With greenhouse gas emission reduction targets making the headlines, BMW couldn’t have picked a better time for the Australian launch of the i3, the German giant’s first mass-produced vehicle to run solely on electric power.

The BMW i3 is a five-door hatch with unusual looks that border on those of the compact SUVs. It comes with the choice of two powerplants, one that relies solely on battery power, the other which includes a 647cc two-cylinder rear-mounted petrol engine that powers an electrical generator to charge the batteries – but does not power the vehicle.

Driving range is a major factor with electric vehicles and the battery-only i3 BEV (Battery Electric Vehicle) comes with three drive modes. For everyday driving Comfort mode allows up to 160 km from a single charge; Eco Pro adds around 20 km to the range but reduces air conditioning; and Eco Pro+ which runs minimum air con power and also sets a maximum speed of 90 km/h (which can be over-ridden if necessary) but can travel up to 200 km.


By fitting the optional range extender engine (REX) range can be increased to around 300 km again by using the Eco Pro+ mode.

The eDrive electric motor is powered by a 360-volt lithium-ion battery pack containing 96 cells within eight modules. It can generate up to 125 kW of power and 250 Nm of, instantaneous, torque that’s sent to the rear wheels. There are a number of charging options varying from 11 hours for a full charge through a standard domestic 10-amp power point; six hours via a BMW i Wallbox accessory, approximately $1750 plus installation; down to just 30 minutes at a DC fast charging station of which there are currently two in Melbourne and one in Sydney.

The tiny 650cc petrol engine, which is sourced from a BMW Motorrad scooter, is located beneath the boot floor and generates up to 28 kW of power. It can be operated manually through the BMW iDrive system, otherwise it will automatically cut in when the battery charge level drops to 18 per cent or at highway speeds. Note that the engine can only be fitted at the construction stage and not added later.


The fuel tank, which is located in the front of the car, has a capacity of just nine litres.

Styling of the i3 is quite distinctive with a sweeping rear roofline cleverly offset by a dip in the beltline at the base of the rear windows to improve outward visibility.

Being a BMW, the characteristic kidney grille was a must for the designers, although in the case of the i3 it is purely decorative with the range extender, where fitted, being cooled through a small radiator located next to the front wheels.

External visibility is further enhanced by the use of rear-hinged coach rear doors which eliminate the need for B pillars while also providing easier access (albeit through a narrow opening) to the rear seats of which, incidentally, there are only two.

Minimising weight is paramount and the i3 uses a combination of carbon-fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) and aluminium to keep the car’s weight down to 1195 kg in the BEV with the REX engine adding 125 kg.

Storage space is limited with 260 litres in the rear hatch area, expanding to 1100 litres with the 50/50 split rear seatback folded. There’s also a handy 35 litres of storage space under the bonnet at the front of the car.

Another standout feature is the wheels which although large in diameter (19- or $1000 optional 20-inch) are quite narrow to improve the car’s aerodynamics and reduce tyre drag on the road.

Three design options are available: Lodge, Loft and Suite with a choice of six colours, all two-toned with a black band running from the black bonnet across the roof to the bottom of the hatch. The Lodge is the standard design with the Loft as a no-cost option while the Suite is a $2000 option.

The BMW i Remote App allows smartphone owners to remotely display information such as range and current battery charge status as well as adjusting the temperature of the interior before entering the car.

There are two monitors located on the dashboard, a small one in front of the driver that shows relevant charging and performance information and a larger (10.3-inch) one in the centre with the normal multimedia and navigation features.

BMW chose the national capital to launch the i3 but rather than limiting the drive route to central Canberra took us on a 150-km round trip to the south of the city, exclusively in REX models.

Appropriately enough for Canberra our test car was the Lodge with a fascinating variety of interior fabrics including cloth, leather, wood and a material called PUR-Sensatec on the top of the dashboard. Together with the larger windows they provide a nice fresh and airy feel that we loved, as we did with the high driving position.

One interesting feature of the i3 is what BMW calls a “single-pedal control system”, a slightly confusing term because the car does have the normal brake and accelerator pedals. What it refers to is the regenerative braking system which slows the car so quickly when the acceleration pedal is released that it’s almost possible to drive without using the brake pedal – basically only when coming to a full stop.

The downside is that it makes it difficult to cruise on open stretches of road without having to continually work the accelerator so quickly does the car decelerate. You have to learn a new technique to use this to best advantage, but it doesn’t take long to adapt, indeed it’s quite a pleasant skill to acquire.

One note of caution for the unwary was that the absence of any engine noise often led to us travelling at significantly higher speeds than our normal perception.

The battery-only i3 BEV is priced at $63,900 with the REX range-extender costing an extra $6000. With the sprawling nature of Australian major cities we’d expect many buyers to opt for the reassurance of the little engine.

The BMW i3 will go on sale on 21 November initially through a single dealership in each of Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. Adelaide and Canberra will follow in 2015. Service will be available at other selected BMW dealers.

About Alistair Kennedy

Alistair Kennedy is Automotive News Service and Marque Publishing's business manager and the company's jack-of-all-trades. An accountant by profession, he designs the Marque range of motoring book titles, operates the company's motoring bookshop on the NSW Central Coast and the associated web site, as well as its huge digital and hard copy database. Whenever we can escape from the office he does so to cover new vehicle releases and contributes news stories. Alistair's other interests include cricket and family history on which he has written three books.
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