Road test: BMW i3

Brilliantly engineered, but will the latest tweaks finally boost sales?

If, a year ago, you had predicted Trump, Brexit and Leicester City winning the league, a £5 bet would by now have made you richer to the tune of more than £10 million. And having read the rave reviews after its 2014 launch, few would have bet against the BMW i3 becoming a runaway success. Plenty of us hacks had it down as a dead cert, me among them.

But it didn’t happen. Put off I presume by the upfront costs, range anxiety and odd looks, the i3 has struggled to find traction in the marketplace and you need only look at the classifieds to know it. Against a list price of £32,330, or £27,830 once the Government had coughed up its £4500 subsidy, second-hand 2016 i3s are being advertised for as little as £18,500.

Just consider that for a moment: for the price of a middle-order Vauxhall Astra you can drive a very nearly new version of one of the most interesting, innovative and effective cars ever offered for sale, a car so revolutionary it makes the original Mini look unimaginative. A car with a carbon-fibre core and a part-recycled interior, a car that costs pence to run yet still delivers fully on the promise of that bonnet propeller.

What you’re looking at, then, is BMW’s first attempt to broaden further the i3’s appeal and secure the sales so many of us thought it deserved. The main change is the fitment of a battery with 50 per cent greater energy density, capable of increasing its claimed range from 124 to 195 miles. As before, the car is available either as a pure electric vehicle, or with a tiny two-cylinder scooter engine fed by a nine-litre fuel tank to ensure you’ll never be stranded.

As is so often the case, however, reality doesn’t match the claim. On short, cold, dark days requiring the frequent use of air-conditioning, wipers, lights, heating and bum warmers, the i3 I drove claimed a range of 117 miles, meaning you’ll want it tucked up and back on charge in a hundred at best.

My time in the car reminded me of the one thing I think I did call right originally: the car’s biggest problem is that it’s actually too good. BMW only ever saw the i3 as a local commuter car, but it’s so effective, fast and fun – not to mention quiet and comfortable – it’s the kind of car in which you’d want to do decent distances, and you resent the
fact that it can’t.

But if you need a second car that’s never going to be needed beyond a 50-mile radius, can I commend the i3 again? For the money, there is nothing that comes close to being as effective or impressive, for it is a car that turns every journey into an occasion.

For the rest of us, however, the battery technology, while improved, remains the biggest stumbling block. Put it this way: if I knew it could complete my 250-mile return trip to Heathrow on a single charge, I’d have my own on charge outside my house right now.