- Available for £12,000
- Full electric with optional 0.6-litre petrol extender
- Six-second 0-62 time available on some models
- Standout construction methods and design
- Electrical problems in early years
- Plenty of choice on the used market
You may have missed this snippet of news, but in summer this year (2021) BMW announced that global production of its i3 electric vehicle was being discontinued, clearing the way for the iX range to become the new face of electric BMWs.
It's hard to believe that the BMW i3 made its debut at the Frankfurt motor show ten years ago and that it's now been humming around on the world's roads for eight years. The fact that it still stands out on those roads after all that time with very little in the way of changes to its distinctive look is a credit to i3 designer Richard Kim, who was also involved with the i8 coupe.
The i3 wasn't just visually progressive. No doubt with one eye on the history books, BMW went 'all in' on the design of its first zero-emissions vehicle, wrapping the i3's lithium-ion battery pack and single-gear drivetrain in an aluminium chassis - the Drive Module - to which a very light carbonfibre reinforced plastic five-door body - the Life Module - was attached.
In traditional BMW style the i3 was rear-wheel drive, but for perhaps the first time in BMW history that was of secondary importance to grooviness and sustainability. The CFRP body panels were produced in a plant in Washington state that was run entirely on hydropower. A wind farm generated all the power needed to build the rest of the i3 in Leipzig. Indeed, it generated more than enough power for that. BMW sold the excess capacity to Volkswagen.
The i3 was a pure battery electric vehicle (BEV) rather than a hybrid, with an underfloor 60Ah/22.6kWh 96-cell battery pack that was about the size of a pub pool table but somewhat heavier at 230kg. A range of 80-100 miles kept most of those first i3s off the motorways, but that was fine for multiple car-owning urbanites who were up for school transport that was cool, clean, 'premium' (i.e. not a Nissan Leaf or a Renault Zoe) and vaguely affordable (i.e. not a Tesla Model S).
For those wanting less range anxiety, all pre-2018 i3s could be had in 'range extender' (REx) guise. This model came with a 650cc twin-cylinder engine, not to turn the wheels but to put additional charge into the main drive battery, lifting the claimed range to 160-186 miles. In the UK the REx was £3,150 more expensive than the straight BEV, but it still outsold its engineless sibling by six to four.
Although BMW's reputation took much of the sting out of being an early adopter of the non-REx i3, there was strong buyer resistance in markets like the US. At the end of 2014 BMW saw fit to launch a Flexible Mobility Program which allowed Stateside i3 owners to borrow either RExs or internal combustion cars from their dealers for any longer journeys they needed to make.
In 2016 a new 94Ah/33kWh battery lifted the i3's claimed range to a little under 120 miles. A 2017 facelift brought small increases to the length and height but not to width or wheelbase. A 'sporty' i3S was released in the same year. That had a wider rear track along with 20-inch alloys, bigger tyres, and flared wheel arches. Its extra 13hp and 19lb ft of torque reduced the 0-62mph time to 6.9sec and cut appreciable chunks off the times taken to move from one commonly experienced speed to another, when joining a motorway for example.
The REx range-extender i3 was discontinued in the UK in autumn 2018 when an improved pure-electric i3 was announced. This had a new 120Ah, 42.2kWh battery, which upped the i3's real-world range to around 160 miles - or about 190 miles if you went by the new WLTP measurements (a few miles less for the i3S). That was still nearly 40 miles less than the REx's old, and admittedly less accurate, NEDC-estimated range, but it compared favourably to the 160 miles claimed for the Volkswagen e-Up and it wasn't far behind the 210 miles Vauxhall reckoned its Corsa-e would do. BMW cited the increasing availability of rapid-charging infrastructure as justification for the REx's discontinuation.
Fully charging the latest 120Ah/42.2kWh i3 from a standard three-pin plug and wall socket would take up to 20 hours but that dropped to six hours if you had a wallbox. Using a motorway services style rapid charger would give you an extra 100 miles of range in half an hour or so.
The i3 was well ahead of its time. It could, and arguably should, have been the forerunner of a modular slew of EV offshoots but for reasons best known to itself BMW chose not to proceed with that idea, leaving the i3 permanently parked up in its own railway siding to nowhere. Even so, more than 200,000 i3s have been sold in its eight-year lifecycle, making it one of the world's top ten best-selling pure EVs, and although its days are now officially numbered you'll still see them on the BMW UK new car website at prices starting at £33,805. If you don't want to risk missing out on a new one you'll have no trouble finding unregistered i3s in BMW showrooms, but these will often be specced up to something nearer to £40,000. If you try hard enough you can pay £52,000 for a fully kitted-up AC Schnitzer i3.
Against that background, £12,000 for a used i3 might sound a bit nearer the mark for the PH bargain-hunter. Cars definitely do exist at that price - but would they be a wise investment? Is there a mileage beyond which buying an old i3 will be like grabbing a stick of dynamite with only half an inch left on the lit fuse?
For our Specification panel we're going with the Range Extender model; not because we're saying it's any better or worse than the EV model - ultimately your choice of model will depend on your needs and/or your budget - but because it's got an internal combustion engine as well as an electric motor so you'll be wanting to know about any foibles that might have.
SPECIFICATION | BMW I3 RANGE EXTENDER (2013-on)
Engine: electric motor + 647cc 8v two-cylinder generator
Transmission: single-speed, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 168 (34 generator)
Torque (lb ft): 184 (41 generator)
0-62mph (secs): 7.9 (i3S 6.9)
Top speed (mph): 93 (i3S 99)
Weight (kg): 1,390
MPG (official combined): 471
CO2 (g/km): 13g/km
Wheels (in): 19
Tyres: 155/70 (f), 175/65 (r)
On sale: 2015 - now
Price new: £19,245
Price now: from £12,000
Note for reference: car weight and power data are hard to pin down with absolute certainty. For consistency, we use the same source for all our guides. We hope the data we use is right more often than it's wrong. Our advice is to treat it as relative rather than definitive.
ENGINE & GEARBOX
Within the limitations of its low top speed (93mph) the i3 was no different to most other EVs in its ability to provide fun, fast, and easy motoring. The big question was how much of that would you get before you had to plug it in for an electrical refill. The 80 miles claimed for the first non-REx i3 was doable in good conditions, but that could easily drop to under 50 in cold weather. On top of that there were well-documented i3 charging and drivetrain errors.
There was an issue with the KLE (KomfortLadeElektronik) charging componentry on both BEV and REx models. This particularly affected cars used in warmer climates but wasn't unknown in the UK. More than a few owners who took their cars in for software tweaks to put these problems right came out of the dealerships with cars that didn't charge quite as quickly as they had done before because the fix involved protecting the KLE by reducing the charging rate.
The EME (electric motor electronics) module which performed bidirectional AC-DC conversion between the battery pack and the drive motor as well as one-way DC-DC conversion between the high-voltage and 12v systems had its own issues. Around 160 i3s from early 2018 were recalled in 2019 to correct a circuit board problem in the EME which caused it to shut down main drive power, though not the 12v power needed to run things like the brakes and steering. If you were outside of warranty, it could cost you over £1,500 to fix it.
If the KLE conked out you could still charge your i3, but only at half speed. You might not always be able to pop the charging connector out of the plughole at the end of your charging session though. BMW was supposed to be sorting that out with a software update in March 2015, but it didn't work for everybody.
The standard warranty for the car was three years/unlimited mileage. For the drive battery it was eight years/100,000 miles in some markets, six years in others, but BMW reckoned that the battery should last for the life of the vehicle, which they put at around 15 years. Unfortunately, that wasn't true for some owners, who found that in a considerably shorter time than that their batteries would lose up to 25 percent of charge overnight or fail completely and require replacement.
Most but not all the battery issues were software related and fixed by BMW over time but there were other problems too, particularly in the first couple of years of production. The charge port door solenoid could fail, flagged up by a grinding noise during opening or closing. The voltage regulator for the main battery heating element could flake out. Replacing that was a battery-out job that could take two days. It should be noted that normal OBD scanners don't always pick up i3 issues. Some don't even recognise it as a car.
In Germany it was possible (in 2017 at least, which was the most recent reference we could find for this job) for your i3 battery to be updated to the then-latest 94Ah unit by a BMW dealership, but as far as we know this option was never made available to UK i3 owners. The cost of a new 94Ah pack was just over 9,000 euro including tax but not fitting, a task that would take around four hours and add about 650 euro in labour costs. Those prices included the part-exing of your old battery, so you couldn't keep it for some interesting domestic power bank use.
For the range extender engine you'd think that BMW might have chosen the flat-twin format, as per their long-running boxer motorcycles, but instead they picked an eight-valve 650cc parallel twin off their scooter shelf. This had chain-driven cams, which was good, but there have been issues with faulty injectors, lambda sensors and fuel pump relays, and dodgy tank pressure sensors which locked the fuel flap shut. That last one seemed to be happening mainly in the US where petrol could corrode the sensor, throwing a Check Engine light even if you'd never engaged the engine at any point in your ownership. BMW rectified that by retrofitting a sensor with gold-plated connectors.
Fuel tank ventilation pipes could rub against the positive battery cable. That made the i3 subject to a 19,000-car recall in 2017. The tank itself held less than two gallons but funnily enough having spent the extra on a Range Extender i3 many owners found that they hardly ever used the REx function. You can kind of understand that given the normal short-journey rationale for electric vehicle purchase.
Bearing failure on the electric motor was a thing and could result in a £4k bill for a new motor if you took it to a BMW dealer rather than Old Bert in his shed who could probably have replaced the bearing for a tenner if you didn't mind possibly invalidating your warranty.
The mounts and bolts holding the motor in place were surprisingly easy to break. Sometimes this would trigger a complete refusal to run, but not always. Some cars would continue to charge and run with broken mounts but if you heard a low buzzing noise from under the back of the car when it was charging then you almost certainly had an issue in that department and that would need attention at some point. In 2019 a typical dealer quote to replace the motor mounts was £2,500.
Less scarily, an i3 service plan including full diagnostic checks and parts replacement for electrical items was just £239 a year, reflecting the simplicity of the mechanicals if not their propensity to fail. Servicing for the understressed generator engine was equally straightforward, amounting to not much more than replacing the oil and filter every couple of years or 12,000 miles.
The MacPherson strut front, multilink rear i3 handled better than you might have thought from first sight of its gangly stance, thanks to so much of the car's weight being so low and to the lack of overall weight: an i3 was lighter than a Zoe and a lot less heavy than a Leaf.
It was a good winter car with decent traction, but the ride on motorways was rarely what you'd call calm. The i3's standard Bridgestone Ecopia tyres were unfashionably high in profile, mitigating some of the suspension's firmness on poor roads. They seemed quite puncture-prone though, which could be awkward if the hole wasn't mendable by the standard compressor and sealant kit. Replacements today are around £120 each depending on make.
The i3S model ran 10mm lower than the equivalent BEV on 20in wheels and slightly firmer suspension. There were a few reports of damage to the i3s's larger wheels.
Wonky steering swivel joints and upper suspension mounts are known i3 weaknesses. The brakes don't come in for much use on i3s because the motor does most of the stopping - almost too much in some cases, potentially causing the back end to step out on greasy roads - so the discs can corrode. So can the concepty alloys.
The i3 stands tall and boxily proud in the ranks of Marmite cars that you either love or hate. BMW came up with a new method of painting for the CFRP panels which used 70 per cent less water and 50 per cent less energy than that required for conventional steel panel painting, which was great, but body part replacement costs could be punitive. One journo unloaded his REx after being asked for £800 for a new door mirror, the old one having lost its folding and indicator functions. Apparently fitting the new one required the door to be dismantled. It is interesting to note how many damaged i3s there are floating around on eBay.
In other i3 body news, door seals perished, warnings about opened suicide doors would pop up on the 10.25-inch central display when the doors were shut, and the front storage compartment for your charging cable wasn't that good at keeping undesirable stuff out. You know how the scuttle area of your normal car gets loads of dead leaves in it? Well, that's what the front boot of many an i3 looks like in autumn. The sill-less rear boot was easy to load even if it wasn't huge at 260 litres. Flattening the rear seats extended that to 1,100 litres. LED headlamps, indicators and rear lamps were standard.
The airy, lounge-like cabin environment was a kind of antithesis to BMW's normally driver-focused cockpits. Although there was only one trim level, you did get to choose from four 'themes' - the standard Atelier, which was black and dark grey, Suite, which was dark brown, and Lodge and Light which were combinations of light and mid grey. Eucalyptus wood was available as an unusual, renewable and rather attractive trim option. Many owners have ventured the opinion that the cloth seats hold up to wear better than the leather ones.
Having said that the cabin was airy thanks to the generous acreage of glass, rear visibility past the big C-pillars and through the shallow back glass wasn't brill. Seatbelts were only provided for four passengers, and if you were tall you might feel a bit hunched in the back. Still, considering its shortness the i3 did well enough. It was nearly two feet shorter than a BMW 3 Series but had around the same amount of internal space. In respect of its surprising roominess, it was a bit like the Audi A2.
To open the rear doors you had to open the fronts first. The underfloor battery required you to hop up to seat yourself in the back. Inside you would find that all i3s had heated front seats, climate control, digital radio, cruise control and Professional sat-nav. BMW's i ConnectedDrive services factored parking, charging and range into your navigation plotting, and there was an advanced voice recognition system too, plus Apple CarPlay. You could pre-heat the cabin in winter, a neat feature as long as your commute allowed for that type of additional battery usage.
For around £1,000 you could option Parking Assistant which would squeeze the i3 into a space that was only 22 inches longer than the car, but the alloy rims were vulnerable to kerb scrape during that operation. £800 for the Driver Assistance Plus package was possibly better value as it gave you adaptive cruise (ACC) and traffic jam assist which steered and braked for you at low speeds. The only glitch there was that the ACC could get confused by road dips, bridges, the wrong kind of sunlight and so forth, triggering a sudden and potentially scary deceleration in full regenerative braking mode (which you could also dial in via Eco Pro and Eco Pro+ modes). We're not sure that BMW ever bothered to improve it.
Talking of sunlight, the large gap between the sun visors could make life difficult if your commute took you east or west at the wrong time of day. A panoramic roof was available. There were problems with the air conditioning on early cars, again mainly software related, and some heated seats stopped working.
The i3 was a bold move by BMW, and we should hail them for it, but its early years in particular were bumpy for both car and company. Your humble writer used to live next to the owner of a phase-one car and remembers it being low-loaded away for repairs on at least three occasions.
BMW dealership staff who had previously only dealt with ICE cars were suddenly being faced with a lot of wholly unfamiliar issues. In fairness most of these were on early cars, the situation improving markedly on 2015MY cars, and again on 2016MY and later examples, which resulted in a very different ownership experience. But that was no consolation to those early adopters who were exasperated by the stonewalling of their complaints.Was inadequate training to blame? Who knows. Whatever it was, the firm undoubtedly suffered some reputational damage. Again, to be fair to BMW they weren't the only manufacturer with EV difficulties. Early Nissan Leafs and Renault Zoes could and did bite their owners.
It feels like we've been putting the boot in on the i3 here, but despite all that it could still be a smart used purchase. The ones that are running around now should have had all their big issues fixed. A well sorted i3 will be cheap to run, with no VED to pay, a reasonable running cost expectation of around 4p per mile - that's before the latest big increases in power costs of course - and (we believe) an exemption from London Congestion Charge fees until at least 2025. Good battery packs from say 2015-16 have shown little sign of degradation even with nearly 50,000 miles up. Rapid charging on a car of that vintage will still give you an 80 percent charge after just 20 minutes.
The other plus point about i3s is that there is a boatload of cars to choose from. As we speak there are 180 of them on PH Classifieds, ranging from £12,000 to £37,000 for delivery mileage cars. The cheapest one as we were preparing this article was an £11,995 2014 BEV with 60,000 miles recorded. but that's now sold so presumably it came with the optional confidence generator - or at the very least lots of reassuring paperwork - that you'd like to see on an early i3.
For £500 more you could get yourself into this 2014 REx with 37,000 miles. £15,750 buys this 2016 57,000-mile car with the improved 94Ah/33kWh battery If you'd be more comfortable with low miles this 33kWh 2017 car has covered just 14,000 of them but you'll need £19,999 for it. The i3S is thinner on the ground but here's a 2018 REx in red with eucalyptus wood. It's done 45,000 miles and is priced at £22,995.
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