A few days ago I had the chance to try the BMW i3 as a change from my usual LEAF. I needed an office pool car for an airport trip and the i3 happened to be available. I had it over the weekend as well as for the return trip to Heathrow – long enough to make some sensible comparisons.
As it turned out, most of my preconceptions – good and bad – were confirmed. The i3 certainly drives better than the LEAF; in addition to the obvious difference in power output, I was impressed by the BMW’s sharper steering and lower body roll – due, no doubt, to the lightweight carbon-fibre reinforced plastic body. I also liked the powerful regeneration, which allowed me to bring the car to a complete stop on occasions without touching the brakes.
Exterior styling is hardly a strength of the LEAF, but to my mind the i3 is just ‘plug’ ugly. By contrast the light and airy cabin made a refreshing change from the gloom of the Nissan’s all-black cabin, and the interior fit & finish were in a different league from the LEAF. The I-Drive rotary controller – now with touchpad – is easy to use with a bit of practice, though in most respects I’d still prefer a touch-screen interface; just not one as uniformly awful as that in the (2015) LEAF! The i3’s big central LCD panel makes navigating a breeze, though the spoken instructions left a lot to be desired. The small rectangular panel in front of the steering wheel, on the other hand, looks to me just gimmicky. To my surprise I found that some of the indications were less clear than in the LEAF – particularly the power/regen meter.
On the vital question of range the i3 gets a mixed report. This car had the optional range extender which can be a lifesaver – even if I do prefer the purity and simplicity of all-electric drive. So, while the battery range was notably poorer than the LEAF, I was able to aim for a charging station that lay just beyond it with equanimity. For as long as rapid chargers remain too far apart for comfort, I’d opt for the REx if I were buying an i3. I had expected the charge connectors to be easier to use than they are in the LEAF, but I was disappointed. The two plastic covers that lie behind the charge port door are fiddly to use and dangle untidily while the car is on charge. Never thought the LEAF would win that one!
Would I prefer an i3 to the LEAF? In some respects yes, but I’m afraid for me the day-to-day practicality of the BMW lets it down. The novel rear doors are awkward to use, and – crucially – require the front door to be opened first; this makes dropping off and picking up of rear passengers just as awkward as in a two-door vehicle. Four seats instead of five is a big restriction and the tiny boot space limits the use of the i3 even further. That said, if you don’t need a family car it would be fine most of the time.
You have to admire BMW for eschewing convention, but sometimes convention has evolved for good reason!