BMW i3 Range Extender First Drive


Tesla Model S aside, the BMW i3 is the most convincing EV out there, with superb performance and ergonomics. The addition of a refuel-able range extender allows it to shrug off the typical limitations of zero emissions cars.


The design won’t please everyone and the lack of a fifth seat will instantly alienate a portion of buyers. It’s also considerably more expensive than comparable electric cars and, with a range extender, isn’t a true green car.


The BMW i3 is the first car built by what is effectively a whole new car company. It has a carbon fiber body housing a sustainably sourced interior and a divisive ultramodern design, not to mention an electric motor in place of an internal combustion engine, all of which makes it unrecognizable next to, say, a humdrum 3 Series.

The BMW i3 is so different from anything else you’ve likely driven, in fact, that the only sensible thing to do is to go and test-drive one. Here, we’ll merely explain why you should.

BMW will sell you a pure electric version of the i3, in which you’ll manage around 80 miles driving before having to either plug it in to charge at home (taking around three hours with BMW’s £315 Wallbox charger) or find a public charging station (which can take as little as 30 minutes for a 65-mile charge).

BMW expects the vast majority of sales to be made up by the i3 Range Extender, however, which is nigh on indistinguishable from the pure electric car yet carries a two-cylinder petrol engine. That engine, fed by a nine-litre fuel tank, is hooked up to a generator than can charge the car’s lithium-ion battery while on the move. It’s an elegant solution to the early adopter’s bête noire of limited range, and gives the i3 an additional 80 miles-or-so of autonomy.

During driving you can either run down the battery to around five percent capacity, prompting the range extender to rumble into life, or you can manually select when to use it. This choice may seem unnecessary, but battery charge will go further on slower, urban routes than it will at 70mph on the motorway, so there’s reason to use ‘hold mode’ if your journey starts fast and ends slow. The faint but rough sound of the engine is also drowned out by tyre roar and wind noise at higher speeds, so using it to save battery charge means you can enjoy smooth, silent driving later on.

The BMW i3 Range Extender may be the most sustainable car the company has ever built – the carbon fiber used for the body is wrought with hydroelectric power and assembly achieved using wind power alone – but performance has not been neglected - far from it. The car’s electric motor develops 170hp, which is enough to propel the car and its 150kg petrol engine from 0 to 60mph in 7.9 seconds – a time until not long ago the preserve of hot-hatches. The lithium-ion battery is also spread along the bottom of the chassis, giving the i3 Range Extender handling alien to cars with similar MPV-esque dimensions. It is indecently fun to drive fast, chiefly because it’s silent most of the time.

It isn’t silent all of the time, though. Once fired up the range extender unit can be heard at low speeds and also when you ask a lot of it by flooring the accelerator. The slightly intrusive noise isn’t a reason to avoid buying this car, but be aware that when in range extender mode the car certainly isn’t as serene as the pure battery-electric version.

At £33,100 the BMW i3 Range Extender costs roughly £3,000 more than the purely electric i3. Both cars qualify for a £5,000 Government subsidy, however, while the former is the only car on the market to offer substantial electric range with the safety net of a fuel tank. The Vauxhall Ampera uses similar technology but can only manage 38 zero-emissions miles, and at the other end of the spectrum the upcoming Volkswagen e-Golf will manage around 85 miles with a full battery but that’s your lot. This i3 is, in many ways, the perfect compromise.

Ordering your BMW i3 with the ‘Range Extender’ box ticked certainly isn’t ideal – that would be a battery with 500 miles range of range and a 15-minute charge time - but it’s a neat solution to a so-far-unsolved problem. There may be some poetic licence at work in describing it as an electric car unencumbered by range anxiety, but right now it’s the closest thing we’ve got.


Comfort              4.5 stars

Style                  3.5 stars

Handling             4 stars

Depreciation       NA

Economy             5 stars

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