The 2016 BMW i3 is in many ways a throwback to the German brand's original automotive philosophy. It might seem weird to refer to one of the most advanced electric cars on the market as a reminder of the past, but in the i3's case, it's entirely appropriate.
For decades, BMW has been a company led by its engineering team, and cutting-edge performance on both street and track has long been a Bavarian hallmark. Take off your rose-coloured glasses, however, and it's easy to see that in 2016 performance means more than just straight-line speed. We're entering an era where words like “range,” “mobility,” and “kilowatts” become part of the conversation almost as regularly as “horsepower” when discussing brand new automobiles. It's with this in mind that BMW developed its line of electric and hybrid vehicles.
Key facts and figures
To wit: The 2016 BMW i3 offers a very useful 130 kilometres of EV range from its 22kWh battery, and if you can delay your driving pleasure one more model year, 2017 editions of the compact hatchback will deliver 182 kilometres thanks to a 33kWh upgrade. Those numbers might not sound overwhelming in a world where the Tesla Model S posts double the range that the i3 has to offer, but it's important to consider the substantially higher cost of the larger electric sedan (almost twice the i3's $45,500 starting MSRP).
It's also helpful to understand that BMW is aiming the i3 squarely at drivers who focus most of their day-to-day driving within city limits. That's a cohort that describes the vast majority of Canadians, with average commutes falling well within the EV's battery pack potential. If you're still a bit nervous about its ability to get you from A to B without the need to plug in, you can always order the Range EXtender (REX) option, which plops a twin-cylinder gasoline generator behind the rear seats in order to increase total driving distance to over 250 kilometres on a tiny but full tank of fuel.
Driving the BMW i3
Paper stats look good in the brochure, but what's it like to actually incorporate an electric car such as the 2016 BMW i3 into your daily life? Surprisingly painless, as I discovered. For starters, forget the official range target; I was able to achieve 145 kilometres before the REX kicked in on my tester, and I didn't even really work the regenerative braking system all that hard to add extra juice into the battery. The i3 actually takes care of that for you, with the binders latching on as soon as you lift your foot off of the accelerator, slowing you down without the need for the brake pedal in most circumstances (unless you need to stop suddenly). It takes a bit of getting used to, but after about an hour or so behind the wheel the process becomes second nature.
How much you like the REX will depend on your sensitivity to noise, vibration, and harshness. There's no question that you can tell when the small generator is running, as it's louder than the gasoline engine in a traditional passenger car and not quite as smooth. I had some BMW i3 owners tell me that the car felt completely different to them with the REX switched on, but to be honest it didn't really bother me, nor did I notice a substantial drop in performance once the battery pack was fully depleted, which is another common range extender concern. BMW advises owners that the extra weight of the REX will eat into the distance the i3 can travel on battery power alone, but as I discovered by the vehicle's impressive outpacing of factory stats this caution might be a bit overstated.
Don't think that BMW has sacrificed the output of its 125kW electric motor in the interests of pushing past the 100km range mark, either. You get 170 horses and 184 lb-ft of torque with the i3, which is more than enough to keep the car feeling lively off the line (especially considering the instant thrust inherent in its electric drivetrain). Handling is good, but not exactly sporty: Thin and tall tires rob this BMW of some straight-line stability, particularly at highway speeds, and you occasionally notice the narrow traction patch when pushing the rear-wheel drive vehicle hard through a corner.
Comfort and convenience
From a practical standpoint, the 2016 BMW i3 has seen its small environs well managed in a bid to make it a viable 4-person hauler. A small set of secondary doors open via a rear hinge to make it that much easier to access the second row of seating, and you'll be surprised by just how comfortable full-size adults are when riding behind the first two positions. The cabin feels much larger than it actually is thanks to the decision to push back the dashboard and use an open, light-coloured wood trim and leather motif wherever possible, which accentuates the space inside the vehicle. Cargo capacity also stands tall given the size of the BMW i3, with just over a thousand litres available in total with the rear seats folded forward.
Make no mistake: The i3 isn't some boutique EV built to satisfy federal regulators and shore up the company's green image. This pint-size BMW is a legitimate automobile that just happens to feature a well-designed, exceptionally executed electric drivetrain. Given its city-friendly range, it's best suited in the role of second car for anyone who wants to say goodbye to their gas bill on the weekly commute to work. Plus, with the ability to top up the battery in a mere 30 minutes using a DC Fast Charger, it's unlikely anyone will get stranded in any major metropolitan area if they pass on the REX.
In the end, the 2016 BMW i3 shows it's possible to build an electric luxury car without demanding a sky-high price in the process. Affordable, right-sized, and for the most part the only real premium player in the absence of the Volkswagen e-Golf from Canada, the i3 cuts a distinct path towards a sustainable future.
For a second opinion, don’t miss Miranda Lightstone’s 2016 BMW i3 REX Review.