Is there a car better suited to urban life than an i3 REx? We’ve yet to encounter one…
It’s scarcely believable BMW launched the i3 six years ago already. In 2013, the EV landscape was a desolate one. Fast-forward to today, however, and nearly every carmaker has an EV on the global market, or is on the cusp of launching one (or five).
In South Africa, however, such innovative thinking has been painfully slow to reach our shores. The i3 is still the only electric vehicle available for less than a million rand (the sole other EV is the Jaguar I-Pace). Nissan SA hasn’t yet launched its new-generation Leaf – nor has it confirmed whether it will – and the Audi E-tron and Mercedes-Benz EQC will both cost substantially more than the compact BMW as they set chase to the Jaguar. It certainly doesn’t speed up EVs’ arrival that government appears unwilling to do much to boost charging infrastructure, nor offer tax cuts to those buyers keen to purchase an EV, despite the car market quite obviously moving towards electrification at an increasing pace.
Still, the i3 is available here and is selling steadily, so there clearly are enough well-to-do urban-bound consumers who are charmed either by its quirky looks and lovely driving manners, or simply can’t wait for the future to arrive … now.
Revised for the second time since 2013, the latest i3 boasts a number of enhancements to address range anxiety, plus features design updates outside and in to ensure it remains as contemporary visually as it is under the skin.
The biggest change, undoubtedly, is optimisation of the battery array installed in the floor of the i3. Without having grown in physical size, the batteries now have a capacity of 120 Ah (up from 60 Ah in 2013 and 94 Ah on 2016’s facelift) and a gross energy content of 42,2 kWh (which has nearly doubled in six years). What that effectively means is a boost in range of 60 km on the WLTP cycle. Combined with the safety net of the range extender engine – which acts as a generator for the battery pack and is sited above the driven rear axle – a range of at least 300 km is achievable. Sure, the i3 REx is no long-distance road tripper but, if your destination is three hours away and there’s a wall socket where you’re going, it’s a viable option.
You’ll unquestionably enjoy the trip there. Thanks to excellent noise, vibration and harshness control, the i3 rolls along serenely, the peace disturbed only when the two-cylinder engine comes to life and chugs away like a lawnmower following at a distance.
Back in town, the instant punch offered by the 125 kW/250 N.m electric motor is addictive. Up to 80 km/h, you’ll leave most cars behind (that sprint takes just 5,75 seconds), after which performance tapers off but remains strong. Overtaking punch is considerable – 40 to 80 km/h is shipped in just 3,05 seconds – making the i3 a fantastic cut-and-thrust commuter. So instantly responsive is the drivetrain to inputs that every gap is an opportunity to gain a few car lengths, aided in no small part by direct, perfectly weighted steering.
It’s also extremely easy to grow accustomed to an EV’s novel way of gaining and losing speed. Come off the throttle and the i3 slows at a rapid pace. It takes just a few minutes to acclimatise to the regenerative braking, which ramps up when the drivetrain-management system is switched to eco pro or its even more frugal “+” setting, and often the brakes aren’t needed at all.
We took the i3 REx on our 100 km fuel route, on which it used 16,1 kWh, losing 43,5% of its charge. At R1,07 per kWh, that’s R17,19 per 100 km. By comparison, the 320d we tested earlier in 2019 used 5,1 L/100 km, one of the lowest figures we’ve ever achieved on this standardised test. At a cost of R14,63 for a litre of diesel, the 320d would put its owner R74,61 out of pocket.
Elsewhere, design updates encapsulate more gloss-black trim, reprofiled bumpers, additional body colours and new LED headlamps. Our test unit looked striking in its Melbourne-Red-and-black combination, accentuated by 20-inch alloys wrapped in comically skinny tyres (for low rolling resistance).
The cockpit’s colour scheme drew praise. Dark Truffle leather stylishly contrasts eucalyptus wood trim as part of a R43 700 Suite design option. Thankfully, the wood trim is available separately for a more palatable R6 500.
Space all-round is more generous than you may imagine – although the front-seat occupants definitely have the preferred seating – and the boot is capable of swallowing a week’s worth of groceries.
How do you assess a car as enlightened as the i3 in an overtly conservative motoring market? Objectively, it offers poor value for money, boasting neither the practicality of premium SUVs available at its price, nor the balance of convenience, performance and driving pleasure you get with BMW’s own 3 Series.
Subjectively, however, the i3 is sublime. Hugely enjoyable to pilot in congested traffic, with a sky-high feel-good factor, if you can afford it and your commute is as clogged as our government’s thinking when it comes to EVs, the i3 is literally and figuratively in a class of its own.