A week with a BMW i3

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AWWBMWi3_1Day 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.
AWWBMWi3_2At 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.

AWWBMWi3_3Day 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.  


  1. I take it the poor ride has something to do with it’s height? Which would be more useful in the city: good visibility or comfort?

    Disappointing that it’s not that comfortable. Thank you for your review.

  2. Yea, I think they might have made the suspension stiff to stop it rolling too much. The ride isn’t intolerable but it is a notch or two firmer than you’d hope.

  3. Great review thanks. Agree with absolutely all of it. I own a 335i convertible, Caterham 7 and a 1966 Fiat 500F; all fabulous fun. I test drove an i3 recently and loved it every bit as much. As you say, the bottom line is that it is interesting. Question is, could I bear to lose the yowl of the straight six in order to get one…..?

  4. The only thing that puts me off is the fact that it looks like a Fiat Multipla going to a Star Trek convention.

  5. Looks great and a generation on from a Prius, but can’t help thinking you’d be buying a Nokia “banana” phone with zero resale value in 3 years’ time when everything else on the market will be offering 3x the range…?

  6. Quite agree Tim. There’s always a risk with this new tech that you’ll be left with the laserdisc player of cars. Look at the resale value of Nissan Leafs. They don’t look too healthy these days. I should have said in the piece that the smart way to get into an i3, and I have been tempted, is to lease it and I think BMW knows this because the standard rates are really quite attractive.

  7. I’m surprised we haven’t seen a “lease no purchase” option with this tech, so after 3 years they disappear off the roads with no image breaking 70% depreciation models sitting on the forecourts. The OEM’s could then re-furb them and put them out for second ride under a similar controlled “Company Approved” scheme. That way we’d never really know the price drop and the OEM could command premium prices!

  8. There is a lease option through BMW, Tim, and I think this is the only way I would consider doing it, exactly for the reasons you mention.

  9. I’m still recovering from the ‘dog-legged’ mk4 Escort XR3i. To this day, every UK town STILL has an Escort van driving around with these wheels.

  10. We used to be petrol heads: are we now becoming Lithium-ion heads?

  11. With cars like this and the Tesla now, and increased-range Leafs in a couple of years time, there’s about to be a great wave of EVs onto UK roads . . #AndAboutTimeToo !

  12. I have had an i3 since the 1st March and it’s a brilliant thing. So much so, that I have done 3,300 miles in it. It’s all electric too, no REx (they are for girls)

  13. Sounds very promising for the V8 version.

  14. I thought it was a prop for the next Transformers movie.


  15. The ride is harsh because after 3 million years of the Audi A4, Germans have evolved to have no pain receptors in their spine whatsoever. It’s a matter of national pride that no one else can drive their cars without requiring emergency neurosurgery.

  16. I believe you will find that the harsh ride is due to the tires. I’m betting they are run flat, low rolling resistance tires with really stiff and tough side walls. Even my 335 was a bit much while I ran them. I have switched now to a non-run flat type tire and my ride is so much better than it was. Of course, I’m not going to like it when I get a flat.

  17. Great review. I had been driving an i3 BEV since 31 March and Carbores is correct – its a brilliant thing and Rex is for girls. The stiff ride (its a bit harsh to call it…. harsh!)is down to the tyres as Kevin says. As a company car driver with a 44 mile round trip commute it makes perfect sense on a 3 year contract hire, though I do have a Lancia Delta Integrale Evo 2, a S1 Elise and an early bay VW Camper as back up for longer trips.

  18. Great review. I think I might buying between i3, or i8. I own Tesla Roadsters and Fiesta, and I think the i3 would completed my garage collections.

  19. The ride is stiff due to stiff suspension. The i3 barely rolls in corners, an feels very responsive and sporty due to it, the highly geared steering, and low COG.

    Depreciation comments are nonsense. Car is carbon fibre and aluminium, so body will last decades. Batteries can be swapped out in 10-15 years for higher spec ones, doubling range.

    i3 represents the future of city cars.

  20. THE ugliest car to ever set rubber on tarmac. Makes the Multipla, Pontiac Aztek, G-Whizz and Allegro look beautiful. Typical cocky BMW that people will sadly buy as they’re fooled by the badge. Muppets.

  21. I think they look fantastic futuristic and make other cars look drab and boring.

    The nissan Leaf look like an old farts armchair the Tesla looks as dull as a jelly mold salesman’s hack.

    i3 and i8 in a different league in terms of class and design .

    definitely not suitable for a Luddite’s imho

  22. Bought a non-rex demonstrator in May. The review captures pretty much perfectly the attributes of this car. I’d only add a rider re. the steering: a bit light for my taste, but this is definitely the future of motoring. I’ve installed a 32A fast charger in the garage: the “fuel” bill averages around 2.7p /mile (4.8 miles/kWh, 13p /kWh).

  23. The ride is fine, the latest battery size make going EV easy. We don’t have an old fashioned car on the driveway. Just a REX and a BEV.

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