BMW i3 (2013) at Frankfurt motor show

Published: 29 July 2013

The new BMW i3 offers the potential dream ticket of carbonfibre construction and zero tailpipe emissions (not to mention a posh badge) for £25k. It’s an electrically driven city car designed from the ground up to be as eco-friendly as possible, but still a decent drive.

The all-new city car's order books will open this summer, with the i3 range officially launching on 16 November. BMW's not just rethought small cars, but also how they're built, and sold to customers. Can the audacious plan work? Read on for the full spec and give your verdict on one of 2013's most important new cars in the comments section.

>> Click here for CAR's A-Z guide to the 2013 Frankfurt motor show

BMW i3: what's so special about it?

Or them, in fact – BMW is offering two different versions of the i3. One is a dedicated electric car, the other a petrol-assisted i3 Range Extender. Both versions use a rear-mounted 15kg electric motor to drive the 19in back wheels. The e-motor develops 168bhp and 184lb ft, and is juiced by a 230kg battery pack mounted under the cabin floor in a reinforced aluminium case for crash protection.

The difference between the standard i3 and Range Extender is the i3 Range Extender's engine, in the form of a 650cc two-cylinder petrol motor, good for 34bhp and mounted above the rear axle. Instead of driving the wheels itself it fires up to recharge the batteries, lifting the range from 80-100 miles in the standard i3 to 160-186 miles for the Range Extender.

Both BMW i3s have a top speed of 93mph, but the purely electric version is 0.7sec faster to 62mph (7.2sec plays 7.9sec) thanks to its lower weight.

Browse BMW i3 cars for sale

The BMW i3's weight-saving obsession

Built around a bespoke carbonfibre chassis fabricated in the US, the i3 weighs 1195kg – around 80kg lighter than a similarly proportioned Ford B-Max. Other weight-saving measures include forged aluminium suspension links (a 15% saving versus regular components), hollow drive shafts (18%) and forged aluminium wheels are a massive 36% lighter than normal 19s, though part of that is due to their reduced width. The rims are tall to give the tiny 155-section tyre the same-size grippy contact patch as a regular wheel, while reducing the frontal area to cut drag.

Any other cool innovations?

The regenerative braking charges the battery when the driver lifts off the throttle. It's been tuned to be aggressive at low speeds (activating the brake lights in some cases) and barely noticeable at high speeds for more efficient coasting. That turns the i3 into a 'one-pedal car', with barely any need to touch the brakes (if you're concentrating). The different driving modes (Comfort, Eco Pro and Eco Pro Plus) help save even more power – BMW claims a 15% efficiency improvement in the Eco settings.

Inside there are four trim levels: 'Standard' is the basic spec, then there's 'Loft' and 'Lodge', and the top-spec 'Suite'. All cabins get wood trim from sustainably managed forests, and naturally tanned leather. The central iDrive screen is commanded by a touch-sensitive rotary controller, and there’s a chunky column-mounted drive selector. It looks rather appealing and crucially frees up room on the lower tunnel to create asense of space.

Hang on, what about the dreaded recharging hassle?

Using a standard household socket takes 8-10 hours, though that shouldn’t be necessary too often. All i3s are supplied with a fast-charge kit which takes it from zero to 80% charged inside three hours. The faster system, called BMW iWallbox, needs to be installed in an owners home by a qualified electrician, but the good news is the government steps in with a 75% grant (if you live in England or Wales), bringing the cost down to £315.

Want to charge in public? BMW cuts across the minefield of different charging companies with one do-it-all ‘ChargeNow’ network membership, accessed on a pay-as-you-go basis via a (you guessed it) iChargeNow card. Charging can be monitored remotely via a smartphone app, which also integrates with the sat-nav and infotainment in the i3.

How much does the i3 cost?

The i3 EV costs £25,680, and the i3 Range Extender asks £28,830. Both of those prices include the UK government's £5000 electric car incentive subsidy, but BMW isn't banking on those Nissan Leaf-worrying figures drawing in most customers. Instead, the monthly leasing rates are expected to be the big draw, with customers choosing a contract length and usage plan, almost like a mobile phone deal. The basic i3 36-month agreement costs £369 pcm, while the priciest i3 Range Extender in plush Suite trim will set you back £480 a month.

Only 47 UK BMW dealers have been granted the right to sell i3s, but all will service them, and in the meantime Apple-aping BMW iStores will open to provide bespoke customer service. There'll also be a big emphasis towards online help: you'll actually be able to spec, order and purchase 'your' i3 on the web, and pick a delivery date for your Ultimate Eco Machine to be dropped off at your house.

So it’s efficient and well-priced, but surely it’s a nightmare to build?

Not content with trying to reinvent the car and how we buy and use it, BMW’s also had a crack at sorting the messy, polluting business of building them. All four BMW i component plants worldwide use regenerative energy, and consume a claimed 50% less water and 70% less energy overall than a regular car factory. The i3’s carbonfibre facility in Washington USA runs on hydroelectric power, and the Leipzig general assembly plant in Germany where the cars are actually built draws 100% of its power from wind turbines.

>> Can the BMW i3 succeed where every other mainstream EV has failed? Has BMW got the price and styling right? Sound off in the comments below

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