In Depth

BMW i3: Specs, prices and reviews

It's one of the most striking cars you can buy and thanks to its engine refresh, will take you further than before, too

The i3 is BMW's small and striking electric car and it's one of the most desirable EVs you can buy. 

It's been around for a few years now, but BMW intends to keep it on sale a little longer – it's just been updated with new battery technology in order to maintain its competitiveness against potential rivals such as the upcoming Tesla Model 3. 

There are two versions on offer. BMW sells a pure electric i3 alongside a model fitted with a small petrol range-extender engine for charging the batteries. 

Here's how the 2016 i3 range shapes up, plus what the experts make of it.

Design

Like its bigger i8 brother, the i3's overall shape strongly resembles the concept car from which it came.

As a result, it one of the most unique and futuristic-looking small cars you can buy, with Evo saying there's nothing else on the road that looks like it. It's still unmistakably a BMW, though, and keeps key traits such as the kidney grilles at the front in place.

The overall proportions are tall and narrow rather than low and hunched like many conventional family hatchbacks. Heading towards the rear of the car, the window line kinks and veers over the small rear door, which opens backwards for easy access.

Lightweight plastics are used for many of the i3's bodywork panels and the bonnet and glass tailgate hatch stand out with a gloss black finish. The carbon fibre and plastic construction means that despite hoarding a battery pack, the i3 weighs just 1.2 tonnes.

Interior

The i3's cabin is "one of the nicest interiors offered in any car at the moment", says CarBuyer.

It's home to two displays – one sat behind the steering wheel, acting as an instrument cluster, and a main screen mounted in the middle of the dashboard.

The standard infotainment package is the BMW Business, a central screen of 6.5ins with satellite navigation, USB and Bluetooth compatibility.

Gearing up to the Professional system gets you a 10.2ins display with a touchpad integrated into the top of the iDrive controller – the knob you'll find in between the two seats for controlling the displays.

In terms of design, the dashboard makes use of a lot of the swishing lines found on the car's exterior, with the panel dipping down from the passenger side and underneath the central screen catching the eye the most. The interior can also be specced with exotic materials, such as reclaimed wood and eucalyptus.

The adjustable driving position will allow just about anyone to get comfortable behind the wheel and there's plenty of visibility thanks to the i3's large windows and tall profile.

Practicality

The i3's tall external proportions lend themselves to a cabin that's spacious up front thanks to the lack of a traditional central unit for the gear lever, although room in the rear is more limited, says What Car?

The car features suicide-style rear doors that open backwards for better access. However, the interior space is actually limited and it's "unlikely that adults will want to spend any great length of time in the back" due to a lack of both knee and headroom, adds the mag. 

The boot isn't particularly impressive either, it continues. The i3's carrying capacity is only on par with most conventional superminis and the 260-litre rating is actually smaller than the Ford Fiesta's. "In everyday terms it's just about big enough for a modest load of weekly groceries, but it'll struggle to cope with, say, a buggy chassis," says What Car?, adding that those looking towards the i3 as a family car should be prepared to make compromises. 

Safety

Carwow says the i3 is designed in such a way that the metal chassis takes the brunt of low speed accidents over the expensive carbon fibre panels. However, it doesn't have the five star gold safety standard of most new cars in crash tests –the BMW's small electric car has only four stars. This is due to sub-standard pedestrian impact scores caused by its chunky shape. But its rating for passengers is much better thanks to its strong carbon fibre-reinforced structure, six airbags and stability control as a standard feature. 

There are two high-tech safety optional extras. For £790, you can spec Driving Assistant Plus, which introduces adaptive cruise control and forward collision alert, as well as traffic jam assist that automatically brakes, steers and accelerates the car in traffic jams at speeds of up to 24mph. 

Given that the i3 is an electric car, it's hard to hear it coming. For £85 you can have a pedestrian warning noise generator fitted. It generates an artificial powertrain noise, so pedestrians have a better chance of hearing the i3 around town. 

Powertrains

The two different powertrain choices on offer have been at the forefront of the recent upgrades BMW has delivered to its electric city car. The 2016 models come with significantly boosted electric ranges. These improvements have been achieved by fitting the car with a denser 33kWh battery pack. Power output stays at 170bhp and the same 0-62mph time of 7.3 seconds remains.

The most basic i3 is all-electric. A single electric motor powers the rear axle through a single-speed fixed transmission. The battery is integrated into the floor towards the back of the car, while the motor is underneath the boot floor.

BMW claims that the updated i3 has an all-electric range of 195 miles – almost double the 90 mile range promised in earlier versions of the car.

Alongside the pure electric model is a range extender. This is fitted with a tiny 32bhp two-cylinder petrol engine wedged alongside the electric motor underneath the boot.

The small engine isn't there to provide drive or extra power – it's basically a generator that gives extra charge for the batteries. It provides an extra 80 miles of charge, taking the car's range up to 276 miles, according to BMW.

Prices

The little i3's premium look and feel is reflected in its price tag. Buyers will qualify for the £4,500 government electric-car grant, however, taking the i3 in pure electric form to £27,830, while the range extender will cost £30,980.

Reviews

Even though it's been on the market for a few years, the i3 continues to turn heads and "makes for a genuinely interesting alternative to a conventionally fuelled premium compact car", CarBuyer says. 

BMW's upgrades and the extra all-electric range of the 2016 model make it quite a "persuasive proposition", adds the site, although it's the range-extender model that steals the show, making plug-in hybrids such as the Volkswagen Golf GTE "look somewhat old-fashioned". 

Auto Express says it may be more expensive than many of its rivals and conventionally powered alternatives, but the i3 feels like a "smarter choice". 

Most importantly, the EV is actually good to drive, it continues: "It doesn’t take long behind the wheel of the i3 to realise that it’s infused with BMW’s trademark fun driving experience". The instant torque of the electric motor means it's quick on its feet, with the electric surge letting you "zip through gaps in the traffic with confidence".

The magazine says the i3 "makes a great city car", while the recommended range-extender version isn't too bad on the motorway neither. It's a comfortable car and the two-cylinder generator doesn't make a lot of noise, it concludes. 

Autocar concludes the range extender is the one to choose as well, saying it adds an extra layer of usability and allows the i3 "a chance to be your go-anywhere only vehicle while retaining an electric range as strong as most pure EVs".

The car's futuristic design is undoubtedly one of its biggest draws for the mag, but it feels the way it drives must be mentioned too. "It has what it takes to appeal to people who like driving cars," it says, adding that like Tesla, BMW has built an EV with petrolhead appeal. 

For a car with such a modern powertrain and unique proportions, Top Gear says the i3 "drives like BMW". It's sporty, sophisticated and is even rear-wheel drive, which makes it feel "beautifully balanced" and means that it's "blessed with corruption-free steering". 

All electric models are "wonderful" and deliver their power in a pleasantly linear fashion, adds the site. Regenerative braking takes some "getting used to", but it does make driving more straightforward.

The Daily Telegraph isn't as impressed by the car's futuristic styling. It says that it looks like "something that Dyson might offer when it eventually produces its battery car". 

The cabin is also "different from a standard BMW" and gives the impression of "a modern coffee store". Its rear-hinging rear doors are "more contrivance than necessity", adds the paper, but they do open up to a bench big enough for two adults.

The paper praises the Apple-like graphics on the dashboard and says the overall interior quality has "improved hugely" since the car first appeared.

More i cars soon?

BMW's i range currently consists of two very different cars, with a large gap between the hatchback i3 and the supercar styling of the i8 sports car.

That could change soon, though, as at least one new i car could be joining the line-up over the next year or so. An as-yet-unannounced BMW has been spotted in patent drawings, appearing to unveil a new car set to sit just above the i3.

It looks like a mid-sized saloon with a hatchback boot and features distinctive styling marking it out as a potential new member of the i range. The new car could take either the i4 or i5 moniker.

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