A Little Quicker, Sportier EV
Around since the 2014 model year, the BMW i3 has been the leader in the luxury small EV market, although the Tesla Model 3 is now marking its territory. The i3 hasn’t changed much over the years except for colors and one upgrade to its modest range, from just 81 miles to 107 miles for the 2018 model I just tested.
But 2018 did bring some good news in the form of the new 2018 BMW i3S Sport model. The most important performance feature of this new variant is a boost to 184 horsepower from 170, and a jump to 199 pounds-feet of torque, dropping the 0-60 time from 7.2 to 6.8 seconds. And 2019 has got additional good news—more on that later.
Drivers will enjoy the sport suspension, with specially developed springs, dampers, and anti-roll bars, all sitting 10-mm lower. The standard 20-inch alloy wheels provide a more rakish profile. Use Sport mode to turn on a more direct accelerator response and tighter steering characteristics.
As before, there’s a tiny two-cylinder gasoline-powered range extender available, but my Imperial Blue Metallic example didn’t have it—we were all electric.
The S=Sport Difference
As the i3s appears essentially the same as the i3, you have to look at the front fascia and rear apron to see the differences. Up front, both the regular i3 and i3s now come with full-LED headlights and turn signals.
We’re getting more used to the tall, narrow proportions of some EVs, but BMW’s LifeDrive vehicle architecture, with its carbon fiber-reinforced plastic passenger cell, feels open and airy, perhaps in part due to the odd and sudden dip of the window line past the door. The car employs back-hinged “suicide doors” for rear seat entry, which can be a tight squeeze in narrow parking spaces.
The intentionally cutting-edge interior is beginning to look more normal. Its “wrapped” door design folds and runs across the panels while the two rectangular information screens sit on stands in front of the driver and in center position. The upper dash panel in my car wore a matte-finish silver rather than the light woodgrain I’d seen before, but that may be seen as “sportier.”
I have always felt that the i3 was designed to look weird so people wouldn’t confuse it with “the ultimate driving machine.” But driving it, you can still sense the BMW solid goodness that feels more premium than a Nissan Leaf. Steering is firm, the suspension does its job well, and the dash, although the top half looks like it’s missing, still feels more like the Bavarian blast we expect from cars wearing the blue-and-white roundel logo.
A Potent Presence
Electric cars are potent, with instant torque at any speed. The i3s jumps forward when you press the accelerator and feels taut and secure in transit. You get “one-pedal driving” standard, where you lift off the right pedal to slow down and press to accelerate.
The i3 feels a little low rent, mainly because of the recycled and renewable materials inside, especially in the front section of the dashboard. It looks utilitarian but makes a statement about reuse and recycling that’s appropriate for an all-electric vehicle.
The BMW iDrive 6 interface works more easily now, with tiles you can select or slide over to view others. Selections include Media, Communications, Navigation and Notifications. You click the dial mounted between the seats to select items on the screen.
The Numbers Game
EPA MPGe numbers for the i3s are 126 city/99 highway/112 combined. Use these to compare to other electric vehicles. The EPA green scores are perfect 10’s.
Pricing is BMW-level, with a starting retail base of $47,650, $550 for the upscale paint, $300 for bright blue seatbelts, $750 for the park distance system, $300 for Apple CarPlay compatibility and $995 for shipping, bringing the grand total to $53,045. That places this five-year-old design in the territory of the new Tesla Model 3.
A note regarding the 2019 model—it gets a more potent battery, and range gets a nice bump to 153 miles, which is a much happier proposition. Not much different besides that, but it could mean you’ll want to wait for a 2019.
On the other side, the i3 is something of a bargain as a used car. A sharp-looking 2014 base car without the range extender runs $14-16,000, with 30-50,000 miles, according to a quick search on cars.com of vehicles in the San Francisco Bay Area. That’s about a third of the original price when sold five years ago.
BMW stands for something in the market, so every model carries some panache, and all of them drive better than ordinary grocery-getters. With the low maintenance of an electric motor, no oil changes, long-lasting tires and brakes with longevity from using regenerative braking, the i3 and i3s are quite cheap to operate.
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