The 2018 BMW i3 is a premium compact hatchback powered by electricity, and one of the most radically designed and constructed cars around. It was conceived and created to exploit the advantages and address the needs of a battery-powered vehicle.
Instead of taking an existing car platform, BMW started with a clean sheet of paper (or, more realistically, a blank computer screen) and approached the notion of an electric vehicle from a fresh direction. The requirements of electric vehicles are, unsurprisingly, often different than those of conventional cars. While gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles can replenish their energy supply with relative ease, electric vehicles (EV) need to make the most of each tiny watts-worth of power.
Weight must be avoided as much as possible. So BMW uses an aluminum “tub” onto which things like suspension parts, a lithium-ion battery pack and motor mounts are affixed. Over the tub is a body made mostly from carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP), which is as strong as steel but half the heft.
This is a car for cities, where more charging stations are coming on line. So a high driving position and excellent outward vision are essential. Just as city buildings go up instead of out, so does the i3. This creates plenty of headroom, and the rear seats will take a couple of average-sized adults with ease.
Special consideration has been given to the i3’s footprint. Not just the contact patches of the large-diameter/skinny-width tires but also sustainability in the manufacturing process, and the materials used inside and out. Even the owner’s manual is made from recycled paper.
What’s New for 2018?
The main event is the arrival of a sportier variant, the i3s. A new optional charging cord is available (the BMW TurboCord) that can deal with 120 and 240 volts. The nose and tail have received slight redesigns. Standard equipment now includes LED headlights. The latest version of BMW’s iDrive infotainment system brings the option of a navigation system that has been developed especially for electric cars, with real-time traffic updates, on-street parking information and “over the air” updates. And the 60 ampere-hour (Ah) battery has been dropped from the range, leaving just the 94 Ah/33 kWh battery.
What We Like
Instant acceleration; tidy handling; high-tech cabin
What We Don’t
Inconvenient rear passenger doors; pricier than some rivals
Bear in mind there are state and federal incentives to buying a vehicle powered by “alternative” fuels, which will offset the retail price. And many cities offer free charging in free parking areas.
The i3 comes with a 33-kilowatt/hour (kWh) lithium-ion battery pack that powers an electric motor developing 170 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a particular way of measuring efficiency in electric vehicles, known as miles per gallon gasoline equivalent (MPGe). One gallon of gas is equivalent to 33.7 kWh of energy.
The i3 is estimated to consume 29 kWh every 100 miles, which works out to an average of 118 MPGe (129 MPGe city, 106 MPGe highway).
The i3s enjoys 184 hp and 199 lb-ft of torque. It uses a fraction more energy, so it’s rated at 112 MPGe combined (126 MPGe city, 99 MPGe highway).
The Range Extender version adds a 600cc 2-cylinder gasoline engine (essentially a flat twin from BMW’s motorcycle division), rated at 38 hp and 41 lb-ft. It functions as an onboard generator for the electric motor and doesn’t provide any more muscle. It’s there as an antidote to range anxiety. Both range-extended variants are rated at 109 MPGe combined.
Using a regular household outlet, it takes 20 hours to recharge the battery completely. Plug into a special 240-volt outlet and the job’s done in four hours. There’s also a standard-issue DC fast charger that enables a full charge in just 30 minutes at compatible charging stations.
According to the EPA, range (using just the battery) is 114 miles, or 107 miles in the i3s. When the range extender is in the picture, the extra weight results in a 97-mile range, but a fully charged battery and a full tank of gas (which only holds 2.3 gallons) will take the i3/i3s for 180 miles.
Both the i3 and the i3s are rear-wheel-drive.
Standard Features & Options
The 2018 BMW i3 is a 4-seat hatchback that comes in straight-ahead form ($45,445), range-extended REx form ($49,295) and the sportier i3s variants ($48,645, or $52,495 with the range extender).
The i3s comes with 20-inch wheels with wider tires, a stiffer suspension and a Sport setting within the selectable driving modes.
Then there are Deka World, Mega World, Giga World and Tera World sub-trims.
The Deka World trim level has cloth upholstery, 19-in alloy wheels, full LED headlights/taillights, an onboard DC fast charger, heated front seats, automatic climate control, heated/power-folding side mirrors, self-dimming mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a rearview camera, rear parking sensors, Bluetooth phone connectivity and BMW’s iDrive infotainment system with a 6.5-in display, navigation, USB port and HD/satellite radio.
Mega World has simulated leather upholstery and its navigation system is augmented by real-time traffic information. Giga World adds different 19-in wheels, a sunroof, keyless entry/ignition, leather/wool interior trim and a universal garage door opener. Tera World has its own design of 19-in wheels and a full leather interior with textile accents.
A Technology and Driving Assistant package is optional on all versions. It includes navigation, adaptive cruise control and a forward-collision mitigation system with automatic braking.
Additional options include a sunroof, front parking sensors, parking assistance (self-steering), Apple CarPlay, 16-speaker Harman Kardon surround sound system and blue seat belts in the i3s.
Cargo space behind the rear seats measures 15.1 cu ft. and 36.9 cu ft. with those seats folded down. That’s not bad for a compact hatchback, but the Volkswagen e-Golf (for example) gives significantly more: 22.8 cu ft./52.7 cu ft.
The i3 comes with stability control, 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes and six airbags (front, front side and full-length side curtain). Optional safety features include a rearview camera, adaptive cruise control and forward-collision mitigation with automatic braking.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gave the car its top score of Good in all major categories except for rear crash protection, where it was deemed Acceptable.
Behind the Wheel
Vehicle information is provided by twin high-resolution display screens (one behind the steering wheel and one in the center of the dash). Every i3 comes with a distinctive combination of interior materials, and while not every theme will meet with universal approval, none of them are dull. Despite the high-tech gadgetry, most functions are easy to learn and use, aided by BMW’s iDrive interface (with available touchpad functionality).
The i3s rides just under half an inch lower, and its Sport mode sharpens the responses of the steering and throttle. It will sprint from standstill to 60 miles per hour in a fairly quick 6.8 seconds and has a top speed of 100 mph. The regular i3 makes 60 mph in 7.2 seconds and maxes out at 93 mph.
Rear passengers enjoy spacious accommodation for such a small car, with adequate legroom and generous headroom. Access isn’t straightforward, however. The rear-hinged back doors can’t open unless the front doors are open (there’s no B-pillar), which is particularly inconvenient if another car is parked alongside.
The i3 also brings the concept of one-pedal driving. This sounds off-putting, but it’s easy to get to grips with. Because of the regenerative brake function (that captures and stores energy that might otherwise be lost), the car slows as the driver eases off the throttle. The more pronounced the lift-off, the more forceful the slow-down. In city driving, this stop/go ability is far less tiring and stressful than having to dance the right foot between two pedals.
What might be surprising is the i3’s well-tuned handling, courtesy of a nearly 50:50 front/rear weight distribution and BMW’s expertise in rear-drive dynamics. This is an engaging EV for less than half the price of a Tesla Model S. Happily, it’s also supple and quiet in normal driving, for suitably upscale manners.
Other Cars to Consider
2018 Chevrolet Bolt — Less spacious than the i3 and not as high-class, but with a remarkable range of 238 miles.
2018 Tesla Model 3 — An attractive premium compact sedan that starts at $35,000 and can cover 220 miles. However, there’s a been a bit of a hold-up in production.
2018 Volkswagen e-Golf — VW’s electrified 4-door Golf has a range of 125 miles. It also has a handier back seat and more cargo space for less money, while still coming close to premium quality.
Electric cars are still relatively novel, so there isn’t a healthy used market right now. A pre-owned Tesla Model S would still be more expensive than a new i3.
Granted, electric cars shouldn’t have to be dull, but spending more on the i3s to have less range doesn’t seem like the smartest move. That money would be better spent on driver assistance features.