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BMW i3s 2020 review

The i3s is light, super strong, and unlike anything else on the road.

Daily driver score

3.5/5

Urban score

4/5

It’s easy to forget BMW was paddling into the growing electric vehicle wave when it was only a gentle swell. It took off early with the i3 city car, which believe it or not has been in the Aussie new car market for six years.

While the German maker has long been developing the concept of electrified powertrains in existing models, the i3 was the result of a dramatically different approach, showcasing the use of exotic materials and innovative packaging.

Like its i8 supercar sibling, the i3 won’t be replaced with a new-generation version, but BMW says it will continue to develop this high-tech hatch before it departs, and we spent a week in the sporty i3s to see how it stands up in 2020. 

Does it represent good value for the price? What features does it come with?

For a compact, four-seat hatch the BMW i3s is all the money at $70,900, before on-road costs. Close to $20K more than even the top-spec ‘Premium’ version of Hyundai’s Ioniq electric hatch ($52,490), and even further away from Renault’s cute little Zoe ($49,490).

But a carbon monocoque body and high-tech powertrain don’t come cheap, and that’s where BMW’s ‘i’ model program has seemingly run out of juice.

Getting into the EV market early, BMW took a punt on niche vehicles using exotic materials, appealing to a relatively small group of premium buyers. And in glorious hindsight, that path has proved something of a dead end.

A carbon monocoque body and high-tech powertrain don’t come cheap. A carbon monocoque body and high-tech powertrain don’t come cheap.

But putting all that to one side, it’s fair to expect a generous standard equipment list in a $70K-plus BMW, and the i3s comes to the party with a solid, if not spectacular batch of features. 

Aside from the safety tech detailed later, Included is a 10.25-inch media touchscreen, managing audio, built-in nav (with real time traffic alerts), phone connectivity and more.

For a compact, four-seat hatch the BMW i3s is all the money at $70,900. For a compact, four-seat hatch the BMW i3s is all the money at $70,900.

Other features include, wireless phone charging (for compatible devices), a rear-view camera, automated parking assist, active cruise control (with stop-go function), climate control air, driver’s digital display, ambient interior lighting, 20-inch alloy wheels, auto LED headlights, LED DRLs, indicators and tail-lights, keyless start, rain-sensing wipers, plus heated and folding power mirrors.

But there are a few surprises. It might be an electric car, but forget power adjustment of either front seat. And despite inclusion of Apple CarPlay (BMW says Android Auto will be available later in 2020) and digital radio, the audio system only has four speakers, all in the front doors (because of the clamshell arrangement detailed later). 

It’s fair to expect a generous standard equipment list in a $70K-plus BMW. It’s fair to expect a generous standard equipment list in a $70K-plus BMW.

Our test car featured the ‘Suite’ interior package ($2308) which brings ‘Vernasca Dark Truffle’ leather on the seats, instrument panel, doors and side trim, as well as ‘Oak dark matt’ wood trim, the steering wheel in black with a ‘Satin Silver’ contrast ring, floor mats (and general interior fabrics) in ‘Anthracite’, the roofliner in ‘Carum Spice Grey’, plus orange/white LED lighting for the door pull handles and front map pocket. A dual porthole-style glass sunroof adds another $2246, for an as-tested price of $74,454.

Is there anything interesting about its design?

Built around a carbon-fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) tub, the i3s is ultra-light (for a battery-electric vehicle), super strong, and unlike anything else on the road.

At just over 4.0m long, close to 1.8m wide, and a fraction under 1.6m tall, the i3s is compact, upright, and boxy. A classically polarising design, with some crossing the street to avoid it, and others (like me) loving its unique proportions and stand-out styling.

The nose is tall, short and upright, with the distance from the base of the front windscreen to the front axle (car designers call it the ‘dash-to-axle ratio’) unusually short.

The i3s is ultra-light, super strong, and unlike anything else on the road. The i3s is ultra-light, super strong, and unlike anything else on the road.

That’s because the electric motor sits in the back of the car driving the rear wheels, with only a small front boot compartment required to house charging cables and other bits and pieces.

Despite the lack of anything of substance behind it, BMW’s signature ‘kidney grille’ is present and accounted for, with swoopy LED headlights (and DRLs) either side. Our test car’s ‘Fluid Black’ finish with ‘i Blue’ highlights dialed up the little car’s charismatic personality.  

One of the i3’s most impressive party tricks is its counter-opening ‘clamshell’ doors, and the engineering trickery used to create a B-pillar free side opening (including the strength of the carbon body structure) means the high window line follows a jagged path from front to back, the rearmost hatch windows shrinking the rear glass area appreciably.

One of the i3’s most impressive party tricks is its counter-opening ‘clamshell’ doors. One of the i3’s most impressive party tricks is its counter-opening ‘clamshell’ doors.

The i3s’s standard 20-inch (dual) five-spoke alloy rims, although slightly wider in this performance model, are alarmingly skinny. But taking the car’s relatively light weight (1245kg) and urban-centric purpose into consideration, the narrow, low-rolling resistance rubber makes sense.

With the roofline and sides of the car tapering distinctly towards the back, the rear view is suitably idiosyncratic, highlighted by flush-fit, vaguely U-shaped LED tail-lights. 

The hatch window is small, and the bumper sits high to marry with the load space floor sitting on top of the motor and transmission.

The i3s’s standard 20-inch (dual) five-spoke alloy rims are alarmingly skinny. The i3s’s standard 20-inch (dual) five-spoke alloy rims are alarmingly skinny.

And when it comes to moving inside, BMW offers a choice of three ‘interior worlds - ‘Loft’, ‘Lodge’, and ‘Suite’ - featuring renewable natural fibres, recycled plastics, naturally tanned leather, and open-pore wood (sourced from 100 per cent Forest Stewardship Council-certified forestry).

But irrespective of where everything comes from, the end result is inviting, comfortable and sub-zero cool. Our car’s ‘Suite’ interior was combined with ‘Oak dark matt’ wood, and ‘Vernasca’ brown leather to stunning effect.

A tunnel-free floor, gently curved dash and digital screens for instruments and media let you know you’re in something different and special. It might be six years old, but the i3 still feels contemporary and distinctive. 

How practical is the space inside?

Wide-opening clamshell doors make getting in and out of the i3s a breeze. But bear in mind you have to open the front door to get to the latch for the back one, which can be a pain.

The driver and front passenger enjoy heaps of room, in an open environment, but there’s only a single cupholder in the centre console, so let the coffee cup wars begin.

The driver and front passenger enjoy heaps of room. The driver and front passenger enjoy heaps of room.

Aside from that there are seriously big bins in the front doors, a modest glove box, and a handy elasticised pocket near the floor at the base of the bulkhead.  

Outlets for 12-volt and USB are provided, and there’s a small oddments tray at the rear of the centre console.

Slip around to the rear and you’re in anything but limousine territory. Sitting behind the driver’s seat set for my 183cm height, head and legroom are modest but do-able. And remember it’s two seats only back there.

Slip around to the rear and you’re in anything but limousine territory. Slip around to the rear and you’re in anything but limousine territory.

In terms of storage, there are two cupholders between the seats but no storage pockets or bottle holders in the doors. You won’t find adjustable ventilation outlets either, but that’s not a huge factor in car of this stature.

The boot’s volume is quoted at 260 litres with the 50/50 split-fold rear seatback upright, which is enough to easily swallow the largest 124-litre suitcase in the CarsGuide three-piece set. The smaller 95- and 36-litre cases will sit side-by-side without a problem.

  • The boot’s volume is quoted at 260 litres with the 50/50 split-fold rear seatback upright. The boot’s volume is quoted at 260 litres with the 50/50 split-fold rear seatback upright.
  • The boot is big enough to easily swallow the largest 124-litre suitcase in the CarsGuide three-piece set. The boot is big enough to easily swallow the largest 124-litre suitcase in the CarsGuide three-piece set.
  • Fold the rear seat down and you have 1100 litres of space at your disposal. Fold the rear seat down and you have 1100 litres of space at your disposal.
  • Tie-down anchors, an elasticised pocket and 12-volt power are provided. Tie-down anchors, an elasticised pocket and 12-volt power are provided.

Fold the rear seat down and you have 1100 litres of space at your disposal, with tie-down anchors, an elasticised pocket and 12-volt power provided.

Don’t bother looking for a spare of any description, a repair/inflator kit is your only option. And not surprisingly, the i3 is a no-tow zone. 

What are the key stats for the motor and transmission?

The i3s is powered by BMW’s ‘eDrive’ hybrid synchronous electric motor, producing 135kW at 7000rpm, and 270Nm from 0-4500rpm. Yep, that’s right, maximum torque is delivered the instant you depress the right-hand pedal, and we’ll get to what that brings to the driving experience a little later.

The unit incorporates a charging and generator function for braking energy recuperation, the latter delivering up to 50kW.

The i3s is powered by BMW’s ‘eDrive’ hybrid synchronous electric motor. The i3s is powered by BMW’s ‘eDrive’ hybrid synchronous electric motor.

Drive goes to the rear wheels via a single-speed (fixed-ratio) automatic transmission.

The battery powering the whole show is a 352-volt/120 amp-hour (Ah) Lithium-ion unit with a (gross) energy rating of 42.2kWh.

How much energy does it consume?

When it comes to an electric car’s energy use and projected range, there are two main things to consider - the motor’s power consumption and the battery’s capacity.

And according to BMW, the i3s’s power consumption for the combined (urban/extra-urban) cycle is 14.6–14.0kWh/100km.

Over a week, and roughly 250km of urban driving (with some brief freeway runs thrown in) we saw 19.3kWh/100km staring back at us from the on-board computer.

When BMW launched the i3 in Australia in 2014, the pure EV version came with a 60Ah battery pack delivering a claimed 130 kilometre range (a range extender model featuring the addition of a two-cylinder petrol motorcycle engine was also offered). 

According to BMW, the i3s’s power consumption for the combined cycle is 14.6–14.0kWh/100km. According to BMW, the i3s’s power consumption for the combined cycle is 14.6–14.0kWh/100km.

In 2016 a 94Ah version arrived to boost range up to 183km, and the i3s launched in 2018, with its 120Ah battery pushing range out to BMW’s current, real-world estimate of 260km.

Then, there’s charging time, which is like asking how long is an electric piece of string.

According to BMW, for a 0–80 per cent charge from a (50 kW DC) fast-charging station, you’re looking at 45min.

From a (11kW/16A/380V) high-output home/office wall unit, that pushes out to 3.10h, and using a (3.7kW/16A/240V) low-output home/office unit stretches the wait time to 9.40h.

BMW offers the ‘WallBox plus’ charging suite as a dealer accessory priced from $1990 (not including GST or install costs).

Plug into a domestic (2.4kW/10A/240V) socket, and you’re staring down the barrel of 15.00h. But at least you can use low-cost, off-peak energy overnight, right? Nah, I don’t buy that line either.

What safety equipment is fitted? What safety rating?

The i3 scored a maximum five ANCAP stars when it was assessed at the time of its local launch in 2014, and the standard safety spec has been boosted since then.

Active tech includes ‘the usual suspects’ such as ABS, EBD, and ESC, as well as city-speed AEB (with 'Forward Collision Warning', and  'Traffic Sign Recognition'). reversing collision avoidance, a reversing camera, and tyre pressure monitoring.

The i3 scored a maximum five ANCAP stars during last assessment. The i3 scored a maximum five ANCAP stars during last assessment.

If all that doesn’t prevent an impact, passive safety tech includes, dual front, side chest and side curtain airbags.

There are also top-thether points and ISOFIX anchors to secure child seats/baby capsules in both rear seating positions, as well as a first aid kit and warning triangle..

What does it cost to own? What warranty is offered?

BMW offers a three year/unlimited km warranty, which is off the pace given the majority of mainstream brands have stepped up to five-year cover, with some at seven. And the pressure is on with Mercedes-Benz recently announcing its shift to five years/unlimited km.

That said, the BMW's body is warranted against rust (perforation) for 12 years/unlimited km, and roadside assistance is provided free-of-charge for three years/unlimited km.

Maintenance is 'condition based' with sensors and on-board algorithms (mileage, time since last service, driving style) determining whether an annual vehicle inspection is required.

The 'BMW Service Inclusive' package, offering a single, one-off advance payment to cover selected service and maintenance costs, is available in two levels - 'Basic' ($850) or 'Plus' (dealer quote)

What's it like to drive around town?

It might not look like a conventional sports car, but the BMW i3s certainly accelerates like one, with a claimed 0-100km/h time of 6.9sec. The i3s is a smile-inducing hoot to drive.

Every one of this little hatch’s 270 newton metres of torque is available from the minute you hit the accelerator pedal, and remain in service until 4500rpm, at which point torque delivery drops off a cliff.

But peak power steps in at exactly 7000rpm, so if you’re determined to make that overtaking move you won’t be left in the lurch. In fact, BMW says it only takes the i3s 4.3 seconds to surge from 80km/h to 120km/h.

However, the i3’s forte is 100 per cent the city, rather than the open road. Its ‘point and squirt’ ability making it the perfect partner for the cut and thrust of the urban jungle.

It might not look like a conventional sports car, but the BMW i3s certainly accelerates like one. It might not look like a conventional sports car, but the BMW i3s certainly accelerates like one.

The i3s features an upgraded ‘Sports Suspension’ incorporating firmer dampers, re-tuned springs and revised anti-roll bars. It’s also lowered 10mm, the track is widened (+21mm front / +2.0mm rear) and the wheels go plus one inch to 20-inch alloys.

The standard i3 (no longer offered in Australia) rolls on 19-inch rims shod with 155/70 rubber all around. And while the i3s’s 175/55 front and 190/50 rear tyres are still exceptionally narrow, from the side the low-profile Bridgestone Ecopias look like fan belts wrapped around pulleys rather than tyres around wheels..

No surprise then that ride comfort isn’t exactly cushy, and in signing on for the i3s experience you’ll need to be ready for more than occasional bumps and thumps.

But the pay-off is super-sharp dynamics, Suspension is by alloy struts at the front, and a five-link alloy set-up at the rear..The steering responds to inputs quickly yet smoothly, and with 48/52 front to rear weight distribution, the car always feels balanced, eager, and taut.

Maximum torque is delivered the instant you depress the right-hand pedal, Maximum torque is delivered the instant you depress the right-hand pedal,

And if you really want to dial things up the ‘driving experience control’ allows a switch to Sport mode for a further tweak of the suspension, steering, and traction control set-ups.

A tight 10.3m turning circle makes for easy parking and stress-free U-turns. But if things get too tight, rapid three-point turns are assisted by the gear shift controller bring mounted on a chunky stalk on the right-hand side of the steering column. Too easy.   

Braking is by vented discs front and rear, but they’re tiny. That’s because the ‘Brake Energy Regeneration’ system does most of the work. 

Effectively turning the motor into a generator, the system not only slows the car dramatically but feeds energy to the battery in the process. It takes a while to get used to the sensation, but soon becomes a fun, and surprisingly easy game to use the brake pedal as little as possible… often not at all, for long periods.

Yes, it’s pricey for a small hatch, but this little BMW is a city car like no other. The i3s is tailor made for the urban environment, and six years on retains the quirkiness and charisma that stood it apart at launch, and it can still hold its head high among the current EV crop. 

$69,900

Based on new car retail price

VIEW PRICING & SPECS

Daily driver score

3.5/5

Urban score

4/5
Price Guide

$69,900

Based on new car retail price

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