Review: 2018 BMW i3S is grounded in two worlds
It doesn't look like a performance car – it looks like a geekmobile – but step on the throttle pedal and it will hurtle from standstill to 100 kilometres an hour in a claimed 6.9 seconds
Until now, electrified cars have been designed either to save the world or hoon the planet.
Environmentalists encourage them because they use no gasoline. If the source of electricity is clean – such as from hydro dams or wind energy – then they leave a very small footprint on the roads they travel.
Performance enthusiasts love them because their electric motors help fill in the gaps for faster driving. The most expensive supercars all use hybrid engines to remove turbo lag in acceleration and boost the horsepower of the conventional pistons in their cylinders.
The BMW i3s, however, is trying to do both. It's an electric car that only reverts to gasoline if you buy the $4,600 optional "range extender" gas engine and it also flies off the line like manure from the proverbial shovel.
It doesn't look like a performance car – it looks like a geekmobile – but step on the throttle pedal and it will hurtle from standstill to 100 kilometres an hour in a claimed 6.9 seconds. That's without the gas engine fitted, which weighs an extra 123 kilograms.Tick the box for that peace-of-range-mind engine (as 80 per cent of i3 buyers do) and you'll add nearly a second to your acceleration time.
The most important thing, though, is that the purely electric engine has maximum torque at all times, with no lag whatsoever. Step on that throttle at any speed and there's instant whoosh – no hesitation – and no gear changes because there are no gears: 30-70 km/h passes in as few as 2.5 seconds; 80-120 km/h as quick as 4.3 seconds.
If truth be told, the regular i3 is already a pretty quick little car, but BMW wanted to add some "spirited driving" options to make the most of the drivetrain. The German engineers found an extra 10 horsepower hidden away in the electric motor, so it tops out now at 180 hp. The chassis itself is also tweaked with wider tracking between the wheels and a firmer suspension that drops everything 10 millimetres closer to the road.
That's the weird thing about the i3s: the heaviest part of the car is the batteries and they're carried at the very bottom in a big slab that takes up much of the undercarriage. This means that although you're sitting fairly tall in a bright and breezy cabin, with large windows and plenty of space all around, most of the weight is below the level of your feet. You just can't tip this thing; it drives as if it's a go-kart.
Believe me, I tried. The greatest challenge is the tires, which should be sticky performance rubber for grip but should also be rock-hard, low-rolling-resistance rubber for fuel economy. However, if you're going to spend the extra $4,000 for the S package on your i3, your conscience is probably salved enough that you'll go for the grip over the economy.
I almost wanted to be pulled over by the Highway Patrol, because surely the cop would assume I was a milquetoast tree-hugger in such a car, with my eucalyptus-wood dashboard and recycled cloth seats. The i3s looks more like the Google car than the ultimate driving machine.
There's no way it could have been me driving at such speed through the canyon – the radar must have fixed on a stray road-runner. But it never happened and I got away lucky. In California, there are already plenty of BMW i3s on the road and I'm sure the cops are smart to them by now.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.
- Base price/as tested: $52,350/$56,950 (with range extender)
- Engine: 94 ampere-hour (Ah) battery, electric motor; optional 2-cylinder, 600 cc gas engine
- Transmission/drive: One-speed electric motor/rear-wheel
- Fuel range: 200 km (EV), plus additional 90 km with optional gas engine
- Alternatives: Chevrolet Bolt, VW eGolf, Nissan Leaf
I just don’t have an opinion on the looks. If you like it, then great; if you don’t, I don’t blame you. I’m sure somebody out there thinks the i3 is gorgeous, but for no good reason that would take too long to explain anyway. I’m not one of them.
At least you don’t have to look at the exterior when you’re inside the car. The interior feels like it should be in an art gallery or museum of modern design. The rear half-doors swing open from the back to help everyone get inside and the vast parcel shelf on top of the dashboard gives an airy feeling to the entire cabin.
The only thing missing is the sound – the car runs in silence, so quiet you can hear the tires turning on the road. And there’s no transmission, either. Just step on the throttle and you’re off. Take your foot off the throttle and the regenerative braking slows you hard enough to activate the brake lights. There’s some coasting allowed – however, it’s not so sensitive that if you sneeze, you accelerate, as with some previous generations of electric cars.
The very fact this is an electric car that’s in mass production is astonishing, and unthinkable 15 years ago. Now, the battery range is up to 200 km and the extra little gas engine, with its nine litres of fuel, means if you do push it too far, you’ll get home. You might need to stop for gas every 20 minutes, but you’ll make it.
There’s not much space in the trunk – just 260 L, but 1,099 L if you fold down the rear seats. There’s only room for two rear-seat passengers, but plenty of headroom for them.
Ultimately, the extra performance isn’t really needed and this is already a very expensive car– as good as unaffordable if you live in a province that doesn’t offer EV rebates. It’s a hoot to drive, though.