Test drive: Upgraded BMW i3 goes the extra mile

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Increased battery density gives the upgraded BMW i3 a real world range of 200 km(Credit: Noel McKeegan/New Atlas)

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BMW signaled it was serious about getting into the electric game back in 2013 with the launch of the i3, and the company hasn't been idle since then. Along with the glorious i8 supercar, hybrid models such as the 330e and X5 XDrive40e have joined the company's line-up and now the i3 itself has been given an upgrade – an upgrade that adds a whopping 50 percent more range. We hit the road for a closer look at the new BMW i3 94-Ah model.

Having lived here before, there was something quite familiar about piloting the new i3 through the busy streets of Melbourne ... but it wasn't just the scenery. This is essentially the same car that we drove back in 2014; the same zippy performance, direct handling, brilliantly tight turning circle, high driving position, roomy cabin, skinny wheels and slightly rigid ride that's a little unforgiving over bumps. Tastefully styled and packed with driver assist technology, it's a car that's very easy to get on with – you don't even need to touch the brake pedal most of the time.

The big difference here is under your feet.

The 60-Ah model, which is still part of the range, has a 21.6-kWh high-voltage, lithium-ion battery (18.8 kWh usable). That figure jumps to 33.2 kWh (27.2 kWh usable) for the 94-Ah model. This is achieved through an increase in density courtesy of engineers at Samsung SDI, who have crammed more electrolytes into a battery pack of the same physical size. This delivers a new real world range figure of 200 km (124 mi) compared to 130 km (81 mi) for the 60-Ah model.

The "real world" figures quoted by BMW take into account normal driving and use of auxiliary systems like infotainment and air conditioning ... and refreshingly, they are real. Through a variety of urban driving environments, including a brief freeway stint, the range figures held up during our test drive, and one suspects that you could easily coax out more distance and meet the "up to 245 km (152 mi)" quoted in the official spec sheet ... in our defense, it was hot ... and tapping into that instant torque is just too much fun.

NEDC figures put the range of the car at 310 km (193 mi), but as was noted at yesterday's launch, you might need to start at the top of the Swiss Alps with a tail-wind and a blanket to keep you warm to get that kind of result.

That 200-km range represents well over a week of commuting to and from work for most people, so it makes the all-electric i3 a far more practical proposition. There's still a range extender (REX) version that uses a 650 cc two-cylinder petrol engine as a generator to recharge the batteries, adding 130 km to the range. The REX version has made up 70 percent of sales in Australia so far, but with the release of the 94 Ah, BMW expects to sell fewer of these and more of the battery only model given the reduction in range anxiety.

Performance wise, the upgraded i3 is basically on a par with the original. The motor produces the same 125 kW (170 hp) and 250 Nm (184 lb-ft) of torque and is mated to a single-speed transmission. The beefed-up battery does add a few pounds, resulting in a curb weight of 1,245 kg (2,745 lb) and making the 94-Ah model a tenth of a second slower for 0-100 km/h (0-62 mph), though the difference between 7.2 and 7.3 seconds isn't something you are likely to notice. More telling is the 30-70 km/h (19-43 mph) acceleration time of 2.6 seconds. This is where "zippy" comes in. Pulling away from the lights or getting in a better position to safely merge is made much easier by that punch from low to medium speed.

As we discussed in our first i3 review, the speed-variable regenerative braking does take some getting used to, as it pulls up quite sharply at low speed (sensibly, the brake lights come on automatically in this scenario), but once you've got the hang of it, the brakes can be left alone much of the time.

Handling is sharp and vision is good from your relatively elevated perch, something that's backed-up by ample screen real estate on the dash and a crystal-clear rear-view camera shot. Said perch does need to be manually adjusted, but with its solid, easily navigated infotainment suite and driver assist technologies like automatic parking, there aren't too many other aspects of the i3 where you'll see an analog approach.

The cabin is spacious and also feels spacious, a fact helped by the flat floor and big gap between the driver and the front windscreen. At 6-feet tall I still had headroom in the back, though leg room was a little tight. Woolen cloth, wooden trim and mix of renewable and recyclable materials feature throughout, with some new combinations added for the upgraded model. On the outside, the striking Protonic Blue paint job featured in the i8 hybrid supercar is now being offered on the i3.

Zero to 80 percent charging times for the i3 94 Ah are specced at around 14 hrs for a standard socket, 8 hours if you have the BMW iWallbox installed, 4 hours for a ChargePoint public station and 40 minutes via DC charger – if you can find one. Interestingly, the DC charger is now standard equipment, so BMW is anticipating the rollout of more DC charging infrastructure. Fingers crossed on that one.

If you do the math on electricity prices in this neck of the woods, this translates to around $5 per charge, which coupled with a 200 km range makes it about one third the cost of a gasoline-powered vehicle – before you start taking into account reduced maintenance costs.

So the verdict here is pretty clear. The upgraded BMW i3 represents a significant leap ahead based on the single biggest concern most people have about electric cars – how far you can drive before running out of juice. It's also part of a broader EV juggernaut that is really just starting to gain momentum. While the i-range represents only 1 percent of BMW's sales globally at the moment, the company expects that electric and hybrid cars will overtake internal combustion engine vehicle sales in 2040. Gas-guzzlers are an endangered species, and the i3 is another – rather stylish – nail in their coffin.

The BMW i3 (94 Ah) starts at AU$65,900 in Australia, while the range extender model is $71,900 (US$43,600 and $47,450 respectively in America). The 60 Ah model is still available, starting at AU$63,900 or US$42,400.

Product pages: BMW Australia, BMW USA

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