In the January 2014 issue of CAR, Gavin Green casts down the BMW i3 Range Extender as ‘the coward’s choice’. Yet BMW predicts that the petrol-assisted i3 will make up 80% of UK i3 sales – and therefore make it the top-selling BMW ‘iCar’.
With more weight and higher cost, surely lobbing an internal combustion engine in defeats the point of the i3 – with its final assembly completed in a factory run on wind power. Read on for the CAR review.
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So this is a BMW i3 hybrid?
No – it’s a range extender, which means that the petrol engine never actually drives the 19in wheels in hybrids, such as the poster-child Toyota Prius. In the i3 Range Extender, there’s a rear-mounted, two-cylinder, 647cc scooter-derived engine that works as an on-board power station, coming on stream to charge up the floor-mounted, 230kg battery pack. The rear wheels are only ever driven by the 168bhp, 184lb ft electric motor. So, there’s always monster torque on tap…
What’s the benefit of having the petrol engine on board?
Whereas the all-electric i3 is out of juice after a maximum of 100 miles, the Range Extender’s engine allows up to 186 miles (following an eight-hour battery charge’s worth of go). Once the battery pack’s energy has been swallowed up, there’s a tiny nine-litre fuel tank to allow 80-mile hops courtesy of the 34bhp petrol engine. Useful, but hardly an intercity GT car.
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BMW claims the parsimonious engine’s fuel consumption equates to a combined 470mpg, and emits just 13g of CO2 per kilometre. So naturally, it’s congestion charge and road tax exempt, and costs less to fill up at every rest stop than a thirsty driver.
Is the petrol-assisted i3 Range Extender faster than the all-electric i3?
No, it’s marginally slower. Lugging around a petrol engine adds 120kg to the i3’s heft, and tacks 0.5sec onto the 0-62mph time, which extends from a ‘downright quick’ 7.2sec to a ‘very nippy’ 7.9sec. The top speed is unchanged at 93mph, but the all-important urban speed has suffered: standstill to 30mph is a couple of tenths slower than the solely battery-powered i3. No matter – you’ll still leave everything from cyclists to M3s panting at the lights. It’s two seconds faster to 62mph than a Nissan Leaf, and boy does it feel it.
>> Click here for CAR’s Nissan Leaf review
What’s it like on the road?
Until the petrol engine fires up, this is an all-electric car, and therefore very similar to the regular i3 we drove (and liked) earlier in 2013. You won’t notice the weight penalty of the two-cylinder engine, so the i3’s still exceptionally swift off the line with traction never an issue for those slim rear tyres. Braking stability is impressive too – the i3 has strong retardation from its regenerative braking effect alone, but dab the left pedal for a swifter stop and it digs its heels in more stubbornly than an anti-fracking protestor.
Despite the battery aiding a low centre of gravity, the lofty i3 can’t cloak its height through bends, especially on the squidgy winter tyres of our test car. There’s body roll and eventual understeer to curb your enthusiasm, but the i3 clings on much longer than you’d imagine, having eyed its anorexic rubber and slab-sided profile. However, in isolation, you wouldn’t notice the extra heft of the motor, equivalent to a rotund passenger permanently on board.
Though the steering wheel, plentiful in its adjustment, is a delight to twirl with its response and feel, the i3 would benefit from more support from its slim, lightweight front chairs to keep driver and passenger from falling about the handsome, minimalist interior during the agile direction changes the i3 is capable of.
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Drain the cells with said enthusiastic driving, and the petrol motor doesn’t come online in subtle fashion. Instead it’s a gruff drone in the middle distance, though hear it from outside, buzzing like a lawnmower, and you’ll be impressed just how much vibration has been supressed inside.
While onlookers gawk at the futuristic i3’s unconventional appearance and silent progress in EV mode, they’ll smirk at its uncharacteristically agricultural clatter once running in safety-net petrol guise. Imagine if the Starship Enterprise sounded like a Massey Ferguson and you get the picture.
I’m starting to like the sound of this…
Hang on though: you’ll pay more for this i3. The regular i3 costs £30,680; this more flexible Range Extender model is £33,380. However, both cars are eligible for the governments’ £5000 EV incentive, so with the discount the i3 Range Extender drops to £28,830 – within a set of floor mats of the Vauxhall Ampera range-extender.
>> Click here for CAR’s review of the petrol-electric Vauxhall Ampera
Are we a nation of pessimists? With more than three-quarters of UK BMW i3 sales expected to be swallowed by this slower, pricier Range Extender, it could seem so. While the addition of internal combustion doesn’t spoil the deliciously arch-modern i3 experience, it doesn’t overtly enrich it either – this is first and foremost an urban car, where the predicted 80-100mile of the battery-only car range should be plenty.
The i3 is expensive, too – those cashed-up enough to afford such a large sum for a tiny car will doubtless have access to other means of transport should their journey stretch into triple-figure mileage. Be in no doubt: the Range Extender is a brilliant car, but our favourite i3 remains the purest distillation of the iCar philosophy – the (still compromised, but more focused) all-electric i3.