We say goodbye to the more potent version of BMW’s electric hatchback. Was it any fun to drive outside commuter hours?
Why we ran it: To see whether this trailblazing small EV has evolved enough to still be considered the best in its class
Month 6 – Month 5 – Month 4 – Month 3 – Month 2 – Month 1 – Specs
Life with a BMW i3S: Month 6
Time to say goodbye to BMW’s nippy hatchback. Was a decent spell of EV ownership an electrifying experience? – 24th December 2019
Long before it was time to hand the keys back to BMW, the i3s had sparked more interest from Autocar readers than anything else I’ve had the opportunity to report on. I’m grateful for all the messages, tips and positive words from owners, who clearly all love theirs and are fully converted to the EV way of life – but as much as a stretch behind the wheel opened my eyes, I’d still hesitate before making the switch.
Little of that can be blamed on the car, which proved capable and entertaining. I’d argue the i3s is the first electric hot hatch, with rapid off-the-line pace and instant response that made it feel surprisingly at home on twisty B-roads. It has the rear-driven character you’d expect of a BMW but not quite the ability to fully exploit it, on account of the restrictive traction control system and tall bodystyle. A lower, more focused car with the same underpinnings would be a very fun thing indeed. Is there room in the Toyota-BMW partnership plan for a reborn MR2?
It’s a practical car, too. Tall yet small, with a good view of the road ahead and the turning circle to fit into just about any parking space. The boot isn’t the biggest but more than sufficient for a weekly supermarket shop or a pair of weekend bags, and the folding rear bench meant I even managed to fit a small dining table (plus chairs) inside although the person I collected them from said it was much easier fitting them in the back of a three-door Mini. Blame a floor full of batteries.
As for the i3’s backwards-opening rear doors, they give great access should you need to fit a child seat, but I imagine they’d have quickly become frustrating if I’d used them more. You can’t let rear passengers out without jumping out yourself, and getting in did prove a struggle with other cars parked either side of you.
My biggest issue with the i3s was its ride, which could be comically harsh at times. A back-to-back drive in a regular i3 on smaller wheels proved to me that 20in alloys and run-flat tyres don’t make much sense on a car that’s likely to spend most of its time in town, however good they look, filling those widened wheel arches. Still, I was happy to put up with it in return for grin-inducing performance.
That alone wouldn’t be enough to make me pause before making the i3 my only means of transport, but I feel it could have done a better job at helping me overcome my range anxiety. ‘How many miles you have left’ didn’t ever seem to be how many miles I had left, with the car reporting wildly varied amounts after completing a charge, even if my driving style had barely changed between top-ups. I’m also aware that my time with the car was spent in part over the summer. My next longterm test car will also be an EV, but this time I’ll be running it through the depths of winter, so I’ll be keeping a close eye on temperatures and how they affect battery drain.
I didn’t feel I was missing out by not having a charging point at home, as I had one at the other end of my commute, but the need to rely on the UK’s still-maturing charging network meant this wasn’t a car I’d ever have taken on a long drive just for the sake of it. My experience with public charging points was more negative than not, with charging bays sometimes taken by internal combustion engined cars, broken fast chargers and a confusing number of accounts to register for all conspiring to spoil my transition from fossil fuel.
The speed at which regular motorway driving could sap the battery didn’t inspire confidence, either. I would tackle 100-mile trips in Eco mode, even though the car is more than capable of doing that kind of distance without needing to recharge, because the thought of running out of power and being stranded was worse than engaging cruise control and slipstreaming an HGV at 56mph.
I think undertaking some true long-distance drives would have helped get me over this apprehension and I was in the planning stages of one towards the end of my i3 tenure, but poor timing meant it didn’t pan out unfortunately.
EV ownership was a journey I was taking alongside more people than ever, with hybrid and pure-electric car sales accounting for one in 10 registrations in October. Whether the i3 will account for many of those in the future is tough to predict.
It’s currently one of the quickest compact EVs on sale, but if size isn’t everything, the £43,000 asking price of our test car, including options, puts it more than £5000 more expensive than a base Tesla Model 3 – which also promises more range and access to Tesla’s Supercharger network.
It’s more fun to drive than any of its direct rivals today, but as the number of affordable electric hatchbacks increases, I’m not sure the BMW’s quirky doors and expensive carbonfibre construction will tempt customers away from more conventional alternatives.
I really like the i3s, but not quite all of it. I love the looks, proportions, performance and interior choices. Its compactness is great and the agility is close to full-on hot hatch. I also admire BMW’s ambition in committing itself so early and wholeheartedly to a new-era design. Sadly, however, other cars have caught up in five years. They’re now more practical, more ordinary and go a lot further. They ride better, too. So although my heart says our household needs one of these, my head tells me to shop elsewhere.
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Instant torque Brilliantly nippy at traffic lights and junctions in a way that combustion-engined cars simply can’t match.
Airy cabin Feels more like a living room, with environmentally friendly materials echoing its green credentials.
Compact dimensions Short overhangs make parking in even the tightest of multi-storey car parks a breeze.
Ride quality It’s simply too stiff for a car that spends most of its time being driven over battered city roads.
Coach doors Backwards-opening rear doors are flashy but less than practical for anything other than occasional use.
Final mileage: 5885
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Life with a BMW i3S: Month 5
Our EV might be able to cure range anxiety, but it still doesn’t give us an easy ride – 9th October 2019
Range worrier to range warrior? On this evidence, that might be the case following an invitation from Tom Morgan to borrow ‘his’ BMW i3s. Life with an all-electric car wasn’t something I’d considered much – not through blind loyalty to the good old internal combustion engine; rather because I had doubts my nerves would survive the anxiety of keeping the thing charged.
Turns out, for my specific needs, range worry was a waste of time. It also turns out that by avoiding such cars, I’ve been missing out. A week spent in the company of the i3s was something of a revelation.
But wait, don’t yawn. This is not a standard tale of Road to Damascus EV conversion. Instead, without range worries, I’ve been able to focus on the merits of the car, as a car. Never mind the power source, could it survive and even thrive as a member of my family?
The Saturday proved a useful gauge. The morning was taken up by a 70-mile return journey to Crowborough, East Sussex, to visit the south-east’s finest purveyor of saxophones, in company with my budding John Coltrane of a teenage son. Upon our return, the little ones and Mrs Smith piled in for a 40-mile family outing to visit friends within the M25 ring. So 110 miles in a car with a 42kWh battery and a range comfortably accurate to the official WLTP figure of 177 miles? There you have it: charge anxiety dismissed.
The morning drive in fine September sunshine was particularly pleasant, through Sussex villages and along sweeping country roads. It brought out the best in the BMW, its bottomless well of torque and 181bhp making progress to Crowborough seamless. The novelty of silent EV motoring quickly wore off, too, largely because it isn’t silent. Sure, stepping off without rising revs remained an eerie sensation, but once up to speed, road and wind noise drowned out the silence. Probably something to do with those massive 20in wheels and the high, upright silhouette.
The small children enjoyed the afternoon ride, but it would be churlish to put that down to the i3s looking like something they’d find in their toy box. As ever, style is subjective. For what it’s worth, its quirky looks appealed to us, even if it dates the car: people increasingly expect electric cars to look normal because now that’s what they are. Try-hard eccentricities are not necessary.
Then again, the ‘characterful’ interior, with its lack of transmission tunnel and wide expanse of oakwood dash, gave a pleasing Tardis-like sensation, and the rear doors that open ‘the wrong way’ soon proved more than a novelty. The wide opening and lack of B-pillar made stretching over to belt in the kids easier than in most. A big tick on family ergonomics, then.
But by the end of the day, it was with some relief that I parked up and plugged in. Why? The ride. It’s fine on smooth roads, but how common are those in the UK? Over lumps, bumps and potholes, those 20in wheels transmit a fair wallop and the whole experience feels a long way from premium. Handling isn’t bad given the battery weight, but the thump factor would be a deal-breaker were I in the market. Well, that and the £40,000 price as tested. Electric cars of this size have to become more affordable – and soon – to truly compete with traditional models.
But let’s end on an upbeat: trickle charging is slow but sure beats pumping hard cash into a fuel tank. Lucky I can park directly outside my front door to access a three-pin socket, although living solely on the ground floor ruled out overnight charging through an open window. Still, an evening charge before locking up for the night offered enough of a top-up to get me to work.
Back to you, Tom. The i3s was fun – mostly – and far from a novelty. For us and for many families like us, such cars are the new normal.
Braking without braking Regenerative braking took some getting used to, but not pressing a pedal to slow is oddly satisfying.
Cable health and safety Charging cable threaded through a window isn’t just ugly, it’s the perfect height to garrotte a child…
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Coasting’s easier than you think – 18th September 2019
Given how aggressive the i3’s regenerative braking can be, no option to disable or reduce it, and the precision needed to control it using the throttle and your foot alone, one way to maintain speed while also maximising available range is to shift into neutral and coast where possible. The shifter (above) is sited largely out of your eyeline while driving so I was initially worried about knocking it into reverse by mistake, but sensibly the car won’t let you do that while travelling at speed.
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a hidden, and pleasant, surprise – 4th September 2019
The centre console has two USB ports but one is a USB-C and I don’t have the right cable for it. That makes charging two phones at once a pain, so hats off to reader Ian Bushell for flagging up the hidden 12V socket under the dashboard. It’s perfectly placed for a 12V USB adaptor, so I can mount a phone without cables everywhere while a passenger has sole use of the centre console.
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Life with a BMW i3S: Month 4
A change in commute has transformed the fun factor for BMW’s sprightly EV – 21 August 2019
I like to think that any car can be fun when driven on the right road – so shifting the already entertaining BMW i3s from the stop-start city traffic of south-east London to the quieter country roads of Surrey following a house move has really brought out the EV’s playful side.
Instead of gridlocked roads that rarely allowed for anything above 25mph and where the only amusement was always being first off the line at traffic lights, my morning commute now offers the choice of free-flowing motorway, or quiet country roads with honest-to-goodness corners.
The BMW might be tall, but it’s proving brilliantly chuckable, with rear-driven character you won’t find in any other small EV – at least until the Honda E arrives early next year. It’s a shame the stability controls (which can’t be fully disabled) step in sooner than you might expect, as the low centre of gravity gives plenty of confidence in the bends and there’s enough power to draw out the beginnings of oversteer before the electronics get involved. Sport mode makes the steering a little heavier but, seeing how darty the car can feel in the standard Comfort setting, I prefer the extra weight of Sport.
It’s also rapid all the way up to the national speed limit, unlike some less expensive rivals that begin to feel out of their depth once you venture beyond 40mph. Finding even the smallest gaps in motorway traffic? Not a problem.
Thankfully my new driving routes are well surfaced, as a jittery and overly firm ride is easily the i3s’s worst trait. The standard car coped far better with bumps and potholes, although a brief ride in one did help highlight the improved stability added by the wider rear track on the i3s.
Journeys have been shorter, but speeds have also been higher, and Sport mode seems to apply less brake regeneration than the other modes. All of which has made an impact on range, but not enough to change my charging habits, with a top-up at the office usually enough to get me through the weekend without needing to visit a public charger. Those waiting to hear about longer journeys will need to hold on a few more weeks, but they are in the works.
The BMW was never going to be my first choice when it came to moving day, but it did prove more capable than I gave it credit for – and all because of those backwards-opening rear doors I sneered at recently. Fold the rear seats down and there’s 1100 litres of space behind the driver, but the boot floor is completely flat because of the battery pack underneath. No amount of Tetris-style rotating was going to let the rear hatch swallow an entire dining room table, but the pillarless doors left just enough room to get everything in at once.
I’ve also been reliably informed the i3s shares something in common with McLaren supercars costing many times the price: dodgy DAB radio reception. It seems it takes little more than a multi-storey car park, short tunnel or gusty south-westerly breeze to silence the signal.
Okay, maybe that last one is stretching things a bit, but it really doesn’t take much for reception to take a dive down to crackly FM. It’s because of the carbonfibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP) construction, apparently – it might be tough and light, but doesn’t make for a great radio aerial.
Serious stance Wider arches give the i3s real presence that feels lacking from the standard car.
Rocky ride Lowered ride height and 20in alloys make for bumpy progress over anything other than perfectly smooth Tarmac.
Life with a BMW i3S: Month 3
Plug socket location could be better – 31st July 2019
The i3’s charging point is where you’d normally find the filler cap in a combustion car. This isn’t always convenient – especially for on-road rapid chargers, where you either need to mount a kerb or three-point turn to allow the cable to reach. I’ve had fewer issues with EVs where the charging point is located on the nose, but think the Audi E-tron’s double-sided approach is best.
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Can you open this for me? – 10 July 2019
I call the act of helping someone get out of the i3’s rear seats in a busy car park the ‘supermarket shuffle’. You either get uncomfortably close to one another or lean over the front door to open the rear one. With no way to escape the rear without help from the driver, it’s the i3’s least practical aspect – but still easier than climbing over the front seats in a 3dr.
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Life with a BMW i3S: Month 2
A USB-powered workaround – 19th June 2019
While iPhone owners will appreciate support for Apple CarPlay, BMW’s refusal to play nicely with Android Auto has made queueing up podcasts a bit frustrating once my phone is sealed in the armrest that doubles as a wireless charger. So I loaded a USB stick with music to control it more easily through the iDrive interface. Good to see the BMW isn’t so picky about rival-branded flash drives.
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There are two ways to drive the i3 – and both have their benefits – 5th June 2019
Barely a month in and the i3S is cultivating something of a split personality in me, at least when it comes to my driving style.
For my commute, the drive mode is firmly in Sport and the air conditioning on. I’ll even precondition the cabin if the weather looks a bit iffy. With only 17 miles to cover and a charging point waiting for me at the office, there’s no need to conserve power or take it easy off the line at traffic lights. And my word, it feels nippy when you do open the taps, in a way a similarly powerful petrol hot hatch can’t hope to equal.
Learning exactly where the regenerative braking will bring the car to a stop in queues of traffic took a little bit of trial and error, as BMW has calibrated it to be much stronger than in some rival EVs. I was either pulling up short or needed to apply the brakes myself for the first few days, but now I’m almost exclusively using one pedal inside the M25.
For the few longer journeys I’ve managed so far, I’ve noticed my right foot becoming a lot lighter, with adaptive cruise engaged and the drive mode knocked back to Comfort or even Eco Pro to maximise mileage – but I draw the line at switching off the climate controls. (Frostbite and heat exhaustion aren’t on my bucket list, funnily enough.)
I partly put this down to how the i3 displays its remaining charge, with four large chunks of battery gradually slipping away with each passing mile. Once one chunk has disappeared, that’s a quarter of your total range gone, regardless of what the estimated range might be. I think it’s a psychological effect that the Kia e-Niro, with its 18 smaller pips showing how much juice you have left, deals with better.
My frugal driving was also influenced by my destinations having only a handful of public charging points, and (in one case) no opportunity to hook up a three-pin plug in case of emergencies. When visiting family on the south coast, the nearest public rapid charger was a town over, and when I got there, it turned out to be broken, despite ZapMap reporting otherwise. The Tesla Model X owner that I beat to the functioning 7kW charger was aghast, and the maximum 30-minute stay meant a scant 20 miles of range gained. Luckily, there were two more 7kW chargers a mile down the road that allowed a longer stay.
On a later trip to Canterbury, I had the option of overnight three-pin charging and my friend’s smart meter indicated £4-£5 spent on a top-up from around 40%. Well worth the round of drinks I bought in return. I’ve been told a good strategy is to sign up for all the major charging networks, so I don’t need to be as picky when it comes to charging, and to aim for rapid chargers along my route rather than seeking them out at my destinations.
There’s little doubt that the sheer number of companies on offer is confusing for the EV newcomer, as are the different payment plans: I initially subscribed to Polar Plus but have a feeling I’ll be adding several more RFID cards to my wallet and apps to my smartphone homescreen in the near future.
INSTANT ACCELERATION No hunting for gears, and no waiting for revs to build. The i3’s off-the-line shove is immediate, and really quite rapid.
NO LOVE FOR ANDROID I listen to a lot of podcasts, but with no Android Auto, there’s no way to queue up a new one while on the move. Annoying.
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Life with a BMW i3 S: Month 1
Other owners put our range to shame – 23rd May 2019
Using the BMW Connected smartphone app’s driver statistics, I’m doing my best to beat the community averages for efficient driving, energy recuperation and power consumption – but some are easier than others. The high score for furthest distance on a single charge will take some doing – bravo to the owner who managed 228 miles.
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Electric commuter car has six months to prove its worth beyond just city driving – 15th May 2019
The i3 was the original defining electric car. It was BMW’s vision of the future, one that beat Tesla to the mainstream market by two years and aimed to prove that EVs could be different from the established three-box norm.
Five years have passed since it first appeared and, in that time, cheaper rivals have come along. But BMW hasn’t stood still. Today’s i3 exists in pure-electric form only, improved with greater range and a sportier, more engaging i3s version. The arrival of a new 42kWh-capacity battery (120Ah) makes this the ideal time to revisit and see if it’s still the best compact EV out there.
I was deemed its obvious custodian. My commute to and from Autocar’s Twickenham office usually packs me onto six different trains like a sardine for up to two hours each way – a privilege for which I pay £10.50 per day. Travelling by car is slightly faster, even with traffic, but falls foul of the London congestion charge (£12 per day). Even before adding the cost of petrol or diesel, I’d be out of pocket, and the newly introduced Ultra Low Emission Zone ruled out running an old econobox on the cheap.
Over the next six months I plan to spend with BMW’s electric hatchback, I stand to save £1240 on public transport, or as much as £3500 on fuel and toll charges. Sounds like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? There is, of course, the small proviso that I live in a fourth-floor flat. I’m not planning to buy an extra-long extension cord so will be largely relying on public charging points.
The office has a 7.2kW charger, so I’ll be fine during the week. For those longer journeys – and there will be many – I’ll be completely reliant on destination charging, or the odd three-pin overnighter when visiting relatives out in the sticks.
BMW says the i3’s new longer-range 42kWh battery is good for 177 miles under WLTP, but the next six months will likely prove as much a test of Britain’s electric car infrastructure as of this quirky electric hatchback.
It will also be a test of my restraint, as the 181bhp and a 6.9sec 0-60mph sprint of our more potent i3s is rapid enough to bother some hot hatchbacks. I’m fully expecting the instant torque to be more tempting at the traffic lights, though, where only other EVs have a hope of keeping pace to 30mph.
Our car arrives in two-tone Melbourne Red and Frozen Grey metallic paint on 20in black alloy wheels and BMW’s Suite ‘interior world’ – which means brown leather upholstery and dark oak wood trim to you and me. It’s a combination I wasn’t sure of at first, but it has quickly grown on me. The cabin feels more expansive than it really is thanks to the lack of transmission tunnel and minimal dashboard, and the darker materials don’t make you feel at all confined.
It’s a fully loaded example, with £6135 of options ticked, including the essential (£790 Driving Assistant Plus, £360 reversing camera), useful (£395 wireless smartphone charging, £330 keyless entry) and nice but frivolous (£125 blue seatbelts). The £235 Apple CarPlay preparation will largely go unused, as I have an Android phone. Unfortunately for me, BMW and Google don’t yet see eye to eye, so it’ll either be a dashboard mount or the built-in iDrive infotainment for navigation and media. Thankfully, there is an Android version of BMW Connected, the smartphone companion app that will grade my driving on a five-star scale, let me send navigation directions remotely and pre-heat the cabin for any cold morning commutes – at least those when I’m not desperately trying to conserve battery.
Factor in the government electric car grant and you’re looking at a £40,305 outlay, making this very much a premium choice among city-friendly EVs. BMW says 60% of customers think it’s worth the extra over the vanilla i3. It has six months to convince me of the same.
In the 1000 miles I’ve spent with the i3s so far, the inability to charge at home has yet to make this venture a literal non-starter. Even with a lead foot, I can usually make it from the office and back with only around a quarter of the battery drained. Fully charged, the impossible-to-miss remaining battery indicator on the dashboard informs me it has 155 miles in reserve, jumping to over 190 if used in Eco Pro+ mode.
This reduces top speed to 56mph and throttle response to something altogether more restrained while disengaging the climate controls and switching off the heated seats. I’m hoping that will be something of a last resort for all but the longest of journeys. I’ll be interested to learn how quickly the battery can be sapped at a 70mph motorway cruise.
I haven’t felt the need to curse the giant alloy wheels or sportier suspension yet, although the i3s does certainly ride rather firmly for a car most at home in the city. I’m looking forward to driving on more engaging roads, when I know I have a charging point waiting for me at the end, to see if it delivers on the promise of engaging handling.
I’ll also be after any tips on hypermiling and squeezing out every drop of range from a charge, so if you have any, please get in touch. I’m probably going to need them.
To my mind, the i3 has always been a brilliant flag bearer for electric mobility, but flawed in several important design aspects and in some of its minor details. The question this test should answer is whether it’s a flawed genius, or just frustratingly short of the very best.
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BMW i3 S Prices and specification
Prices: List price new £37,670 List price now £37,840 Price as tested £43,805 Dealer value now £29,500 Private value now £28,000 Trade value now £22,750 (part exchange)
Options: Melbourne Red paint £550, i3s Plus package £1100, Suite interior £2000, keyless entry £330, reversing camera £360, blue seatbelts £125, eDrive exterior sound £80, front and rear parking sensors £170, Driving Assistant Plus £790, Apple CarPlay preparation £235, enhanced Bluetooth with wireless charging £395
Fuel consumption and range: Official range 177 miles (WLTP) Battery size 42.2kWh Test average 158mpg Test best 197mpg Test worst 121mpg
Tech highlights: 0-62mph 6.9sec Top speed 99mph Max power 181bhp Max torque 199lb ft Transmission single-speed automatic Boot capacity 260 litres Wheels 20in, alloy Tyres 195/55 R20 Kerb weight 1265kg
Service and running costs: Contract hire rate £405 CO2 0g/km Service costs none Other costs none Electricity costs £258 Running costs inc fuel £258 Cost per mile 4.4 pence Depreciation £14,920 Cost per mile inc dep’n £2.57 Faults None
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