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BMW i3 2014 review

It's the appliance of science - BMW claims its i3 city car uses only as much electricity as a fridge. A car and a fridge? Really?

They sit together as comfortably as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in the Twins movie, but there is an obvious connection.

Both draw their power from a wall socket and, according to BMW Australia, a modern two-door frost-free and its latest i3 city car consume about the same energy.

You can buy plenty of even the best fridges for the $63,900 minimum it takes to get an i3 in Australia but, on the flip side, the best fridge in the world cannot run 160km between plug-in visits to the grid. And it's not nearly so comfortable.

The i3 is the start of the electrification revolution at BMW, arriving as the plug-in battery starter model alongside the i8 hybrid supercar. It's a ground-up design that packages a 250kg lithium-ion battery pack at the bottom of a 'skateboard' design, with the passengers in a carbon fibre cell that sits on top.

It's already been a long journey, through prototypes disguised first as a Mini and then a BMW 1 Series, but the reality is as impressive as the promises. With two exceptions.

The price is a killer for anyone but cashed-up urbanites and the i3's safety rating is only four stars, the price BMW paid for a body design without a bonnet to cushion pedestrians in an impact.

The i3 is spritely, well equipped, corners well enough despite 155-section tyres, and will genuinely run better than 150km between charges. If you opt for the 'range extender' petrol engine, a 650cc job from a BMW scooter that works as an on-board generator, it runs to 300km. But it adds $6000 to the price.

Driving in and around Canberra this week, on many of the same roads where we previewed the landmark Hyundai Genesis last week, the i3 is even more enjoyable than I expected.

The cabin, with a switch for the single-speed transmission and the rustic wood trim, is unique. The car tackles mountain roads without taking a breath, with a seamless power delivery; and it is lively as well as relaxed, depending on the driver's mood.

I can confirm a range that matches BMW's claims, with only a faint hum when the petrol charger kicks into action, but there are a couple of complaints.

There is too much spring in the suspension, something that is obvious with bouncing on country roads, and I'm shocked to discover that the regenerative braking does not work when you turn into a corner.

To explain the fright I got into a tight turn, the i3 harnesses braking energy to charge the batteries. It's so aggressive that I drive most of the test course without needing to touch the brake pedal, instead relying on the regenerative generator to slow the car.

But the re-gen goes out if you turn the steering, which means you need to jump quickly on the brakes to restore proper deceleration, as I discovered in that particularly tricky corner.

But there is a lot more to like and the i3 does not feel like a science experiment. It's a real car that feels surprisingly solid, is whisper-quiet at any speed - needing an external sound generator to warn pedestrians of its approach - and is roomy and well finished.

There is plenty of interest in the i3, inspired by the futuristic body design and 'green' construction - the body panels are recycled plastic - as much as its BMW badge.

What makes it so important, for me, is that it's not a conversion from an existing car. The Nissan Leaf, for example, has Pulsar DNA without the petrol engine.

BMW has worked hard on everything from the carbon-fibre body to skinny 19-inch alloys, low-drain electric air-con and super-thin glass in the hatch.

There is no way to realistically compare the running costs against a petrol or diesel car, as the electric i3 - BMW calls it the BEV - rates 0L/100km. Even the range extender, the REX, comes in at 0.6L/100km. Another of its endless battery of figures says its costs $3.90 to travel 100km, based on buying 'green' energy for a home socket.

But BMW still has to convince people that a plug-in electric car can work for them, even in a country where most of our power comes from burning coal. And where there are zero incentives from government, unlike Europe and the US, where green car buyers get plenty of cash benefits.

"I think this is definitely the start of something. We're not just going to have a shot and see how it goes. We're very serious about this and we will make it work," says BMW Australia head of product planning Shawn Ticehurst.

That means answering the big questions for i3 shoppers: charging and range. Ticehurst says the i3 can be recharged from a normal household power socket, which takes about eight hours. Upgrading to a home charging station, likely to cost about $1500 with more punch to the power, does the job in six hours.

There are public fast-chargers for a fill in three hours. Fastest of all, but with only three examples in Australia, is a direct current rapid charger that can fill the batteries in just 30 minutes.

"We've got to change perceptions," Ticehurst says.

"We have to convince people that an electric car can fit into their daily life. In our research, people say they want a range of 250km. In reality, 50km is more than adequate. But we have to convince people of that."

It's going to take years and that is one reason why BMW Australia will not give a sales forecast. It admits electric car sales have fallen in Australia this year but believes it can more than compensate in 2015.


For me, the i3 is a landmark car. It's not perfect, but it's more than good enough for a four-star rating.

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Range and Specs

I8 Hybrid 1.5L, Hyb/PULP, 6 SP AUTO $94,000 – 118,910 2014 BMW i Series 2014 I8 Hybrid Pricing and Specs
i3 —, Electric, 1 SP AUTO $26,400 – 34,980 2014 BMW i Series 2014 i3 Pricing and Specs
i3 Hybrid —, Electric, 1 SP AUTO $28,900 – 38,280 2014 BMW i Series 2014 i3 Hybrid Pricing and Specs
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