The I’s Have It
Environmentally friendly and cheap to run, but can electric cars be fun? Matthew Parkinson took two of Bowker BMW’s best out for a spin to prove a point. Photography: Paul Currie
The sky is blue, the grass is yellow and my face is red-raw. This can only mean one thing. The British summer has well and truly arrived, and to take advantage of the long, hot days ahead of us, BMW’s i8 is making like a British bloke in a heatwave and going topless.
The first BMW i8 reached its eager new owners back in 2014, and I can instantly see why they fell head over heels for its jaw-dropping styling and mind-blowingly clever eDrive petrol-electric drivetrain. It’s also why I’m impressed that the boffins behind BMW’s i division haven’t rested on their laurels, bunking off early to go watch their national team get hammered by Mexico.
Instead, they’ve removed the roof to turn the BMW i8 into a sleek new roadster, allowing you to cruise along in near-silence for 33 miles. The roof raises up in an almost silent hush, within 16 seconds and while travelling at up to 31mph. Switch the car into sport mode, drop the roof, mash the throttle and hold on as the BMW i8’s petrol engine and electric motor work harmoniously to hurl you back into the supple sports-seats, ruffling your hair and bringing the horizon closer at an astonishing rate.
As well as its incredible powertrain, the BMW i8’s performance is helped by its carbon-fibre reinforced chassis that’s stronger and lighter than steel, providing hypercar technology at less than a tenth of the price. The clever chassis is draped in a pretty body whose sleek lines float effortlessly from front to rear, only interrupted by a pair of vertically-opening model-specific dihedral doors, ushering you into a sculpted cockpit that bedazzles, but doesn’t baffle. From the driving mode selection to the interactive infotainment system, each and every one of the plethora of standard features is reassuringly idiot-proof.
If you’d prefer something smaller, more practical, and hopefully, just as fun, is there such a car?
BMW’s answer to that question is the i3. Like its bigger brother, it’s also designed around a state-of-the-art carbon fibre frame and it’s also powered by an electric motor – it even has its own unique door arrangement. On the BMW i3, the front and rear doors open in opposite directions to each other in a saloon-door arrangement, allowing easy access to the airy interior which comfortably sits four.
Unlike the BMW i8, the i3 is powered purely by an electric motor that’ll take you 124 miles on a single charge. Want to go further? The i3 is also available with a ‘range-extender’. Put simply, this is a small, quiet, petrol generator that bumps the i3’s range up to 205 miles before you’ll need to top up with petrol or electricity.
This is all laid out in front of you simply and efficiently from the driver’s seat. With the i range of cars, BMW has made every effort to take complex technological advancements and repackage them in a way that’s familiar and user-friendly. The BMW i3 is no different. From the driver’s seat, it’s so easy to get settled behind the wheel that you’re only reminded you’re driving something a little different when you creep away in silence.
At your feet are two pedals, but on some journeys, you might only need one of them. When approaching a junction or roundabout, lift off the accelerator and the BMW i3 slows down quicker than you’d expect, but why? Each time you take your foot off the pedal, the i3’s electric motor scrubs off excess speed and turns it back into energy, a process you can monitor on a clever simple sliding scale displayed on the dashboard. I found myself getting used to it remarkably quickly, and if I ever needed to stop on a sixpence, there’s still a conventional brake pedal.
The BMW i3 might be simple to use, but that’s not to say it’s sparsely equipped. Automatic air conditioning, a multi-function steering wheel, DAB digital radio, traffic-sensing satellite navigation and heated seats are all fitted to the base car as standard.
So far, so good, but like many, I expected the tall-looking BMW i3 to pitch and roll around corners like an old tug boat. I was very wrong. The passenger cell sits above the car’s battery packs, meaning you sit a little higher up than you would in a MINI or BMW 1 series, but this layout gives the car an extremely low centre of gravity. Add this to the BMW i3’s 50:50 weight distribution and rear-wheel-drive, and the i3 is an absolute scream to drive. For those wanting more still, there’s the i3S which I drove today. BMW’s sportier i3 adds stiffer suspension, 20-inch alloy wheels and a sport driving mode that firms up the steering and sharpens the throttle response for seriously spirited driving.
The Germans should know a thing or two about extracting joy from electricity – they gave us Kraftwerk after all.
Musical tastes aside, car makers had already proved that electric cars could go the distance and save their owners from spending their pounds at the pumps, but with their i8 and i3, BMW has gone one better, proving that electric cars can be every bit as fun as their combustion-engined counterparts.
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