I've spent an entire year driving the BMW i3 Electric Car. This is a long-ish term review which is intended to reflect my experience with the car and the UK's charging infrastructure.
I spent three days a week commuting between Slough and Oxford, on a mix of motorways and quieter streets. I drove all the way to Norwich and back, and made regular trips into London.
The UK's charging infrastructure is patchy at best. At worst it is a confusing mess of incompatible standards, over-priced chargers, and woefully inadequate central planning.
The only time I had to hire a regular car was when ferrying my in-laws to the airport. The i3 is spacious - but not big enough for four adults and seven suitcases!
I'm firmly committed to EVs (electric vehicles), but my next car won't be an i3. In fact, I think it is unlikely that I'll ever drive a BMW again.
The i3 is a company car. My old employer paid for the lease, and I paid the tax on the benefit I receive. In the UK the tax rates for electric vehicles are incredibly low - so I was isolated from the capital cost of the vehicle. There are also discounts on the London congestion charge.
The i3 was stupidly expensive. It's a high-tech bit of kit, but I got tired of BMW trying to extract every extra penny out of me.
- Want a charging cable for your car? That's extra!
- Reversing camera and sensors? Extra cost!
- Adaptive Cruise Control? It's pretty nifty but you have to pay to get the entire interior upgraded just to get the steering wheel with the correct buttons.
Most other EVs come with those things as standard. BMW say that most i3 drivers are new to the BMW brand. That's certainly true in my case. But BMW's attitude to selling cars hasn't caught up with its high tech manufacturing. A bewildering array of options, hidden behind a website which barely works, each priced based on numbers plucked from thin air.
Getting the car was, frankly, a nasty experience. But it pales in comparison to the real horrors the car has in store.
Several of the i3's features fail to work.
- Adaptive Cruise Control is meant to keep your distance from the car in front. It doesn't work if the sun is too low in the sky. Like, you know, when you're commuting. It also randomly fails with an alarming "bong" noise, if the screen mists up or it starts raining. Which brings me on to...
- The automatic windscreen wipers aren't very sensitive. Maybe it doesn't rain in Germany, but in the UK wipers are a necessity. Sometimes they just wouldn't react to the buckets of rain falling onto the car. Still, at least the car is easy to park, right?
- The auto-parallel parking is... eccentric. I know I'm lazy for not parking myself, but that's why I'm paying silly money for the car. Sometimes the sensors wouldn't see the gap to park in, sometimes the car would hit the kerb, sometimes the parking would stop mid-manoeuvre. Oh well, at least the GPS gets you where you're going, eh?
- The navigation software was a disappointment. I was expecting buttery-smooth 30fps animation - but I got a shuddery mess. The interface was painful to use and updates came through a paid for USB stick. I stuck with the free Google Maps app on my phone and had a much nicer experience. Even the navigation prompts came through Bluetooth. Mostly.
- Bluetooth is too hard for BMW. I got bored with all the little niggles with the entertainment system - scroll wheels which wouldn't work, lack of cover art, random sound drop outs. Small issues, yes, but when you're paying this much for a car, you expect a better service.
- Updates are woefully delivered. There's a 3G modem in the car, but you have to update manually with yet another USB stick.
- I've detailed just how bad the i3's web browser is before - so I didn't get that particular option.
- There is a mobile app. It's slow, poorly localised, and features some truly hideous design decisions.
- It is meant to send email alerts when charging is interrupted or the battery is low. The mails are poorly designed and sometimes come hours after they would have been useful.
Luckily I never had cause to use the pedestrian detection feature, but I have severe doubts that it would have performed as intended.
The i3 is an amazing car to drive, but it is a terrible car to use.
Amazing. Seriously. It left me with a smile on my face after every drive. It is as silent as a ninja and as fast as... err... another ninja!
The steering responded to the merest touch of the wheel and the car leaped forward at the lights and left others in its dust. The i3 uses regenerative braking - as soon as you lift off the accelerator pedal, the car begins to slow down as it harvests kinetic energy to recharge the battery. Driven correctly, you should never need to touch the brake pedal.
With all that said, the ride is very stiff and bumpy. Great on motorways, but on the more dilapidated streets it feels like running in plimsolls. Maybe the average BMW owner is too rich to drive on anything but the finest surfaces?
I put 12,000 miles on the i3 in a year. Without a doubt this car is the quickest, most fun, and most pleasant drive there is.
The vast majority of my charging was done at home. With a 7kW charger fitted I was able to go from empty to full in 4 hours. Parked overnight and full in the morning. Perfect!
My employers were generous enough to install some free chargers at work. These were supplied by PodPoint and, I'm sorry to say, not very reliable. We were never sure if it was a poor installation, an incompatible car, or simply defective units - but the points would fail and leave some people limping along to the next nearest point. I was lucky - the 80 mile range of the i3 was enough to get me to work and back on a single charge.
When I started driving the i3 a year ago, there were only a few EVs in our car park - now it is full of Leafs, Outlanders, and the occasional Tesla. They're now putting in several regular plug sockets. If you're going to be at work for 8 hours, it doesn't really matter how fast your car charges, does it?
And so we come on to the sorry state of public charging. In a sensible world, councils and businesses would stick up free charging spots to encourage EVs. The cost of electricity is negligible (less than £3 to fill one up), but you could always recoup the money with a contactless credit card reader. Easy, no?
No. Instead we have a dozen incompatible charging schemes, each of which requires their own RFID card or mobile app. Got a card for charging in London? It won't work when charging in Norwich! Want £2 worth of electricity? Download our app, register, and pay £6. Plus parking costs!
That's before we get on to broken points, incompatible charging sockets, and petrol cars parking in front of the chargers. GAH!
On the plus side, the "Rapid" chargers will take the i3 from empty to 80% in 30 minutes. Frankly, after a few hours of driving, having a 30 minute mandatory break for food and rest is probably a good idea!
If you only drive within the range of your EV, it's a beautiful and stress free experience. If you have to rely on the vagaries of the UK charging network... well, you better start collecting a wide range of RFID cards and hope for the best!
I cheated and got the i3 Rex. It has a small petrol tank (9 litres) which can recharge the battery as you drive. Over the year, I think I filled it up about 6 times. Half of those were because I couldn't be bothered to wait for a charge, the rest because of charging failures.
As I change jobs, the i3 is going back. I looked at getting a replacement for my personal use - but I just couldn't justify the price. I've gone for a Renault Zoe - it's not as glamorous, but has a longer range and costs a fraction of the i3.
There are several EVs which cost less than the i3 and come with more features. Perhaps the Zoe's software won't be any better (it couldn't be any worse) - but at least I won't feel like I'm being charged a premium price for a second rate product.
The i3 is a disappointment simply because it shows so much promise. It steers itself in a traffic jam and can park itself! But you're never confident that the software won't crap out at an inconvenient time.
EVs are the future of personal driving. The cost is approaching parity with petrol cars. The range is already suitable for the majority of drivers. Charging at home and work solves most of the problems of poor infrastructure. The software is getting better all the time.
The i3 is a tantalising glimpse at what mass market EVs could be - but it falls short of glory.