Despite what my son first thought, the BMW i3 REX has absolutely nothing in common with dinosaurs. It may share a surname with the Tyrannosaurus but where the extinct dinosaur is firmly rooted in the past the BMW i3 is most certainly looking to the future.
REX actually stands for Range Extender and it is this that allows the i3 to combat one of the biggest fears of electric cars – range anxiety. Tucked away inside the i3 is a little petrol-powered generator and, despite having a tiny 9-litre fuel tank, it can add up to 86 miles to the 100 mile range of the i3’s battery pack. So now you have a useful range of 186 miles, but with the added bonus that you can stop and refill that little tank as frequently as you want.
Yes, it’s a bit of a compromise, but it’s one that makes the i3 a far more realistic proposition for a lot of drivers. Battery power for most journeys or boost the range with a bit of unleaded if you want to travel further.
Where companies like Renault and Nissan have tried to make their Zoe and Leaf electric cars look like ordinary motors, BMW has taken the exact opposite approach. The i3, and the electric-hybrid i8 supercar, look like they’ve been taken from the set of a sci-fi film.
The i3’s styling is different, almost odd in some ways, but it certainly stands out. It sits tall and narrow on 19-inch wheels that seem almost comically narrow with their 155/70 profile, and yet its layout is very clever. The battery pack sits at the bottom of the carbon-fibre reinforced plastic shell, leaving plenty of space for passengers and luggage above. The short front and rear overhangs mean that the cabin occupies almost all of the i3’s 2,570mm wheelbase.
Open the doors, making note of the ‘suicide’ rear doors and absence of a B-pillar, and you find that it’s a wonderfully bright place to sit too. Large windows and a glass roof mean that passengers can gaze around at the trees and fields as you cruise silently by on battery power.
The high-tech exterior is mirrored in the interior. There are no less than 3 digital displays, including the large, wide central display that presents information about the i3’s status and energy use. There’s a plethora of menus and settings to play with, all fitting in with the futuristic theme.
While the i3 is a complex animal, actually driving one is astonishingly simple. Press the Start button, engage ‘D’ using the chunky control stalk next to the steering wheel and squeeze the throttle. The electric handbrake releases automatically and you edge away in silence. It’s serene, peaceful, relaxing.
Even when the battery pack is almost totally drained (as it was when I set off on my short drive) you can still cruise on electric power but progress is accompanied by a discrete rumble from the REX generator. It works by topping up the battery or, if you prefer, keeping it at its current charge level and providing enough power to the electric motor to satisfy your throttle inputs.
Lift off the throttle and you can really feel the energy recovery system slowing the car down. The level of braking effect can be adjusted but in its keenest setting you’ll rarely need to touch the brakes. The system will bring you to a smooth halt while siphoning electrical energy into the batteries. Don’t worry, it does apply the brake light in these situations!
The i3 may be billed as an eco-warrior but that doesn’t mean it’s slow. Put your foot down and it accelerates at speeds to keep most hot hatch drivers nervously checking their rear-view mirrors (0-62mph takes just 7.2 seconds and, rumour has it the i3 is quicker to 30mph than a M3). Not only is the acceleration a surprise, but you’ll also find that you’re travelling more quickly than you thought as your senses adjust to the lack of high-revving engine noises. Then you arrive at a corner, turn in and find that the i3 feels incredibly secure, helped by the low centre of gravity.
A New Level
My short drive didn’t allow me to test the i3’s range but from first impressions alone it’s clear that this is set to take the electric car to a new level. It’s going to win a lot of new converts to the cause – those looking for something a bit different, nervous buyers looking for more range than rivals, company car drivers looking for a lower tax bill, tree-huggers looking to save the planet from evil CO2 emissions, and even tech-fans looking for the latest gadget. Quite rightly so – the i3 is a fantastic piece of design and technology.
BMW i3 REX Specs
|Performance & Economy|
|Engine||Electric motor with petrol-powered range extender|
|Transmission||1-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive|
|Power (PS / bhp)||169 / 167|
|Torque (Nm / lb.ft)||250 / 184|
|0 - 62 mph (seconds)||7.8|
|Top Speed (mph)||93|
|CO2 Emissions (g/km)||13|
|Combined Economy (mpg)||470.8|
|Kerb Weight (kg)||1,315|