BMW i3 review

The i3 was one of the first electric cars to make everyday drivers sit up and take notice, with its cool style, good handling and practical range

£35,350 - £37,840
£31,850 - £34,340
Electric

Pros

  • Fun to drive
  • Futuristic style inside and out
  • Eco-conscious materials and manufacture

Cons

  • Pricey compared to rivals
  • Compact cabin and small boot
  • Rivals have greater range
Car type Official range Wallbox charge time Rapid charge time
Electric 193 miles (WLTP) 6 hours (7kW, 0-100%) 30min (50kW, 20-80%)

There’s something about the BMW i3’s unique style, advanced construction and all-round prestige that suggests many drivers considering buying one probably wouldn’t get as far as a second glance at some of its rivals.

Yes, if you simply want to get from A to B in a comfortable electric car, there are some very competent alternatives, with roomier interiors. But while other brands have either converted existing models to electric power – think of the Volkswagen e-Golf – or made relatively unchallenging electric cars like the Renault ZOE or Nissan Leaf, the BMW i3 dares to be different. It boldly assumes that, far from being fearful of electric technology, potential buyers would want to make a statement about their transport choice.

The BMW i3 certainly does that, even though it’s been around for the best part of a decade now. Well, as a concept at least, which is how the i3 first appeared at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 2011. It went on sale in the UK in 2014 and is the third best-selling electric car in the world, after the Tesla Model S and Nissan Leaf.

The i3 is a five-door hatchback, just like many of its rivals. However, the way the car is designed, constructed and packaged gives it a different feel to anything else on the road. The i3’s body is constructed of carbon-fibre clad in plastic panels – it's claimed to be the first mass-produced carbon-fibre car in the world – while a high roofline and rear-hinged rear doors maximise practicality for passengers. The design stands out in the traffic, too, thanks to clever detailing and interesting side-window profiles. Inside, a suitably futuristic interior has something of a boutique feel thanks to its eco-friendly yet luxurious finish.

As a pure-electric vehicle, there’s no engine compartment as such; the i3 features a 168bhp electric motor driving the rear axle via a single-speed automatic transmission, with lithium-ion batteries located under the floor. There’s also a more performance-focused i3s variant with a 180bhp motor, and BMW claims an official WLTP range of 193 miles from a fully charged 42.2kWh battery for both of them.

Real-world range in our experience is just over 160 miles, but of course it all depends on your driving style and road conditions. It'll take almost 20 hours to fully charge the i3's batteries from a standard three-pin wall socket. However, if you fit a 7kW wallbox at home, you can reduce that to six hours. If you use a rapid, 50kW DC charger at motorway services or elsewhere, it'll take some 30 minutes to add 100 miles of range. It is a shame, however, that the i3 doesn't offer faster charging than that, since many of its newer rivals such as the forthcoming Honda e can charge twice as quickly from chargers that offer 100kW or more charging speeds.

The two versions of the i3 are similarly well equipped, with both getting LED headlamps and big alloy wheels, iDrive infotainment with DAB radio, Bluetooth connectivity and automatic headlamps and wipers. The i3s gives you the punchier motor, but also has 20-inch alloys instead of the standard 19-inch rims, lower sports suspension, sharper steering, optimised traction control and a 'Sport' driving mode.

On the road, the i3 is fun to drive, with responsive acceleration, crisp steering and near-silent refinement making it particularly effective at darting around town. Ride quality isn't brilliant, though, and short-travel suspension means hustling the car along country roads can fairly quickly become unsettling. Body control and handling improve a little with the upgraded suspension of the i3s, but don’t think this is an electric hot hatchback – it’s not.

The BMW i3 feels most at home around town and in the suburbs, which isn’t such a bad thing when you consider its primary role is as a second car for many families. Practicality is compromised by a small-ish boot that only offers 260 litres of luggage space with all seats in place, and by the fact you only get a two-seat rear bench, but if you can live with that, the car has a lot to recommend it as a fun-to-drive, cheap-to-run and very stylish eco-friendly lifestyle statement.

For a more detailed look at the BMW i3 and BMW i3s, read on for the rest of our in-depth review.