Tesla currently has open slather on the fledgling premium EV segment in the UAE, but that won’t be the case forever as the German heavyweight brands are set to embark on electric-vehicle onslaughts of their own. BMW alone plans to have 12 full-electric models on the international market by 2025, having already been a purveyor of EVs since the 2013 launch of its mould-breaking i3 hatchback.
The i3 has notched up healthy sales in Europe and the US since its inception, and it was formerly the third-best-selling EV in the world. This battery-powered baby BeeEm is now on track to be sold in our market — better late than never — and this wheels scribe got a taste of what’s in store via a brief road test of the quirky commuter in Los Angeles.
The car we tested was an i3s and, as you’d expect, the ‘s’ suffix denotes a sportier setup than the standard i3, as it comes equipped with lower (by 10m) and firmer suspension, wider (by 40mm) front and rear tracks, a chunky 20in wheel/tyre package and a more potent powertrain. The i3s’s rear-mounted electric motor pumps out a robust 181bhp and 270Nm, and the best part is that the full quota of torque is on tap from 0rpm. As you’d expect, this makes for lively off-the-mark performance, with BMW quoting a 0-100kph split of 6.9sec. It feels every bit that quick in the real world, and the best part is the instant surge you get when flatten the throttle at, say, 30kph. Great for nipping into gaps in traffic.
There’s obviously no exhaust note or sensation of rising revs in the i3s but, after a few kays on the road, you forget you’re in an electric car. The only bit that takes some getting used to is the instant deceleration that occurs — as kinetic energy is converted to charge — when you lift off the throttle. The car we tested was fitted with the optional range-extender, which is a 650cc two-cylinder petrol engine adapted from a BMW scooter that — rather than driving the wheels — acts purely as a generator for the electric motor when battery charge runs low.
BMW quotes a touring range of 270km for the i3s (without the range extender), but it’s more realistic to count on covering about 200 kays on a fully charged battery. In other words, there’s enough juice there for a day of inner-city commuting, but probably not enough for a return trip from Dubai to Abu Dhabi without at least a brief recharge along the way.
It only takes a solitary glance at the i3s to glean that isn’t packaged like a conventional B-segment hatchback. It has an ultra-stubby bonnet, tallboy stance and clamshell rear doors with an unusual curved window line. As is the electric-car norm, the weighty battery pack is tucked under the floor of the passenger cell – out of harm’s way in a crash and contributing to a low centre of gravity. The sizable mass of the battery pack is offset by an internal structure and body made of lightweight carbonfire-reinforced plastic (CFRP), which means the i3s tips the scales at a sprightly 1,265kg.
BMW doesn’t make any claims of the i3s being a hot-hatch, but there’s still a smile-inducing zippiness to its demeanour and a spirited squirt across Mulholland Drive — winding up the Hollywood Hills — proved far more entertaining than anticipated. The wider footprint and beefed-up suspension of the ‘s’ means it has a lot more grip and poise than the standard i3, so you can hustle it along at a decent clip. That said, battery charge gets rapidly depleted if you have a heavy throttle foot, so this is something to keep in mind.
Although handling is tidy, the i3’s steering feels strangely artificial. There’s no sense of connection between the tiller and front wheels — it’s almost as though you’re driving the car by remote control. You get past this disconnect after a period of familiarisation, but it dilutes the driving experience in what is otherwise quite an enjoyable little car to carve up twisty roads in. Ride quality is jarring across broken tarmac on the 20in rims and low-profile rubber, and this chink in the armour was exposed across some patchy bitumen in Los Angeles. That said, roads are generally billiard-table-smooth in the UAE, so that won’t be such an issue around here.
The BeeEm’s interior feels far more spacious than you’d expect of a such a diminutive car, and that’s one of the packaging benefits of an EV — the absence of a combustion engine up front means you can plonk a large cabin atop a compact chassis. The quality of trim materials inside is far better than the norm for a B-segment hatchback but, of course, the i3s is no bargain-basement special with an anticipated starting price around the Dh180k mark.
The i3s is generally an easy car to navigate through traffic with, but the wing mirrors are too small, so you need to have an extra-thorough scan during lane-change manoeuvres. Other than this, the battery-powered Bavarian is a fun, fool-proof runabout that shows EVs needn’t be boring. If only it weren’t so pricey.