BMW’s i3 has been a qualified success for the brand. It probably hasn’t made much money but if you consider that Nissan’s Leaf has been a rolling test-bed for the Japanese company, the i3 has been the same for BMW.
Now several years into its lifespan and on its second set of batteries (and soon to be third), the base i3 has been joined by the sportier i3 S.
As usual, this has caused something of a stir. To my mind it fits right in with what BMW is all about. It might not be an electric M, but a bunch of detail changes has improved BMW’s game-changing city car.
Want my take in visual form? Jump into the video below.
Let’s not beat about the bush – the i3 isn’t cheap. Actually, that is beating about the bush – it’s expensive. And it looks more expensive when you consider the next-generation Leaf will out punch it in the range and pricing department, if not in badge cachet or technical interest.
But you’re not cross-shopping an i3 with a Leaf, are you? You like the i3 because it’s whacky and interesting and possibly because it’s a BMW and therefore fun to drive.
The i3 2018 ‘LCI’ Update
It’s worth noting that the i3S’ appearance coincided with the i3’s mid-life refresh, or what BMW calls the Life Cycle Impulse (LCI). The basic i3 had already had a bump in battery capacity to 94Ah. That bump had a bigger effect than the figures suggested.
The real-world 200km range might be unchanged but the interior scored a mild going-over, which included new bumpers, revised lights and a few other minor design changes. The REX engine is identical, adding weight and another 130km of range.
The headlights are now full LED rather than the formerly halogen lights (of which I was not a fan) and they’re much, much better. The S’s bumpers are different again, with detailing to make the car look wider and lower, with the halogen light assembly disappearing in favour of an LED sliver.
A new set of wider 20-inch alloys are bolted on and they’re a different design to help set the S further apart.
Battery and Power Unit
The i3S takes the base package – which is already a hoot to drive – and, er, amps it up a bit. The standard car has a 125kW electric motor while the S has 135kW. That knocks 0.4 seconds off the 0-100km/h time to make it 6.9 seconds, which is still warm hatch territory. The REX is still significantly slower at 7.7 seconds (down from 8.1).
More usefully, torque rises by 20Nm to 270Nm, which is always welcome in a 1300kg small car. These figures seem a bit modest, but they don’t feel it. While the 0-100 time isn’t a big improvement, the rolling acceleration is markedly better. The 80-120km/h time drops by 0.8s, which makes it rather quick on the highway.
The battery stats are identical between the two. BMW fits the 94Ah/33kWh battery pack under the boot floor, the range differing only slightly to account for the higher draw of the 135kW power unit. There is – allegedly – a 120Ah battery on the way in the next year or so.
Along with the fatter tyres, BMW’s chassis engineers have lowered the suspension by 10mm. This has a greater effect on the i3 as the centre of gravity is already quite low. The fatter tyres bring an appreciable of amount extra grip – not that the standard car is deficient – but don’t make much extra noise.
Ride and Handling
The tweaked springs and dampers iron out a couple of the awkward edges on the car’s ride. The wheel responds to your inputs better and the car stays flatter through the corners. It also handles mid-corner bumps without the idiosyncratic half-lurch of the standard car. Most i3 owners won’t care about that but will notice the difference between the two.
One amusing detail is the availability of Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) on the i3S. It seems that being a hoon is a prerequisite to work at BMW so the i3S is driftable. Well, if you’ve got the will, talent and space to chuck it sideways. Manage that and you’ll enjoy yourself immensely in what is already a very capable and competent car.
The i3S improves what is already an excellent proposition. While I never had much to complain about in the i3, the lower, steadier chassis and better ride won me over within about five minutes of taking the wheel.
When you’re already spending nearly $70,000 before on roads for a small electric hatch, the extra $1200 for the S is a complete no-brainer. You don’t have to be a keen driver to appreciate it. And it’s destined to be a cult car, so it will probably hang on to its value slightly more enthusiastically.
I still maintain the view that the i3 is the best city car on the road today. While that does rather depend on the city, it’s an unbeatable package. It’s short and stubby but with tons of interior space, clever packaging and brisk performance. The i3S just makes it better.