First drive: BMW i3, now with a bigger battery

How does it fare against newer, more affordable EVs?
by Paul Horrell | Dec 1, 2018
PHOTO: TopGear.com

Another new i3?

Yup, another. In its brief life, the i3 has had an improved battery, a facelift, and a warmed-over ‘s’ version. And now, both the normal i3 and the i3s get a bigger-capacity battery again.

How big?

BMW calls it 120Ah. Twice the capacity of the original i3, and so roughly double the range, all done by improving the battery’s internals, at no increase to its size or weight. 

But Ah (amp hours) isn’t a proper measure of the energy it can store, unless you know the voltage. What you need to know, then, is the gross energy storage, which is 42.2kWh (kilowatt hours).

Sorry…?

You can compare that with a Nissan Leaf (40kWh) or a Hyundai Kona Electric (64kWh in its top version). Think of those energy numbers as the size of the electric tank, just as you’d look at the size of the fuel tank in a combustion car.

But even that isn’t the whole story if you want to know the range. As with gasoline-powered cars, you need to know the efficiency, too. Sort of electric km/L.

So how does the i3 really do?

It’s pretty efficient because it’s light—under 1,300kg is good for an EV—and aerodynamic and rolls on tall skinny tires. Put all that together and you have an efficiency of around 7.1km/kWh. That gives a range of about 290-310km. The i3s is the slightly less efficient one of the pair.

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Enjoy it?

Yup. The new i3s is slightly more powerful than the i3, at 183hp vs 170hp. Torque is up from 249Nm to 270Nm. Hardly enough of a difference to matter. What you will notice is it sits on a wider track and firmed-up springs, anti-roll bars, and dampers.

The result is it’s the most fun to drive of all the affordable EVs. The Leaf is soft and gentle. The Kona is torque-steery and a bit ragged, if quick. The i3s is also quick—doing 0-100kph with zero fuss in 6.9sec. And it’s quite a fun steer, its front wheels gripping decently (the original i3 understeered) and its rear ones getting the power down well. You can lean on it in corners and feel it working beneath you. Sure, it’s tall so it pitches and bobs around when it’s bumpy, but even so, I had a laugh.

Which did what to your range?

Okay, tore a bit of a hole out of it. I got about 217km out of a charge, driving like I stole it, so I was doing only 5.3km/kWh. But be aware I’d earlier driven down the same road—in Portugal—in a new 320i and got about 8.5km/L. There are absolutely no straights, and absolutely no traffic. Only hills, hairpins, tight esses, the lot.

Interesting: In the twisty road sections, I hardly used the brakes, and regenerated energy by lifting off the accelerator and getting strong deceleration. There was no regen on the highway, so although it felt like a more gentle driving style, it was using energy at the same rate. This was headlights and wipers on, A/C off. If you drove at normal traffic speed, I reckon you’d be in with a shout of hitting BMW’s claimed real-world range of 257km or even more, if you drove super-smoothly.

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Incidentally, BMW has now dropped the gasoline range-extender version. The new one will go as far on battery alone as the original REx would on both its sources.

Okay, but the Hyundai Kona is a real-world 400km. And it’s cheaper.

Yup, but that’s the thing. We’re now getting to the point where the EV market is like the rest of the car market. It’s not just about range per relative to price anymore (though by that measure, the Kona is spectacularly good). Nope, you look at performance, dynamics, style, interior, space, and, yes, range. Then find a balance that suits you. On pure usefulness as a car for long trips, the BMW is well beaten.

And you wouldn’t have an EV to go bashing through Portuguese hill roads. So what’s the i3 good at, really?

In normal conditions, it is, and remains in the face of all the new competition, a wonderful car to use, and to be in.

It still looks distinctive, though you might not like it. And the clap-hands doors are also an acquired taste. The rear ones won’t open unless the fronts are already ajar. But they do result in a big entrance to the backseat.

The rest of the news is great. Its drivetrain is blissfully silent and smooth away from rest (not all EVs are). That silence is echoed—or rather, not echoed—by the low tire and wind noise. You’ve got the high eyepoint of an SUV but it’s short and easy to park. The cabin is beautiful. And it’s fun in every bend and roundabout.

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NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.

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