BMW i3 Range Extender (2015) Review

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The first of BMW's electric cars has made its way to our fleet and we spent a week with the BMW i3 Range Extender. Futuristic and concept car-like looks aside, how does the more sensible (and affordable) of BMW's electric range fare on the roads of the Western Cape?

Despite the hype surrounding the BMW electric range, it's not the first electric car available in South Africa. That honour belongs to the Nissan Leaf. However the BMW i3 has a premium and cool factor to it, which has a lot to do with the BMW badge, as well as innovation that goes beyond just the drivetrain.

The looks of the BMW i3 Range Extender are very quirky and it looks like something from a Hollywood blockbuster set in the future. Its design is certainly polarising and onlookers offered comments that ranged from cute to ugly. It's quite tall, yet narrow and it retains distinct BMW touches like the kidney grille.

The BMW i3 Range Extender is constructed out of a variety of eco-friendly and lightweight materials. An electric car is already hamstrung by the weight of its batteries so for it to work, it needs to be put on a diet elsewhere. There's extensive use of carbon fibre, some of which you can see when you open the doors.

Cabin is Beautiful and Spacious

The cabin is one area where the BMW i3 Range Extender receives full marks. This isn't a car interior, this is a combination of a modern art gallery and the flagship branch of Ikea. There's an extremely minimalist feel to the cabin and there are clever applications of wood from sustainable forests, leather and recycled fabrics. There's also the occasional splattering of carbon fibre-reinforced plastics.

Specification is generous too and you get the usual luxury features, but in true German fashion a number of options can be fitted to the car. You have the choice of four alloy wheels in sizes ranging from 19-inch to 20-inch. We'd recommend sticking with the smaller wheels to improve ride quality. Cabin accessibility is via conventional opening doors at the front, while the rears open in a suicide fashion. Thanks to a flat floor and high roof, interior space is generous and sufficient for four adults. The boot space is surprisingly decent too.

Engine and Drive

At the heart of the BMW i3 Range Extender is a 125kW and 250Nm electric motor which drives the rear wheels. You don't get a gearbox, instead you get a drive selector that gives you the option of Drive, Park and Reverse. You select how you wish to move by turning a dial to the right of a steering wheel.

The first thing you notice about how the BMW i3 Range Extender drives is the responsiveness. With maximum torque from standstill, there's very little this side of a genuine sportscar to touch the BMW i3 Range Extender off the line. It's most amusing to put your foot flat and the little i3 surges ahead quietly and effortlessly. 0-100kph is claimed in the mid-7s, which gives you some idea of how zippy it is. It's also really quiet, with almost zero transmission whine when moving and when you're stationary, the only thing you can hear is your own breathing.

If the acceleration leaves you breathless, the deceleration will be even more surprising. BMW has fitted the i3 Range Extender with regenerative braking, meaning the moment you come off the accelerator the car harvests that energy and turns it into electricity. It's very aggressive and the deceleration force is enough to make the i3's brake lights come on. Within a few hours, we had mastered the art of driving using just the accelerator pedal and only resorting to the brake when an emergency stop was required.

The main difference between the standard BMW i3 and the BMW i3 Range Extender is a two-cylinder petrol engine with a 9L tank, which keeps the electricity topped up. Once your initial charge has dropped to around 5km on the range, you'll hear a little hum as the generator fires up. Interestingly, this petrol engine does not power the wheels, but instead keeps the battery topped up. The standard BMW i3 is good for between 130-160km on a single charge, while the i3 Range Extender can stretch out to 340km if you drive in the most efficient mode. We discovered the Achilles heel of the BMW i3 is the open road where speeds in excess of 120kph are a sure-fire way to drain the battery quickly. Drive under 90kph for maximum effect and range anxiety becomes a thing of the past.

Charging

To charge the BMW i3 Range Extender, you  have a number of options. Located in the bonnet storage area is a wall charger which is capable of giving you 80% in about 7 hours. This is fine for overnight use, but what you really want is the BMW i Wallbox. BMW will come to your home or office and install a charging station for around R25k, which is able to charge an i3 to 80% in under 3 hours. Finally, you can always pop down to your BMW i dealerships who will have a public charging station, which is able to give you an even faster charge. At this stage, there's only one dealership in the Western Cape and we tried it out at SMG Cape Town. We're happy to report that charging via this system is very easy to do.

Verdict

Eccentric looks aside, the technology used in the BMW i3 makes it a very exciting glimpse into the next generation of city motoring. The Range Extender makes the most sense and with that little generator humming behind you, range anxiety quickly diminishes. It's a pricey way to make an eco statement, but is definitely going to win some fans thanks to its cool factor. We would like a model that had some of the luxury features removed which would bring the price down.

While the technology itself is not new, the fact that BMW has taken the bold step in making a mainstream vehicle like this sets a precedent. This is the first electric car that has broad and premium appeal in South Africa, and that interior is a work of art. Despite the Leaf being substantially cheaper, we'd have this BMW over the Nissan because of its cool factor. If only our government offered financial incentives to encourage the purchase of eco cars...

BMW i3 Range Extender Price in South Africa

The price of the BMW i3 starts at R532 500, with this i3 Range Extender going for R602 500.

Team Opinions

Understand that the i3 is a second car (or a city car), and it will fit into your lifestyle rather easily. Its appeal goes beyond the efficiencies of the drivetrain. It is good to drive too! -Hannes Oosthuizen

The i3 brings a bit of fun to the electric car idea, it's fun and unexpectedly quick. Used purely as a city car it makes sense but it doesn't really work on the open road where it can't regenerate electricity. You definitely pay for the cost of driving electric though! -Ashley Oldfield

We like: Style, build quality, engineering, ease of use

We don’t like: Price, novelty, unnecessary luxury features

Also consider: Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius

Compare the BMW i3 with the Nissan Leaf and Toyota Prius here.

Quick Specs

BMW-i3-Range-Extender

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