2017 BMW i3 Road Test Review

2017 BMW i3 with Range Extender

What Mad Max should have actually driven

Words by: Adam Allen


Mad Max would drive an i3? C’mon.

If the story of Mad Max weren’t set in a fictitious framework, he most likely would have tapped the BMW i3 as his car of choice to navigate the dystopian landscape he called home. A Nissan Leaf wouldn’t have given him enough range; a Tesla Model S would have been too pricey. With precious petroleum in short supply he would have quickly grown tired of the guzzling Ford Falcon Coupe he favored to traverse desolate highways. Hollywood types would point out that the i3’s styling might not have the presence or the intimidation factor of Max’s Pursuit Special but reality would dictate he drive something a little more pragmatic. All he’d have to do is plug in his i3 to charge up before his next adventure accompanied with a range extending engine fed by gasoline, which would have given him an extra 150 kilometers of range on top of the 50 already available. Dystopian society or not, you don’t have to be a charismatic nomad to appreciate the impact of the savings.

It’s not like your average electric car on the inside, is it?

Manufacturers approach designing electric cars in two very different ways- one, make it look and feel as close to a ‘normal’ car as possible. The other alternative is to throw convention out the window and build something that not only functions nomally but makes a visual impact on all those who encounter it. As you can see, BMW chose the latter route, extending the motif into the interior. Although you will note that creature comforts from BMW’s gasoline powered cars are mostly present- a hi-res rear-view camera, a decent Harmon Kardon stereo, navigation- there’s also stuff missing, like heated and cooled seats, a heated steering wheel and power seat adjustments. There’s a reason why these doodads are left off the i3 menu; they add weight, complexity and above all, they have a negative impact on your projected range. The interior’s theme is what BMW calls Sustainable Mobility and aside from the Jetsons aesthetic, it features stuff like Eucalyptus wood trim grown close to the factory where the i3 is built. The dashboard shelf is made of recycled Coke bottles and juice boxes, and the entire passenger compartment is constructed of BMW’s own carbon fibre which is made using responsibly sourced power. That helps BMW achieve its goal of a feathery curb weight (again, in the interest of range) while allowing for a strong, safe place for driver and passengers.

Does BMW call this “The Ultimate Electric Driving Machine?”

No, but they should. Other than Tesla’s Model S, electric cars really aren’t that much fun to drive. The i3 is never going to replace BMW’s M cars in our hearts as the most compelling product in the brand’s portfolio, but it certainly isn’t boring. Like all electric cars, the i3 makes peak power at a standstill, so it shoves off smartly when you ask it to. Push the accelerator into the firewall and it will scoot to 100km/h in a hair over seven seconds which makes it one of the quicker electric cars, notwithstanding the bonkers stuff from Tesla. It’s not afraid of turning left and right either. 50/50 weight distribution, sharp, confident steering and a compliant ride are all present and accounted for- stuff we expect from a modern BMW. In fact, the i3 goes down the road much like a regular ol’ 3 series, save for the stark absence of engine noise. There is also unexpected joy to be found in the braking department. Not from the brakes themselves- the rotors you can see through the 20” wheels look like CD’s- but like you get with most EV’s, the i3 is equipped with regenerative brakes. The difference here is you almost never need to use them. When you let off the accelerator, the aggressive regeneration begins and does so in linear fashion with the deceleration of the vehicle, making one pedal driving a reality.  We came to rest at most intersections simply with a well-timed coast with the brake lights automatically engaging so the cars following behind aren’t caught off guard by a suddenly decelerating i3. Throw in a laughably miniscule turning circle of 985 centimeters and you just might find your self grinning behind the wheel more than you might have expected.

What about the elephant in the room…

What, you mean range anxiety? If you’re one of those paranoid folks who use a Wi-Fi password of 30 characters you should move along. Most drivers should never be attacked by a bout of range anxiety, even on longer trips. The reason for that is BMW’s 647 cc engine cribbed from their motorcycle program is on board that will never actually drive the wheels but will act as a generator for the batteries. Combined, the two offer a range of 200 kilometers which is more than enough for the average commuter. If you’ve got a nearby quick charge station, it’s possible to drive your i3 for months without ever firing up the little engine (charge times are much longer if you use a typical 120V household outlet.) We wanted to see what it was like when all the juice was gone from the batteries, and the difference is negligible save for the faint sound of the engine doing its thing. Even once all the electrons are depleted, the engine will allow for 150 kilometers of range and allow your i3 to happily keep up with the speed of highway traffic.

Do the drive modes help?

Like all BMW’s, the i3 has a rocker switch on the console that will alter the character of the i3. Those who usually drive their 3 series in Sport + will be disappointed- Comfort is the default setting and also the raciest. The two other options are Eco Pro and Eco Pro +. In the plus version of Eco Pro, it kind of feels like you’re driving though some seriously viscous fluid- you need a good shove of the accelerator to summon up any forward progress and the regenerative braking is at its most aggressive as well. You’ll need to put up with speeds limited to 90km/h and use of the climate control system for anything other than ambient air outside is verboten. Although it might seem tedious to drive around in that mode (we tried, much to the annoyance of our fellow motorists) but it will maximize every single electron you’ve got in the battery. On more than a few trips we were able to beat BMW’s consumption estimate of 12.6 kWh/100km (NEDC).

What might go wrong?

Even with all the steps BMW has taken to alleviate range anxiety, there are still going to be those situations where i3 drivers will need to make unscheduled stops whether it’s for a charge or to top up the tiny 8.7 litre fuel tank. Long trips are doable, but may try one’s patience if getting to a destination as quickly as possible is the mandate. If you like listening to AM radio, you’ll need to find an FM station that works for you- electric cars and the AM band don’t mix because of interference so you must stream your favorite sports talk from your smartphone. Lastly, there’s the price. $63,095 is a lot to ask for an electric car that despite being cutting edge and cool does ask its driver to make certain compromises. The Ontario government will send you a cheque for $13,000 which does soften the blow, but even with the rebate the i3 ain’t cheap.

Should I buy an i3?

If the capabilities of the i3 match up nicely with the types of commuting or errand running you typically do, we say give the i3 serious consideration. Of all the purely electric cars that aren’t Teslas currently for sale, the i3 is by far the most fun to drive and is also the most lavishly equipped as well. BMW told us at the i3’s launch a few years ago that a good number of their customers purchase an i3 to putter around town when taking the 7 series out to grab some milk seems like a bit much. What BMW has done with the increased battery capacity and onboard range extender should make the i3 attractive to those who want an electric car but loathe the idea of suffering from a bout of range anxiety. Note to BMW- build an i3 with the same drivetrain as the i8, slap an M badge on the darn thing and we’ll be among the first to sign up.


2017 BMW i3– Specifications

  • Price as tested: $63,095 (does not include $13,000 Government Rebate)
  • Body Type: 4 door, 2+2 passenger coupe
  • Powertrain Layout: Rear electric motor/rear-wheel drive
  • Engine:  0.6-litre V-twin, DOHC, 8 valves
  • Horsepower: 38 @ 5,000 rpm
  • Torque (lb-ft.): 41 @ 4,500 rpm
  • Front electric motor output: 170 horsepower/184 [email protected] 0 rpm
  • Transmission: Direct-drive automatic
  • Curb weight: 1,467 kg (3,234 lbs.)
  • Observed Fuel consumption: 5.8L/100km (41 mpg)