When BMW’s i3 first made its debut in 2015, it was regaled as the most revolutionary mass-produced electric car yet.
Not only is the i3 able to fit four adults comfortably, it’s also able to retain reasonable cargo space while fitting everyone and everything in a package that has an overall length of less than four metres.
However, buying trends over the last few years have still indicated that Canadians, including those who live in the city centre, still favour the flexibility of larger vehicles overall. The crossover/SUV/truck market is still booming, which puts it at odds with more compact cars.
That being said, in the Greater Vancouver area, electric vehicle ownership is noticeably on the rise, as are the number of available high speed charging stations.
Indeed, this is the current environment in which BMW Canada is launching their latest iteration of the i3, the 2018 i3s, a sportier and better looking version of their Battery Electric Vehicle.
“S” is for sport. Is it a sporty electric car?
For 2017, BMW uprated the i3’s battery pack with a much more potent lithium-ion battery. Now at 33.0-kWh, the pack has the same external pack dimensions as its previous 22.0-kWh battery, but with higher energy density cells. Although the new battery is heavier by about 100 lbs, other efficiency gains help to offset the extra weight bringing down energy consumption to around 27-kWh per 160 kms (for the standard i3).
For 2018, BMW has refreshed the external looks of the i3 in both “s” and non-s versions. The main difference with the former is that there is more power and torque with virtually no range penalty.
There is no mistaking the i3s versus its more pedestrian counterpart thanks to the extra visual enhancements in the form of a 10mm lower ride height, 40mm extra width due to new wider wheel arches, and unique black mouldings. The i3s also comes with exclusive black 20-inch wheels that are half-inch wider, and appropriately wider tires to match.
The 2018 i3s also has full Bi-LED (low and high beams) headlamps whereas previous i3 models only had LED low beams.
With its Melbourne Red Metallic paint job and contrasting Dalbergia Brown Leather (who comes up with these names?), my test i3s vehicle looked stunning and drew a lot of attention, especially from other EV car owners.
How does it drive?
Fitted with a rear wheel drive layout and maintaining BMW’s preferred 50/50 weight distribution, the i3 drives like a different type of BMW, but a BMW nonetheless. The secret of packing those batteries down low results in a pleasantly dynamic (for an electric vehicle) driving experience as the centre of gravity and weight is very low. There is good handling for most city and highway driving manoeuvres despite the i3’s short length and tall greenhouse.
With an additional 14 horses and 15 lb-ft of torque versus the standard i3, the i3s’ acceleration is slightly improved. With 199 lb-ft of torque from zero to 4,500 rpms, 0-100 km times drop from 6.8 to 6.5 seconds. While those acceleration figures may not seem that impressive, the i3’s powerful motor delivers its output in a strong and linear way, making the car feel much quicker than the figures may suggest.
There is a new Sport driving mode, exclusive only to the i3s model. While this has no effect on the ride quality, since the shocks are passive units, it does make the steering slightly weightier and the accelerator pedal’s tip-in significantly peppier.
BMW has engineered very aggressive motor regeneration into the i3 and i3s, which takes some getting used to. Lift off and you slow down almost immediately, turning the i3 into a “one pedal car” with hardly any need to touch the brake pedal. For 2018, BMW has smoothed out the feel of this system, toning it down in the default D setting versus previous model years.
After driving a number of i3s over the last 2 years, this “one pedal car” driving experience is one of my favourite traits of the i3s as it feels very modern as befits the i3’s ethos.
Driver and passengers sit in the car’s carbon fibre reinforced plastic “life cell”, which in and of itself is made using a revolutionary process allowing carbon fibre technology to be mass-produced.
The sportier i3s rides on stiffer anti-roll bars, dampers, and shorter springs. With 10mm less height (0.4 inches) and significantly wider tires versus the standard i3, the ride quality is well matched to most Canadian roads.
The new rear tires fill out the wheel wells significantly more, but we’re still talking about tires that are roughly as wide as those on the cheapest compact cars, just in the name of lower rolling resistance and therefore more efficiency.
Cornering manoeuvres are met with flatter body motions, but yet because the new wider tires are still the same Bridgestone Ecopias as the non-s model, the i3s is certainly no Tesla Model S Performance. Push them too hard and the car will lazily understeer. Regardless, it is an improvement over the standard i3.
BMW Canada says that over three-quarters of all Canadian i3 sales have been that of the more expensive the REx (Range Extender) model, indicating that Canadian i3 buyers still want as much range as possible, despite probably rarely using it.
The 2018 i3 BEV (Battery Electric Vehicle) is rated realistically at 201 km of range and the REx model’s additional 650 cc twin-cylinder range-extender engine provides approximately another 129 km of range for up to approximately 300 kms of total range.
In real life, I found that the 201 kms was conservative especially if you’re careful with maximising battery regeneration when slowing down.
During my week long test drive, I never once came close to having to dip into the Range Extender, even after a spirited drive on the Sea-to-Sky highway from Coquitlam to Squamish BC to visit the new Level 3 DC fast charging station in downtown Squamish.
Speaking of which, standard Level 3 DC fast charging provides an 80 per cent charge in roughly only 30 minutes. Therefore, think of it as a bathroom and coffee break to add another extra 100 kms of range or so. With the more common Level 2 240v charge stations i3s’ battery should fully charge in about 4-4.5 hours.
A sustainable sensible interior
With its rear-hinged coach doors and no B-pillars, entry and egress into the i3 is easy. The inside feels rich, modern, spacious, and futuristic. Interior volume is actually roughly equal to that of BMW’s 3 Series sedan.
The i3’s twin LCD screens have some delightful graphics, and the iDrive user interface is one of the best infotainment systems on the market.
A large greenhouse means that visibility is panoramic all around, much like looking out of a big rig. The interior shapes are very futuristic with textures and materials that will surely please even the most passionate Sierra Club members. There’s wood and leather, but in the right textures and colours that just feel right with the futuristic i3.
Sustainable open pore Eucalyptus wood is used because it requires 90 per cent less surface processing than conventional types of wood. The leather in the i3 is tanned entirely with the natural extract of olive leaves in an environmentally friendly manner. Even the leaves themselves are a waste product leftover from the olive harvest, and therefore sensibly used for this additional process.
In fact, the i3 is officially much greener than almost every other car and has received multiple ISO certificates from Germany’s respected TÜV inspectors on the car’s carbon footprint and product lifecycle. Very good news for the ice caps and the polar bears of the world.
So where does this leave us?
In British Columbia, the government offers a $5,000 provincial clean car incentive. While it is significantly less than the $8,000 in Quebec or the whopping $13,000 in Ontario, it still helps to lower the relatively high $66,645 price tag of my full-loaded i3s. Lose the red paint ($895), the glass moonroof ($1,200), the leather interior ($1,750), and the sticker price drops by an additional $3,845.
As gas prices have skyrocketed in the last 6 months, record numbers of consumers are taking their foot off the gas and plugging in. Toyota’s hybrid sales are up 44 per cent over last year, and sales of electric vehicles are up 75 per cent year-over-year.
According to FleetCarma, British Columbia has set new records with more than 2.5 per cent of vehicle sales being electric.
BMW is very happy with the i3’s current global sales numbers, particularly in Europe. With BMW’s futuristic i3 now being better looking, more powerful, and more fun to drive, the question remains whether consumers will be willing to open up their wallets to partake in BMW’s current example of an electric car.