There’s hardly another vehicle on the road quite like the 2018 BMW i3s.
Sure, there are tech-heavy electric cars. Plenty of them, in fact, and that number continues to grow despite the seemingly endless onslaught of trucks and SUVs on American roads. The Tesla Model 3 generated the most hype of almost any new vehicle ever released, and the brilliant Chevrolet Bolt brought long-range electric driving to the masses for a palatable price (before Tesla could, it should be noted).
But the BMW i3 is the funkiest of them all, and with that little “s” added onto the nomenclature, it promises to be sportier, too. Think electric hot hatchback, if your mind will allow.
To find out if this zappy little runabout had gotten any more fun – or stayed interesting, for that matter – I borrowed one from BMW for a 6-day test in Southern California, where I put the little Bimmer through its paces on the highway and around town.
So, what does that little “s” badge add, after all? Well, the i3s gets a little lower, a little wider, the wheels get a little bigger, and it’s a decent amount more powerful. The track has been widened by 40 millimeters and the suspension lowered by 10, and the 20-inch wheels are half an inch wider than before, but still oddly tall and skinny, even for an electric vehicle. In fact, they’re narrower than those on the Toyota Prius.
Power also gets a bump of 14 horses from 170 to 184, and torque rings in at 199 lb.-ft., 15 more than the base car. The i3s also comes equipped with a Sport mode and beefed-up springs, dampers, and anti-roll bars. Sixty miles per hour comes in just 6.8 seconds, and the top speed is a nice, round 100 mph according to BMW.
The electric-only i3s has a range of only 97 miles on a full charge, but adding the optional 2-cylinder gas range extender (REX) that acts as a generator buys you an extra 83 miles for an estimated total range of 180 – much more palatable for most drivers’ daily needs. Note that if you do opt for the range extender, it bumps the zero-to-60 mph time up to 7.6 seconds, 0.4 seconds slower than the standard i3.
Regenerative braking is a big blessing, too, and kicks in every time you take your foot off the accelerator, providing a bit of a range boost in traffic. It takes some getting used to but is very intuitive after just a few miles. Going downhill on steep canyon roads, the system often added up to 5 miles to my estimated range.
Savvy shoppers will notice that the i3s gets some sporty visual flair, too, including blacked-out front and rear bumpers, wider black fender flares, and the option for gloss black wheels. Finished in bright red, my tester looked almost mean, if it weren’t for the stubby front and rear cranking up the cuteness.
The i3s’s cabin is still one of my favorites in the business since its introduction three years ago, and with the light and airy (not to mention more expensive) “Giga World” package equipped, it’s straight out of a science fiction movie. In fact, my girlfriend and trusted co-pilot likened the front seats and dashboard to Star Trek, and I couldn’t agree more.
The open-pore wood on the dashboard curves down below the floating infotainment screen for a shelf you won’t want to put anything on because it looks so cool. A small, rectangular screen behind the steering wheel conveys the most important information but looks a little half-assed compared to the rest of the interior. The column-mounted gear selector took some getting used to but is very intuitive; just twist forward for drive, back for reverse, and press a button to park. Easy-peasy.
What’s more, the i3’s interior is a testament to sustainability, as almost every inch of fabric, plastic, wood, and leather are sourced from recyclable or carbon-neutral materials. I also love the blue seatbelts, as a nice homage exclusive feature on BMW’s “i” brand of electrified vehicles.
Rear-seat headroom and legroom is decent for two adults but hard to access because of the half door design, and passengers back there complained that it was stuffy and hard to hear what was going on up front due to a lack of proper ventilation. This is an electric car, after all, so you’re likely not going to spend much time with the air conditioning on to save some precious range.
Also, the Giga World interior doesn’t quite match the exterior, and while you can have the i3s with black cloth and aluminum accents, it’s only available on the “Standard World” interior, so some higher-quality material options with a sportier look would be welcome.
At this point, I bet you’re wondering just how much sportier the i3s is over its non-s sibling, or whether it’s a veritable electric hot hatchback or not. Sadly, the answer, dear readers, is no.
Don’t get me wrong; the i3s is still a hoot to drive in certain situations. That rush of instant torque around town is a lot of fun, but loses steam above about 40 mph, and the handling is sharp enough with Sport mode engaged that you can have plenty of fun on the backroads. But there are some things this car will never be able to do that will always give a hot hatchback the edge in terms of fun, like a raspy 4-cylinder bauble or a slick manual gear change.
That sharpened suspension has its drawbacks, though, as the ride when you’re attempting to cruise leisurely is very bouncy and almost annoying because there’s no engine noise to distract you. Also, if you happen to run out of electric range and have the range extender equipped, the sound is very noticeable when it kicks in. You’ll think you’re being followed closely by a motorcycle, and the drone can get pretty annoying at highway speeds.
The charging experience leaves a lot to be desired, too, but is very dependent on where you live. Charging the i3s to 80 percent takes 4-5 hours with a Level 2 charger – the most common kind – but only 30 minutes on the less common Level 3 system.
This makes the relatively short range a bit of a pain, as I was always looking for charging stations every time I got behind the wheel. While the infrastructure in Los Angeles is plenty developed, there are lots of electric vehicles in the rest of Southern California and not many charging stations. I also ran into an issue in which the car would not charge on a regular 120V household outlet with a heavy-duty extension cord connected, so if you plan to charge at home, consider buying a Level 2 system or make sure you have an outlet right near where you park the car.
Above all, though, the most inconvenient thing about the i3s is the price. My fully loaded Giga World REX tester rang in at $58,695, including the $995 destination charge. That’s not including the $7,500 federal tax credit the i3s is eligible for, nor the various state incentives that can total thousands of dollars as well, but when all is said and done, the i3s is a very expensive small electric car with not a very large range. The Chevrolet Bolt manages 200 miles without a drop of gas to supplement it, and you can have one of those for less than $30,000 after incentives if you’re thrifty with options.
Complaints aside, the BMW i3s is a fun, funky, futuristic triumph of modern engineering and automotive sustainability. People everywhere in EV-heavy Southern California were drawn to it and loved the cute looks and wild interior. It’ll even put a smile on your face on a twisty backroad. But the drawbacks – price, low range, annoying range extender – make it worth considering other options if you can live without a blue and white roundel on your hood.
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