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First drive: BMW i3 94Ah. Image by BMW.

First drive: BMW i3 94Ah
More range on a charge for BMW's i3 - just don't call it the 'Long Range'...

   



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BMW i3 94Ah

5 5 5 5 5

BMW updates its talismanic i3 full-electric city car, yet this newcomer is almost identical to the vehicle that's been on sale since 2013. However, what's changed is the lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery technology, as an improvement to the storage density of the unit (up to 94 ampere hours (Ah) from 60Ah previously) means this i3 can go a lot of extra miles compared to its predecessor. And, to highly eco-sensitive types, that makes it an even more appealing prospect than before.

Test Car Specifications

Model tested: BMW i3 94Ah
Pricing: i3 94Ah from 32,380; from 27,880, including Government's 4,500 plug-in car grant
Engine: 125kW permanent magnet synchronous electric motor with 33kWh gross, 29kWh net lithium-ion battery
Transmission: single-speed reduction gear, rear-wheel drive
Body style: five-door hatchback
CO2 emissions: 0g/km (VED Band A, 0)
Combined economy: 12.6kWh/62.5 miles battery, 186 miles maximum range
Top speed: 93mph (limited)
0-62mph: 7.3 seconds
Power: 170hp
Torque: 250Nm

What's this?

You're looking at a BMW i3. It has the same distinctive, swoopy exterior bodywork, with its mix of angles, creases and curves, as before, save for the fact you can now have it in Protonic Blue - a shade previously preserved for the i8 sports car. The large 19-inch wheels, preposterously slender, reside in the four corners of its upright form. The 'kidney grilles', which are kidney-shaped, but clearly not grilles, remain, and there are those really weird but deeply cool U-shaped lights in the mostly black rear end. Yep, it's all familiar stuff.

It's the same story in the interior, where switchgear unlike any other BMW's resides in a sculpted, 'floating' dashboard dominated by two lovely, clear digital display screens. There are still four seats. There's still the superb steering wheel that looks like Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo's stage mask. There's still a (sort of) small but usable boot at the back. There's still that strange horsehair-esque material clothing most of the upper dashboard that sounds dreadfully hollow when you tap it with your knuckles, but which you accept, because it's probably made out of something noble like recycled cereal boxes or unwanted yurts or whatever. Overall, the i3 looks as fantastic inside and out as it ever has done; no more, no less.

But take another look at the range displayed on the instrument cluster TFT screen. It's showing 248km - hang about, that's 155 miles. Quick, jump out and have a look at the bodywork again, check there aren't two fuel filler caps; we didn't think we were driving the Range Extender today.

And we're not. This is, to all intents and purposes, the i3 Long Range. BMW doesn't call it that, of course, as it doesn't want people who've already sunk money into the original i3s to suddenly get a 'Short Range' inferiority complex, but in essence that's what we're looking at here. BMW has had a play with the battery storage capacity, upping the density from the old car's 60 ampere hours (Ah) to 94Ah. In more readily understood electric vehicle (EV) terminology, that leaves us with a lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery with capacity rated at a net 29kWh, meaning it can propel the i3 50 per cent further than the prior 19kWh item; the 94Ah's maximum quoted range is 186 miles, although BMW also talks of a real-world figure of 125 miles - we'll come back to this point in the next section.

So, have you got a 60Ah i3 and you're feeling a bit miffed at the rapidity of technological change? Well, don't be. Optional Battery Retrofit does, as those annoying TV ads for creosote proclaim, exactly what it says on the tin. As the 94Ah battery is exactly the same size and shape as the 60Ah, it's a plug-and-play swap that BMW carries out at a dealership for a fee. This is particularly good customer service, because Nissan - when it launched the 30kWh version of its Leaf EV last year, which outstrips the 24kWh model - said it could not swap batteries, despite the Japanese firm's modules being exactly the same size. Bravo, BMW.

Back with the Munich company's product: in many markets the i3 is now a four-model range: 60Ah and its Range Extender model, equipped with the 649cc two-cylinder motorbike engine to eke out the volts; or this 94Ah and its Range Extender sibling. In the UK, though, BMW is showing just the 94Ah and a Range Extender on its website. Best news here is that the 94Ah starts at 32,380, but that doesn't include 4,500 of Government plug-in car grant cash, so really the new and improved i3 starts from less than 28 grand. For this highly appealing, incredibly chic city car slice of the future, that seems an eminently reasonable amount.

How does it drive?

Exactly like the old i3, only for longer. Actually, the first part of that syntactically challenged statement is not strictly true - last time we drove a 60Ah i3 REx in London, we didn't like the ride. No such problems in the pure EV 94Ah model over in Germany, though, where it proved to be ever so slightly firm, but generally comfortable. Other car makers talk about 50-metre feel and in the i3, after such a distance you'll have come to realise that no other EV this side of the i8 has steering feel anything like as good as the diminutive BMW's. It's both sharp and weighty, with a good amount of feel coming back from those narrow front tyres. Such a communicative helm only bodes well for the rest of the driving experience.

The i3 also remains blisteringly quick, despite the fact its Nissan Leaf (30kWh, 254Nm) and Hyundai Ioniq Electric (28kWh, 295Nm) rivals have more torque than it does. The problem is that the Asian cars are considerably less powerful (109- and 120hp respectively) and they are both bulkier than the featherweight i3. True, the BMW itself has gained 50kg as a result of the more capacitive battery to stand at a still-trim 1,245kg all-in, but that merely adds a tenth of a second to the 0-62mph time, the benchmark sprint being conducted in a brisk 7.3 seconds. In Comfort mode, the i3 feels extremely potent indeed.

Talking of the modes, there's Comfort, in which the i3 has full functionality of all its on-board toys and is capable of its maximum 93mph top speed. Then there's Eco Pro, which dials back electrical drains like the climate control, limits top speed to 80mph, ramps up the regenerative braking effect and makes the throttle a little less sharp. And finally, Eco Pro+ is the one that will, theoretically, see you going 186 miles without needing to resort to a charger. This disengages climate control completely, trims the top speed further to 56mph, turns the throttle into something that feels like it is connected to the e-motor by several feet of cotton wool and powers up the regenerative braking to the maximum, quite brutal degree. It's not as nice to drive in Eco Pro+, the i3, but in both its most extreme eco-conscious mode and also Eco Pro, two things happen: one, a little blue 'ECO PRO' legend lights up on the dash... which is, er, nice; and two, you can drive the car in a one-pedal style, as if you time lifts of the throttle correctly, you won't ever have to resort to anything as gauche as actually using the brake pedal.

Anyway, all this aside, the proof of the 94Ah pudding will be whether we actually could get more out of the i3 in normal driving conditions. So - our test route in the countryside near Munich was 31 miles. Things in the BMW's favour were that the roads were hardly vertiginous, so most of the motoring was on the flat. The temperature outside the car was well into the 20s (and it was humid; unpleasant) and we were driving solo, rather than two-up. Counting against it were the following: we did not drive it cautiously around the route, enacting multiple overtakes in full Comfort mode and accelerating briskly back up to speed limits once we were free of urban areas; we kept the climate control on, due to the mugginess outside, so unless the car was in Eco Pro+, the air conditioning was in action; it started raining, so the wipers were required; the route, while relatively short, was entirely urban and extra-urban, with lots of starting and stopping for junctions, ebb-and-flow traffic conditions and plenty of corners to disrupt constant speeds; and despite the fact we were on our own, this particular tester is no racing snake, so the benefit of the lack of a passenger was lost.

What we found was this - less than a quarter of the Li-ion's battery charge was used during the 31-mile drive, with the rate of drainage pegged at 14.6kWh/62.5 miles. When we got in the fully charged i3 at BMW's Dingolfing plant, it had been pre-conditioned by the climate control to a temperature of what felt like -22 degrees C, and in the three modes the distances to empty were as follows: Comfort, 108 miles; Eco Pro, 122 miles; and Eco Pro+, 144 miles.

If these sound a little disappointing, bear in mind BMW has always said the i3's ultimate quoted range depends on a very specific set of circumstances, incredibly careful driving manners and exclusive use of Eco Pro+ mode to be anything like achievable. So while the 60Ah was theoretically capable of 100 miles on a charge, in reality it was more likely in the 60-70-mile ballpark if you used any of the car's equipment. Now BMW is saying the 94Ah can do 125 miles, even if you have the stereo on, the lights blazing away and the heated seats warming up your tush.

Thus, in actuality (and, to reiterate, we didn't drive that carefully), by the end of our test, the distances to empty were showing 161km, 164km and 192km. So, adding on the 50km of the trip and putting this into the proper distance measurement of miles, extrapolation suggests that we could have done 132 miles in Comfort, 134 miles in Eco Pro and 151 miles in Eco Pro+. In summary, then, we think 130-150 miles on a charge should be easily achievable for most competent drivers on a daily basis, even if they like to use a few gadgets fitted to the car. And for a pure EV, that's more than enough reason to consider the i3 94Ah as a very, very bright spark in a growing sector of the market.

Verdict

We've always adored the i3 so an upgrade to the battery that makes it even more feasible as a day-to-day runner can only be a good thing. It's pleasing to see that in the real world, with various creature comforts enabled in the car, a 125- to 150-mile range looks perfectly feasible and unless you commute from, for example, Northampton to Edinburgh on a regular basis, then that's going to be more than enough electric range for anyone's needs. And there's always the i3 94Ah REx if it isn't.

Furthermore, if you can plug in to a fast AC charger then BMW has also developed a system that can take advantage of 11kW, three-phase current, meaning even with a bigger battery the new i3 can still be re-juiced in less than three hours. In conclusion, the i3's one weakness - a perceived lack of outright range as a pure EV - has been rectified, without need to recourse to any plug-in hybrid nonsense. And because it is now much more viable as a genuine form of transport in the real world, it has also become near-perfect modern-day electric car. The i3 94Ah is absolutely fantastic, in every respect.

5 5 5 5 5 Exterior Design

5 5 5 5 5 Interior Ambience

4 4 4 4 4 Passenger Space

3 3 3 3 3 Luggage Space

4 4 4 4 4 Safety

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Comfort

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Driving Dynamics

5 5 5 5 5 Powertrain


Matt Robinson - 29 Jul 2016



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2016 BMW i3 with extended electric range. Image by BMW.2016 BMW i3 with extended electric range. Image by BMW.2016 BMW i3 with extended electric range. Image by BMW.2016 BMW i3 with extended electric range. Image by BMW.2016 BMW i3 with extended electric range. Image by BMW.

2016 BMW i3 with extended electric range. Image by BMW.2016 BMW i3 with extended electric range. Image by BMW.2016 BMW i3 with extended electric range. Image by BMW.2016 BMW i3 with extended electric range. Image by BMW.2016 BMW i3 with extended electric range. Image by BMW.








 

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