BMW i3 Review
"The most premium small electric car"
BMW i3 - front view, driving, brown-bronze, 2020

BMW i3 review: electric cars come no more stylish than this

  • Published 22 May 2020
  • 6 minute read
  • By Gavin Braithwaite-Smith

Introduction

You could buy a Nissan Leaf or a Renault Zoe, but when you discover how affordable it is to lease a BMW i3, you may want to consider an upgrade. It speaks volumes that even today, nearly seven years after its launch, the i3 remains one of the best electric cars you buy.

In fact, BMW could unveil the i3 in 2020, and it would still look fresh, futuristic and like a concept car for the road. It even manages to stand out from the crowd, despite global sales of more than 165,000.

Looks anything but its age - still a cutting edge designBMW i3 review - front view, street, brown-bronze, 2020 Available to lease from £324 per month Lease Now

What’s the appeal? Look beyond the eye-catching styling and you’ll find a cabin that’s as interesting as the outside, while the famed BMW driving dynamics are, for the most part, present and correct. Crucially, it delivers up to 188 miles of electric range, depending on the version. That might be lower than a Tesla, but it’s likely to be more than enough for most commuters.

Do you want to know the best bit? Leasing deals start from around £300 a month, so the i3 is only marginally more expensive than a Leaf or Zoe. Why fly economy when you can travel premium?


Looks, tech and design

Styling is subjective, but I think the BMW i3 is wearing its years very well. You’ll need a keen eye to spot the changes introduced at the end of 2017, but the i3 manages to look cool without seeming geeky, and green without being too evangelical. Meanwhile, BMW’s familiar kidney grille lends the i3 a touch of class, and the 19-inch alloy wheels do a great job of filling the wheelarches.

For something a little racier – in more ways than one – the i3 S model sits 10mm lower than the regular car and features a high-gloss black roof, black wheelarch extensions, and 20-inch alloy wheels that are spaced 40mm further apart for extra grip and cornering performance. It’s the closest you can get to an electric hot hatchback.

The i3's interior is like no other carBMW i3 review - interior, 2020 Available to lease from £324 per month Lease Now

On the inside, the i3 is so obviously a BMW, but quite unlike anything else in its range. Some of the switchgear is straight out of the BMW parts bin, but elsewhere you’ll find subtle nods to the car’s green credentials.

BMW says 27 plastic bottles are used to form parts of the seats and doors, while the petroleum-based plastics you’ll find in less eco-centric cars are replaced here by natural materials. This includes ‘climate active’ wool and ‘open-pore’ eucalyptus wood, making the i3 easily the most woke BMW you can buy.

It’s a light and airy cabin, helped in no small part by the sheer amount of glass, the use of light-coloured materials, and the absence of a central pillar at the sides. This is because the rear doors open backwards, which is great for passengers in the back. It’s not so good for you, because the rear doors won’t open without opening the front doors first.

'Amazing doors' is not a phrase we often use, but...BMW i3 review - backwards-opening rear doors, 2020 Available to lease from £324 per month Lease Now

There are four interior trim levels: Atelier, Loft, Lodge and Suite. Do you want the look of a man’s wash bag or an eco-cabin in the woods? It’s your call. Personally, I’d go for Lodge.

Standard equipment includes a 10.25-inch screen on the dashboard for navigation and a 5.7-inch colour display in place of traditional instruments, plus climate control, cabin pre-conditioning, DAB digital radio and LED headlights.

At launch, the i3 (60 Ah) came with a 22.6kWh battery, before a 33kWh battery was introduced in 2016 (90 Ah). Today, the 120 Ah version comes with a 42.2kWh battery, which keeps it current (ahem) in a segment filled with an increasing number of electric rivals.

Charging at home? You'd best get a Wallbox or you'll need more than a phone to keep you occupiedBMW i3 review - charging, 2020 Available to lease from £324 per month Lease Now

A 2.4kW cable for home charging comes as standard, but for rapid or fast charging you’ll need one of the optional cables. BMW also offers a wallbox for home installation, so make sure you get what you require when signing the lease agreement. At the time of writing, the extra cables cost between £165 and £240, depending on the type and length.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the i3 only offers seating for four – you’ll need to look elsewhere if you want three rear seats. Similarly, the 260-litre boot can only be described as tiny, so packing for a family holiday could be a struggle.

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Driving

The standard i3 develops 170hp, while the sportier i3 S offers 184hp. As a result, the i3 S will sprint 0-62mph in 6.9 seconds – 0.4 seconds quicker than the normal car. The top speed is irrelevant, because it’s the way the i3 moves away that is most impressive.

I’m not sure I’ll ever come to terms with the smooth, linear and instant acceleration offered by an electric car, because it’s both exhilarating and bewitching. But be warned: too many racing starts will put a dent in the claimed electric range.

Eye-catching looks from every angleBMW i3 review - top view, brown-bronze, 2020 Available to lease from £324 per month Lease Now

Speaking of which, the standard i3 offers between 182 and 188 miles, while the i3 S promises between 173 and 175 miles – that’s according to the official figures. In the real world, you can expect up to 160 miles from both models, if you’re on your very best behaviour.

The actual range will depend on the outside temperature and how many functions you enjoy on your commute to work. Unplugging the smartphone and going easy on the heated seats will squeeze a few extra miles from a single charge, though both are less juice-hungry than the air-conditioning – which is why you can pre-condition the cabin before you set off while the i3 is still plugged into the mains.

Is it fun to drive? Absolutely. The acceleration is fantastic, but ride quality is a little firm, especially in the i3 S. It’s also the best handling electric car this side of a Tesla Model 3, although it can’t quite live up to the high standards set by BMW’s more conventional models.

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Cost and economy

The BMW i3 was – and still is – criticised for being too expensive when new. There’s no doubt that a starting price of £32,000 for the i3 and £34,500 for the i3 S makes it expensive by conventional standards. And that’s after the government plug-in car grant has lopped off a big chunk of cash.

It might be an EV, but it's still great fun to driveBMW i3 review - rear view, driving, brown-bronze, 2020 Available to lease from £324 per month Lease Now

But the flipside is that electricity costs around 14p per kWh on average when charging at home, which works out far cheaper per mile than a tankful of unleaded. The i3 is also exempt from VED (road tax) and clean air zone penalties. Just be careful you don’t nudge the list price above £40,000, because that’s when the premium rate VED surcharge kicks in.

Personally, I think the i3 should be supplied with a rapid charge cable – especially as the car comes with DC rapid charge preparation – and charging extra for Apple CarPlay is a bit miserly in a premium car.

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Verdict

2020 will be an interesting year for the BMW i3. It has had the sub-Tesla premium market to itself for too long, but with the likes of Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and Volvo entering the fray, the i3 could find it gets lost between a rock and a hard place.

Honda and Mini have laucnhed electric small cars that are visually appealing and ideal for urban commuters, while Peugeot and Vauxhall now offer electric cars with longer range and a lower price.

At the opposite end of the market, the premium players could render the i3 obsolete. I hope not, because the cabin remains one of the best on the market and the driving experience is second only to a Tesla.

The BMW i3 also has those shockingly affordable leasing deals on its side. Still want that Leaf or Zoe?

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