By Marc Lachapelle
LISBON, Portugal – Unquestionably, BMW took not the slightest of shortcuts when it decided to create an all-new, compact electric car. Starting from a blank computer screen, the Bavarians designed a light and rigid carbon-fibre body shell, fixed it atop an aluminium chassis and bolted an electric motor to it, beneath the cargo bay and right over the driven rear wheels.
The original i3 was launched in 2014 and naturally became the best-selling model in a sliver of a segment it more or less created: the luxury, compact electric car. You could also get it with an optional, 650cc, twin-cylinder gasoline engine made by Taiwanese scooter maker Kymko that would extend the car’s range by up to 150 km, with its tiny 9-litre fuel tank. It was fitted in its own bay, under the load floor at the rear, next to the electric motor. In Canada, 78% of buyers chose the ReX (range-extender) version.
New faces and a sportier model
Four model years hence, the i3 gets more assertive front and rear fascias and a number of upgrades and refinements, including a standard 94 Ah (ampere-hour) or 33 kWh lithium-ion propulsion battery that had been introduced earlier as an option.
It also get upstaged by a new, sportier version dubbed i3s that carries a stronger, 181-horsepower (135 kW) electric motor with 199 lb-ft of instant torque that should whisk it to 100 km/h in 6.9 seconds, from a standing start. That figure becomes 7.7 seconds in the ReX version, which carries 120 extra kilograms, with the engine and related hardware that extend its range from ‘up to 200 km’ to ‘up to 330 km’, according to factory specs.
The i3s also gets new suspension bits – springs, dampers and antiroll bars – that lower the body by 10mm and sharpen steering response and handling with the help of wider tires, wrapped around wider alloy wheels and set on 40mm-wider tracks. Tire sizes are 175/55R20 in front and 195/50R20 at the rear, instead of the wafer-thin 155/70R19 eco tires that are standard fare on the i3. The i3s needs boy-racer style, 20 mm fender extensions to cover its new boots.
A new Sport mode quickens the accelerator’s response surprisingly, but the i3s already is quite lively in the energy-saving Eco Pro mode that even turns off the AC to preserve range. One-foot driving is a cinch, and smoother than in the original i3. You get the hang of it quickly and are soon addicted to it for city driving, the tiny BMW’s strong suit.
The ride in the i3s is firm, yet never harsh, even on the narrowest, centuries-old cobblestone backstreets of Lisbon. Everything is tight and quiet in that carbon-fibre shell, with doors that shut with a solid, reassuring thunk. Reverse-opening rear doors create a perfectly open cabin in side view, in the absence of a centre pillar: a designer’s treat, no doubt. Getting out is quite a challenge, however, and foot space is rather limited for rear passengers.
Agile as a cat
The wider tires and tracks have pushed turning diameter from a remarkable 9.86 metres in the i3 to a still excellent 10.31 metres in a sprightly i3s that treaded its way merrily through a maze of incredibly tight streets in old Lisbon, barely wider than the car’s side mirrors, at times. Even when we had to back up in pathways with 90-degree turns after the otherwise clear and accurate navigation system played another trick on us. We even thought it was deliberate plan to show off the car’s mastery at city driving. The rear camera and parking sensors were also thoroughly useful and appreciated.
The i3s also made mincemeat of the short, autocross course set out for us at the Estoril race track. Its lively response, sharp steering, tight suspenders and a more lenient stability control system in Sport mode made it a joy to boot around the pylon-traced layout, even on a slick and wet section. More so at the hand of the young veteran racer Bruno Spengler from Canada, who was crowned as champion of the famous DTM series in 2012 and is still one of its top drivers.
The i3s and its quiet sister, the i3, might not have the record range of a Chevrolet Bolt, but they largely make up for it with truly unique design, leading-edge technology and a comfortable, superbly-finished cabin made with 80% recycled renewable materials.
Base price is a nonetheless stout $52,350 for the i3s and $56,950 for the extended-range i3s ReX, and a more approachable $48,750 for a ‘regular’ i3 and $53,350 for the i3 ReX.
Price aside, there are no other cars like these four, and they might be the very best you can get today, for city driving.
Model: 2018 BMW i3s
Price: $52,350 (ReX: $56,950)
Engine: rear-mounted electric motor
Peak output: 181 hp (135 kW)
Peak torque: 199 lb-ft
Transmission: automatic, single ratio (9.665 reduction)
Battery: lithium-ion, 94 Ah / 33 kWh
Length: 4,016 mm
Width: 1,791 mm (with mirrors: 2,039 mm)
Height: 1,590 mm
Wheelbase: 2,570 mm
Curb weight: 1,363 kg (ReX: 1,486 kg)
Acceleration (0-100 km/h): 6.9 / ReX: 7.7 seconds (claimed)
Fuel Consumption (city/highway/combined): 14.5 / 8.2 / 10.5 L/100 km (European norm)
Top speed: 160 km/h