The biggest divide in the world of EVs isn't range, charging speed or the unfeasible lowness of 0-60mph times. Rather it's the one between sensible and extrovert. If you're a large carmaker do you try to make something reassuringly familiar, to lead existing owners gently into the electron-powered future? Or do you do something radically different to showcase your entry into this brave new era, so early-adopting buyers can show off how progressive they are?
Most manufacturers pick a side, but BMW has decided to back both horses. On the shock and awe of the balance sit the iX - which looks a bit like its design came over a fuzzy fax line from the future - to the 'pass the eye bleach' XM. The opposing camp is represented by the iX3 - an electrified X3 which Matt really quite liked - and now the new i4 which, despite its new name, shares pretty much all of its sheetmetal with the existing 4-Series GranCoupe. It's reaching the UK in both rear-driven eDrive40 and all-wheel driven M50 form, as seen here. Making it the first EV to wear an M badge, although one closer in meaning to the one on an M440i than on the M4.
Its numbers are certainly impressive. The M50 uses two motors, the one powering the rear axle rated at up to 308hp and the one up front up to 255hp - although the combined system total (available in the Sport Boost mode) is a slightly lower 537hp, accompanied by up to 586lb ft of torque. The 400V 83.9 kWh battery pack is located beneath the floorpan and gives an official range of 318 miles under WLTP, although obviously less when driven hard. Two other numbers stand out: a 2,290kg DIN kerbweight, which makes the M50 the heaviest M branded car that isn't an SUV, and an official 3.9-second 0-62mph time, which ties with the claimed time for the rear-driven M3 and M4 Competition and is just 0.4-second slower than the xDrive versions.
While impressive in isolation - and even more so when experienced on road - the acceleration figure is an obvious point of difference with the M50's most obvious competitor. While reviews of new EVs from the more traditional side of the motor industry often ignore Tesla, it would be churlish not to acknowledge the clear superiority that the three-year old Model 3 Performance possesses over this brand new rival, on paper at least. The Tesla has a 3.1-second 0-60mph time - independently verified by several test teams - plus a 162mph top speed in contrast to the i4's electronically limited 140mph. The Tesla also has a superior 340-mile WLTP range and, at £59,990, undercuts the M50's base price by a useful £3,835. (With my fully laden i4 carrying another £9,790 of options.) Being slower and more expensive than a segment's runaway bestseller is certainly a brave start.
Let's start with the basics: it is pretty good at being a BMW. I'm still no fan of the company's grille-heavy design direction, but the i4's need to have a standard-sized UK numberplate clamped in its teeth certainly helps to diminish its visual scale. The cabin features a vast central display screen, which runs up to the smaller one for the digital instruments, and BMW has followed the herd in abolishing most switchgear. The screen looks nice and the UI is mostly intuitive, but it shares the common failing of requiring eyes to be taken off the road for even basic interactions (I confidently predict that in a few years a premium carmaker will smugly reinvent the rotary heater control).
Space is good in the front, and the driving position can be set impressively low considering the underfloor battery pack. It's tight and gloomy for adults in the back - as is the GranCoupe - but there's a respectable quantity of luggage space under the rear hatchback (470 litres with seats up, 1,290 with them folded.) Despite being an EV there is no extra stowage under the bonnet, where an engine-like plastic cover sits over control gear and ancillaries.
The driving experience starts off very similar: recognisably BMW, but with a twist. At lower speeds the M50 feels very civilized, pliant suspension dealing well with urban lumps and speed bumps (the rear axle is air-spring, although the front uses steel springs.) BMW is particularly proud of the in-car soundscape created by renowned film scorer Hans Zimmer, which adapts to speed and throttle position with a noise that is somewhere between mechanical and orchestral, and which becomes louder and snarlier in Sport mode. BMW describes this as IconicSounds, although the lack of a natural source makes them seem more IronicSounds, and on my limited straw polling they seem to split opinion down the middle for those who experience them. I'm clearly a Luddite, I turned the system off after ten minutes and immediately liked the car more without it. Sorry, Hans - but The Thin Red Line remains my favourite soundtrack of all time.
The biggest criticism at lower speeds was snappy throttle reactions plus a slight but noticeable hesitation between making an input and feeling a reaction. There was much less of this in Comfort than Sport, but even in its softest modes the accelerator seemed to be trying to pack too much response into the top of its travel - a Taycan feels much more progressive. Like most big output EVs, performance is both massive and apparently effortless, the i4 projecting itself into gaps without the need to wait for gears to shift or weighty engine internals to gather pace. Even a launch control start in the full-fang Sport Boost mode didn't cause any undue drama for the P-Zero tyres, although nor did it match my memory of the almost painful G-forces created by a Model 3 Performance when I did the same thing.
To be honest, at the sort of speeds and loadings that can be experienced on road without filling the mirrors with flashing blue lights, the i4 felt a little inert. Cruising is impressively refined, the cabin's calm only disturbed by slight wind rustle from the M4-alike door mirrors. On the motorway there the sensation of a very slight secondary motion regardless of which setting the adaptive dampers were in, but once onto some of rural Hampshire's more grizzled byways the chassis maintained impressive discipline over anything I could find to throw at it. There's huge grip and crisp, slack-free steering responses - the M50's considerable mass changing direction impressively willingly - but little sense of playfulness or the claimed rear-bias of the power delivery.
Don't worry, though - I found a solution in the Dynamic Traction Control mode. Activating this requires first pressing the stability control button on the centre console, then (counter intuitively) selecting the more permissive setting through the central touchscreen. Doing this illuminates the yellow 'DSC Off' icon on the dashboard, something that is likely to put off most owners from doing it routinely, but it also make the M50 feel much more rear-endy and lively - up to allowing modest amounts of low-speed oversteer - while still intervening if things get too far out of line. Beyond that lies the option of turning the stability fully off, although the combination of electric motor torque characteristics and cold, greasy tarmac meant I left that one for another day.
Slowing down is easy, too. BMW says the M50 can regenerate energy through its motors at rates of up to 195kW, but from a driver's perspective the more impressive feature is its ability to seamlessly blend this with friction braking through an impressively normal feeling pedal. I was less keen on the faff involved in switching between variable levels of regeneration, which has to be done through a touchscreen sub-menu, and there isn't the ability to turn it fully off for those who prefer to coast. I much prefer doing this through steering wheel shifters, a feature the i4 doesn't have. It does have a pair of very obvious screw holes pretty much exactly where fingers expect to find paddles, though.
Five years ago BMW seemed to be well ahead of the chasing pack of established carmakers moving to electrify their ranges. But the funky, radical i3 and i8 struggled to sell in projected volumes, and the company decided to switch from expensive, bespoke EV platforms back to building them on its mainstream architecture. As an electric 4-Series GranCoupe the i4 is very much a product of that thinking. This is a good car, and certainly not one that feels like an insult to the M badge it carries. But, despite the hype, it's definitely not a radical one.
SPECIFICATION | BMW i4 M50
Engine: 400V Lithium-ion battery, 83.9kWh capacity, twin AC synchronous electric motors
Transmission: Single-speed, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 437 (total system, Boost mode)
Torque (lb ft): 586 (total system, Boost mode)
0-62mph: 3.9 secs
Top speed: 140mph (limited)
Range: 318 miles (WLTP)
Price: £63,825 (£76,600 as tested)
1 / 15