BMW’s all-electric i3 gets a lot more liveable with a new battery pack and nearly 200 kilometres of range
2017 BMW i3 Range Extender
The onward-charging electric vehicle revolution made headlines recently on a couple of fronts. First, Volvo announced that by 2019, all their vehicles will be either purely electric or a hybrid. A day later, France’s minister of the environment declared the country intends to end the sale of fossil fuel-powered vehicles by 2040.
Still think EVs are a flash in the pan? BMW, a longtime devotee of driver-focused engineering, certainly doesn’t. As proof, look no further than the 2017 i3. True, it’s quirky — some might say awkward — appearance gives credence to EV-deniers’ carbon-spittled howls of protest at perceived affronts to motorcar styling.
However, spend some time behind the BMW-badged steering wheel and you’ll come to appreciate that this Bimmer is as much an ‘ultimate driving machine’ as, oh, let’s say a BMW 340i. We’ll cite that 320-horsepower model for comparison’s sake as, according to the German automaker, it has comparable power output to the lightweight i3.
The i3 debuted back in 2013 as part of BMW’s ‘Project i’ and was the automaker’s first zero-emission, mass-produced vehicle. At the time, it was also the world’s first volume production vehicle to feature carbon-fibre-reinforced polymer in an effort to reduce weight. As of December 2016, the i3 ranked as the world’s third best-selling EV, with more than 65,000 sold. The Tesla Model S tops the list, followed by the Nissan Leaf.
The 2017 model year marks a new milestone for the i3, as an all-new, 33 kWh lithium-ion battery pack has the full-charge range flirting with the 200-kilometre mark. The battery is covered by an eight-year, 220,000-kilometre warranty.
Two i3 models are for sale in Canada, each featuring the new 94 Ampere-hour battery: An all-electric model and one equipped with a small gasoline engine dubbed a ‘Range Extender,’ the latter is the subject of this road test. With the range-extending gas engine, the base price of the 2017 i3 is $52,750, but our tested topped out at $63,095 as it came with the Premium and Technology packages, along with a sunroof, leather interior and 20-inch double-spoke wheels.
The .65-litre, two-cylinder gas engine adds some 150 kilometres to the near-200 kilometres of electric range, but more importantly quells the ‘so-called’ range anxiety that apparently afflicts EV drivers. From my experience of driving most every mass-produced EV of the past decade, while it was true that such anxiety welled up in the sub-100 kilometre range EVs, when you’ve got nearly 200 klicks under your belt the only anxiety you should experience on the road is from red-light runners and multi-tasking soccer moms on the move.
The gasoline engine never drives the rear-wheels. Rather, it fires up to charge the battery pack when the battery is depleted to 6.5 per cent state of charge and keeps the charge level of the battery constant while driving.
Despite the new battery pack, driving performance in the new model is unchanged from the 2016 model. And that’s not a criticism, considering the battery pack added some weight over its 60 Ah predecessor. The i3 still does the zero-to-100 km/h run in just over eight seconds.
Where the fun really begins is once you get up to around 80 km/h. Hammer the right-foot pedal and you’ll sprint up to 120 km/h in just five seconds, thanks to the single-speed transmission channeling the power to the rear wheels without any torque interruption. Performance is really what sets the i3 apart from your garden-variety EVs. After all, this is a BMW. There’s 50-50 weight distribution, super crisp electric power steering and confidence-building suspension.
As to charging times, with a Level 2 charger you’re looking at about 4.5 hours, which adds an hour or so to the 2016 model with the smaller battery pack. However, use the now-standard 50kW direct current (DC) fast charging technology and the battery cells charge up to 80 per cent in less than 40 minutes, according to BMW. Put another way, that translates to 24 minutes of charging time with 100 kilometres of range.
The i3’s exterior design, complete with backward opening rear doors, is polarizing, but few will find fault with the cabin. Controls, gauges and screens are all up to BMW’s high standards, and the dash design outshines those of the company’s bread-and-butter 3 Series models, highlighted by the wave-like wooden treatment on the passenger side.
Ergonomics for the front seat passengers are great, and even those aesthetically awkward rear doors work wonders in terms of climbing into and out of the two back seats. Cargo space has not been compromised by the new battery pack, either, with an unchanged luggage capacity of 260 litres and 1,100 litres with the rear seats folded down.
In addition to the new battery pack, 2017 sees a sunroof available in Canada for the first time. This $1,200 option is great for those who like light-filled cabins, and the split headliner features individually retractable shades for the driver and front passenger.
Also new is the available BMW Home Charger Connect system, a residential Level 2 charging station that comes with standard WiFi compatibility that allows you to control and monitor vehicle charging with a smartphone app.
Technology shines in all facets of the i3, particularly when it comes to the ConnectedDrive setting. Dubbed a ‘Navigation System Professional,’ this optional feature is an on-board range assistant of sorts. Once you’ve programmed in your route, it will let you know if the final destination is beyond the current range, and will also suggest you shift to the Eco Pro or Eco Pro+ modes to extend range. It will also calculate a more efficient alternative route, and if it will be necessary to recharge along the route you’ve programmed in, it will highlight charging stations along the way. And finally, it takes into consideration the topography of the route, outside temperature and real-time traffic along the route to keep you up to date on what lies ahead.
A very remarkable Artificial Intelligent feature, and one that typifies what is a truly remarkable commuter car for the 21st Century.