BMW i3 REx: Australian Review

BMW i3 REx: Australian Review
Image: Gizmodo

Built from recycled materials, powered by an efficient electric motor, and now with a larger battery that promises to handle almost any long-distance journey without breaking a sweat, the BMW i3 is one of the most environmentally friendly cars you can buy. It’s efficient when you drive it, and at the end of its life cycle a full 95 per cent can be returned to the earth from whence it came.

What Is It?

The 2017 BMW i3 is an electric car, built with sustainability and environmental responsibility in mind. The 2017 update adds a significantly larger 94Ah battery pack over the 2013 original, a full 50 per cent larger than the outgoing 60Ah model. That translates into 33kWh of capacity with 27KWh usable — the rest is a buffer that maintains battery condition over the life of the car — versus 22kWh and 19kWh usable over the last generation model. That power goes to the car’s wheels using a 125kW/250Nm electric motor, delivering you to 100km/h from a standstill in 7.3 seconds on the pure electric i3.

The electric-only i3 starts at $63,990 before on-road costs in Australia, while the extra petrol-powered range of the i3 REx boosts the starting cost to $69,990. Charge times for the battery are longer now because of the additional capacity, but you can install a 3.7kW home charger (rather than the standard wall-plug 1.8kW charger) that will charge your i3 overnight, from empty to full power in 8 hours. There are options like the 12-speaker Harman/Kardon sound system and Innovation Pack which can add a few thousand dollars to the asking price, but add useful features like radar-powered active cruise control and automatic emergency braking, as well as LED headlights and comfort tech like keyless entry.

BMW says the 2017 i3 has a NEDC rated range of 310km for the battery-only model, and 390km for the i3 REx under ideal driving conditions. I spent a week in the i3 to test out the circa-200km theoretical range of its new, larger 94Ah battery and the potential of the REx range extender, which promises at least another 100km of contingency range using a BMW 650cc motorbike engine mounted underneath and behind the rear seats. The i3 REx is a plug-in hybrid, using the Combo SAE J1772 connector — which means you can charge at almost any public charging station, including Chargepoint‘s large metropolitan network.

What’s It Good At?

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You might not think it by looking at it from the outside, but the BMW i3 is actually a zippy little thing. The electric motor gives it instant throttle response and more get-up-and-go than you’d expect, and although it’s not incredibly light or incredibly quick, it’ll run the 0-100km/h sprint in 7.3 seconds (for the standard i3) or 8.1 seconds (for the heavier REx). Perhaps more explanatory is the faster 0-60km/h time of around 4 seconds for both, which goes to show that you’ll be winning a lot of traffic light Grands Prix. Beyond a little bit of electrical whine from the car’s front-mounted motor, all of this is accomplished in nearly-eerie silence.

Despite it looking like a small car from the outside, the BMW i3 has plenty of passenger space on the inside — with the caveat that it only seats four, not five. And all those passengers will be sitting in eco-luxury, too; the i3’s interior is constructed from recycled materials, and the REx’s seat fabric is a wonderfully tactile polyester marle that’s both hard-wearing and comfortable to sit against. (You can choose leatherette, too, if you so desire.) The dash and door panels are eucalyptus and grown from forestry-managed sources.

It’s also a funky and modern and high-tech place to be at the same time. The central display — mounted in the middle of the dash, set back near the windscreen to leave a small valley that’s a tempting place to throw your sunglasses or wallet during a drive — is big and brightly coloured, and BMW’s iDrive interface is easy to understand and navigate using the click-and-scroll wheel that sits underneath the armrest between driver and front passenger. The driver gets their own smaller dash display, which includes a digital speedo and combined electric/petrol range and charge distance read-outs. It’s just fun.

The extra range that the 94Ah battery pack bestows on the new 2017 BMW i3 goes a long way to make it more practical for day-to-day use as well as the occasional, well-considered weekend drive. 200km of all-electric power on either i3 is enough for a regular garden-variety weekly commute without needing a recharge in between, or 90 per cent of other long-distance trips: how often do you travel more than a 200km round trip in a day? In that instance, the extra 100km of range-extending distance the REx model bestows might come in handy. And that’s 100km between petrol stations, too — you can limp home for more than that distance just refilling as you go. Trust me, I tried it out.

What’s It Not Good At?

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The BMW i3 is a car that’s very much made to be charged at home, overnight. It’s a model of ownership that’s completely different to driving a petrol-powered car, and you’ll have to adapt to it if you do want to buy one. Charging the new 94Ah model’s 33kWh battery, 27kWh of which is usable, will take 14 hours from empty to the 80 per cent ‘full’ capacity using a 1.8kW regular wall-plug charger. If you have BMW’s long-term home charger installed, that drops to 8 hours at 3.7kW. All those charge times are much, much longer than nipping to the petrol station for a refill in an internal combustion-powered vehicle.

That also ties into the fact that, compared to its chief competitor from Tesla — although the two cars have a massive price disparity, they’re two of the few electric cars that exist on Australian roads right now — the i3 has a comparative lack of charging infrastructure. Tesla’s Superchargers are arranged to allow for intercity travel, but the i3’s compatible publicly-accessible ChargePoint network is restricted to metro locations only — and is generally much slower (on average, chargers run at 6.6kW) taking four hours to complete a charge.

The REx is the more sensible choice of the two if you intend to do anything other than city driving on a daily or weekly basis. Its 9-litre auxiliary petrol tank runs a 28kW, 650cc motorcycle engine underneath the boot (it takes up some potential boot space, too, with 260 litres unless the rear seats are down) will give you a 100km range-boost if you run out electric power, and you can run the car on it alone as it’ll charge the battery enough to power the electric motor with normal performance at speeds up to 130km/h. I gave the i3 REx a run up the Blue Mountains on petrol power alone, and it performed just fine, but leaving the battery at a low state of charge constantly isn’t good for its health.

The i3 REx ride, too, is not especially forgiving — it’s a side effect of the car’s high seating and the distribution of weight (circa 1400kg in the 94Ah REx, although the non-REx is significantly lighter). It’s very firm over city speed bumps and potholes, and out over a highway’s undulations it can introduce a fair bit of unwanted road noise into the cabin. You quickly learn to drive to accommodate it — it takes a different style of driving to navigate a roundabout when you’re driving from a tall position, for example — but firm is not really a word I’d normally want to associate with a $70,000 eco-friendly electric car. It also wears super skinny 175mm tyres up front — for efficiency, y’know — that don’t need much pushing to understeer all over the shop.

Should You Buy It?

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The $63,990-plus BMW i3 is a wonderful car to be inside. It’s a warm and welcoming, comforting and friendly interior for a car that has its priorities right: efficiently transporting you from A to B, and making that journey an enjoyable one from start to finish. Its suite of technologies — from driving to in-car entertainment — are all well sorted; BMW’s i3 is a car that feels complete. It’s expensive, but you’re paying a premium for its smarts and the environmental friendliness that pervades every aspect of the car from its drivetrain to the materials used throughout its construction.

The updated 94Ah model and its range extender variant have the electric capacity (and petrol backup) to make anything but the longest daily trips entirely possible on battery power alone, providing that price advantage that electric cars will always be able to lord over petrol and diesel. ‘Range anxiety’ has always been, and will always be, a very flexible concept — and I know that there will be complaints in the comments about an electric car that can only travel 200km — but I never felt like the i3 REx was putting me in a situation where I’d be stranded. Part of that is the petrol engine being there as a backup, and part is the extra capacity for the city commutes the car is meant for.

Ever since I sat down in the driver’s seat of the 2017 BMW i3, I’ve wanted one to keep. It’s almost entirely to do with the car’s interior and the manner it’s designed in more than its electrified nature, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that it’s a fun car to drive, too — in its own special way. You might feel a bit guilty about putting the boot in and zipping around the city quickly, but it’s enjoyable, and you’re sorta saving the planet at the same time.