Driving the BMW i3

A little while ago I had the pleasure to test the BMW i3 in London and as a Nissan Leaf and Vauxhall Ampera owner I thought I would be in a pretty good position to make a fair comparison.

These are my thoughts after spending about a hour talking about the car with a tech expert and then a 30 min test drive round London streets:

Looks – A bit quirky but people seem to like that. It certainly stands out! I liked it.

Inside – smaller than I am used to particularly the boot space. The rear seats to go flat but even then I think you would struggle to get a stroller in.

Funny rear doors – This is really a 3-door hatch but it has funny little doors that open only when the front door is open to allow better access for rear passengers. For a 3-door car I like this solution but my Leaf and Ampera are both full 4-door cars and I wouldn’t cope well with a 3-door even with these funny rear doors. Even so, as a 3-door car these extra little doors do make access to the rear seats a lot easier.

Minimalist dash – at first glance there is almost nothing to the dash and controls. There is a little screen in front of the driver and one in the middle and that is about it! However, the screens are super clear and high-res and they were perfectly adequate. I liked the minimalist approach. It gave the cabin an open, airy feel. Again a bit quirky though and I could see many not liking it.

Driving – This is where the i3 wins hands down. It is a much better car to drive than either the Leaf or Ampera for me. It is super quick and the way the regenerative braking is set up makes it very easy and relaxing to drive just using the “go” pedal instead of the brakes all the time. This car is fast! I couldn’t properly try this out in the streets around London (!) but I could feel that it wanted to go. It felt a lot “zippier” than ether if my two cars and I loved it.

Carbon-fibre – The car has a lot of carbon-fibre laminate in its construction. This is great for saving weight but if you ding it and it needs repairs then it must be done my a BMW specialist laminate centre and at the moment there is only one of these in the country. This may be an issue if you need major repairs but BMW will pick ap and drop off so it shouldn’t cost any more.

Range Extender – my test car had the REX (range extender) but the REX cannot be used above about 70% battery charge and as our battery was full from the overnight charge I couldn’t try it out. Pity as this was one of the main areas of concern for me. I shall have to have another drive at my local dealer after first ensuring that the battery level is low. At least there is an option of the REX. This could make the i3 a good choice if you want to avoid the need to charge on the public charging network.

Tech – It seems that finally a car manufacturer is thinking more from a drivers perspective when it comes to the tech. It is all great on paper though so we will see if it lives up to its promises in real-life. Things like over-the-air software updates will help a lot if it actually works. Given the pitiful way that Nissan and Vauxhall handle software I have to remain skeptical over this but certainly on paper it all looks a lot better than either.

Conclusion – I went not expecting to like it much but I came away loving it! If I were looking at a new EV now the BMW i3 would be up there on my shortlist for sure but there are a few issues for me…

I don’t want 3-doors and the funny rear doors wouldn’t help. As an only car, for me it is too small but I can see that it would suit being around town very well indeed.

The REX engine seems a little small for long-distance use but I am assured by BMW that it is adequate if started before the battery level drops too low. Just be aware of that if considering the REX option. Having said that, it certainly removes any chance of getting stuck without a charge and frees you up from “range anxiety” and the restrictions of always needing public rapid charging when on longer trips. If I went for an i3 I would definitely get the REX!

However, the biggest issue for me is the price. It is VERY expensive in my opinion, even for a BMW. It will be around £10,000 more than the top-spec Nissan Leaf and although you are clearly getting a lot of car for your money for me that would be a showstopper.

Remember, that for about £10k you can get a 2 year old Nissan Leaf or £20k might get you a Vauxhall Ampera.  Perhaps it isn’t fair comparing a new car with a 2nd hand one but that is the kind of comparison people will make… a new BMW i3 or a 2nd hand Leaf in nearly new condition and £25k in the bank.

So, personally, right now, I would choose a 2 year old Nissan Leaf (or Vauxhall Ampera if I wanted the REX capability) and wait until there is a genuine 200+ mile EV and a more developed rapid charging network in a few years time.

But then I am not a BMW fan 🙂 and so if you have the cash then in my opinion it is a great choice and short of spending megabucks on a Tesla it is without doubt the best EV that I have seen on the market right now.

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