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

£35,180 - £37,670
£31,680 - £34,170
Electric

Pros

  • Fun driving experience
  • Futuristic style inside and out
  • Range is sufficient for most needs

Cons

  • Pricey compared to rivals
  • Compact cabin and small boot
  • Rivals have greater battery range
Car type Official range Wallbox charge time Rapid charge time
Electric 193 miles (WLTP) 3 hours 12 mins (11kW, 0-80%) 1 hour 24 mins (50kW)

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 and terrific build quality, and that in their own way are just as good to drive. 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 dared to be different. It boldly assumed that, far from being fearful of electric technology, potential buyers would want to make a statement about their futuristic 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 a WLTP range of 193 miles from a fully charged 42.2kWh battery for both of them.

Real-world range is just over 160 miles according to BMW, but of course it all depends on your driving style and road conditions. BMW says charging the i3's batteries from flat to 80% takes around 15 hours from a standard wall socket, and under ten hours with a 3.7kW wallbox. However, if you fit an 11kW BMW wallbox at home, you can reduce that to just over three hours. If you use a rapid, 50kW DC charger at motorway services or elsewhere, the charge time falls again to 45 minutes.

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 – and with the i3’s relatively high price – 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.