making the programme but I can’t remember the last time something attracted so much interest in the office. Which is fair enough because it’s an aluminium-chassised, carbon fibre-bodied concept car that runs on electricity. It’s like the promise of the distant future made real. And you can have one for the price of a mid-range 3-series. It’s not perfect of course: The ride should be softer, the back doors are daft and it’s still not exactly cheap. But for the most part it’s truly excellent. It also manages to make all other electric cars feel out of date, not only because the range extender works brilliantly but also because the whole car is incredibly desirable. It’s like the first time you played with an iPad. You didn’t really need one yet you wanted one all the same. If you’re a petronerd, you might think what you desire from a car is speed or handling or a slick gearchange. But when it comes down to it, these are just contributory elements. What we really want is cars that are interesting. And the BMW i3 is the most interesting car I’ve driven in ages.
The car talked about here is a BMW i3 Range Extender. It has a 168bhp, 184lb ft electric motor and a 647cc, 2-cyl, 34bhp petrol engine to top up the batteries. It can go from 0-62 in 7.9 seconds and on to 93mph. It costs £33,830 or £28,830 with the current £5000 government electric car subsidy.