Is owning an electric car a statement or simply good financial sense?
In the beginning it was most definitely the former. Electric cars were expensive, limited in range and thanks to a complete lack of infrastructure impossible to make long journeys in.
It became almost a weekly joke for motoring publications to pick on an electric car and show just how far it couldn’t go before running out of juice.
To find out if these cars are now living up to our expectations we spent two weeks with BMW’s i3. We drove to work, did the weekly shop and generally found every possible excuse to use it over our own two legs.
To begin with we’ll run though the model we tested. This was a BMW i3 94ah with range extender. That meant that if we drove it in BMW’s COMFORT mode we could, just about, squeeze out a top range of 205 miles.
That doesn’t sound like much and in all honesty it’s not, in actual fact the car has a general range that’s far less of about 125 miles normally.
Before you write it off though BMW believes it has an argument to that which is it is not a long-range vehicle. It was never designed to be.
Many of us drive far less than we realise. The average is around 20-30 miles per day and even if you’re having to make a 100-mile round trip the i3 can still handle that with plenty of mileage left over for wiggle room.
Our commute was an absolutely pathetic 6.6 miles, but in our defence it was through the centre of London.
The first few days...
Getting into the car for the first time you’re struck at just how pleasant everything is. It’s BMW alright, but if BMW lived in California and went to yoga four times a week.
It’s all very minimalist and the cabin itself feels incredibly spacious, despite the small dimensions of the car.
Thankfully we’re able to get the car connected to our phone with relative ease thanks to the fact that BMW has sensibly adopted to keep its standard operating system for the i3.
Using the dial down on the centre console we were able to easily flick through the menus and set our destination.
Again, nothing here feels like it’s style over substance. Instead it’s all very functional and durable which is exactly what you’d want from a car that’s going to be used every single day to and from work.
An almost immediate traffic jam allows us to investigate the controls a little further.
The steering wheel is relatively threadbare but incredibly sturdy. On the right you’ll find a chunky control stick that allows you to turn the car on and switch between forward drive, neutral and reverse.
On the left is the indicator stalk while on the wheel itself you’ll find the standard array of smart controls.
Something that immediately annoys us is the size of the screen behind the wheel. It’s a big panel but for some reason it has a tiny colour screen with a huge bezel at the top that contains a number of conventional information lights.
Aesthetically it feels like it’s a bit dated, especially when you consider the size of most other digital dashboards including BMW’s own 5 Series. You just get the feeling that if it were larger and more intuitive it could show you far more information about the car’s systems.
We’ve been driving the i3 for a week now and there are a few key points we think it’s worth mentioning.
We really like the styling. It isn’t for everyone, granted, but as a piece of design it feels like stylistically it’s one of the most forward-thinking cars on the road.
It’s incredibly eye-catching, in fact there wasn’t a day that went by that we didn’t have people stoping and staring. Even our neighbour decided to have a chat about it.
One problem however, is that the styling is not especially practical. The car’s backward opening rear doors might look great but they’re heavier than a lead elephant and almost seem a bit superfluous. We get that they provide better access to the rear seats, but more often than not we just ended up moving the front seat forward.
Next up is how it drives. Electric cars are absolutely perfect for city driving, especially small ones like the i3.
Thanks to the i3 having plenty of punch in the acceleration department we found weaving through the central London chaos to be almost, and we do mean almost, enjoyable.
The silence is also something that becomes really hard to give up. The i3’s cabin has just the right amount of sound isolation to make sure that the only thing you’re going to hear is either the gentle whine of the electric motor or the radio. It’s a blissful oasis in a sea of livid cyclists.
If we have any complaints it is that the i3’s absolutely wafer thin tyres mean the ride is well...firm. It’s not uncomfortably so but it is such that almost all of your body is very aware that you’ve just hit your 45th road hump.
The last stretch...
We’re on to the last week week now and despite having driven over what feels like every road hump in London our love for this plucky little car is growing.
The styling continues to be a real winner for us, especially this two-tone fabric against what looks like a black recycled composite. It looks futuristic and yet acutely homely at the same time, like a Bang & Olufsen speaker.
Another thing that’s really starting to dawn on us is that not once have we worried about range anxiety. The car’s range readout is accurate enough that you never feel like it’s suddenly going to steal 5 miles from you.
While an owner will have a charging point installed in their house we couldn’t and so had to rely on a plug socket. Naturally the plug socket was too far away and so for the last two weeks we’ve actually been solely charging the car using what’s available around the city.
London is a revelation now for charging in fact according to Zap Map there are now almost 1,200 charging points in the city. A quick search immediately revealed that our local Sainsbury’s actually had free charging and so every time we went for a shop, we plugged it in.
It’s amazing how a small charge here and there builds up over time and thanks to greatly increased charging speeds we found that we were steadily increasing the battery each day despite the 15-mile round trip to work.
Like any car, the BMW i3 isn’t perfect. For starters it can feel expensive for its class and size. While the i3 does start at around £32,000 if you want all the bells and whistles the model we tested came in at £40,075.
With more and more electric cars appearing it’ll be interesting to see how BMW continues to price the i3 as a package. Tesla’s base Model 3 is expected to start at around £35,000 with a range of over 200 miles as standard.
Despite the cost, the i3 is a superbly built car. It feels and behaves in every sense like a product that is at the top end of what BMW is capable of. The interior build-quality is second to none while the enormous windscreen at the front gives it perfect visibility for city driving.
Its electric motor is powerful and responsive and while the ride itself is a little hard the seats are incredibly comfortable.
The i3 doesn’t feel like an experiment any more, it is simply a BMW that’s electric. Most of this is down to the car while the rest is absolutely down to the fact that we finally have a substantial charging network here in the UK.