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Road Tests

BMW i3 'range Extender', motoring review: This car is an electric dream


Price: from £28,830
Engine: Electric, 170bhp; petrol, 37bhp
Transmission: Single-speed, clutchless, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 93mph, 0-62 in 7.9 secs, CO2 13g/km
Range: approx 90 miles electric only, 180 miles total

This I had not expected. I am lined up next to a V8-engined BMW M3, 420bhp about to burst forth into its rear wheels, as we wait to be flagged off on a sprint along the longest straight at Brands Hatch. I am in a BMW of a different letter but the same number, an i3. My car is a piece of electric-powered, urban-cool futurism. So what can possibly be the point? To see an i3 on a racetrack seems entirely irrelevant, given that it's all about sustainable transport, zero emissions, intricate schemes gaining you favoured access to charging points, parking spaces. Then the flag drops.

Perhaps the BMW-employed M3 driver isn't trying as hard as he should, but the fact is, the halo-wearing i3 takes off like it's been given an electric shock and all but keeps station with the M3 up to 50mph or so. And it makes practically no noise in the process.

Electric cars are worthy creations, and to be encouraged for the benefit of the planet. But so far they have not been able to go very far without needing a time-consuming recharge. They also tend to be heavy and not very thrilling to drive.

The i3 is different, and might represent the electric watershed. How? For an electric car, it's light: 1,195kg, or 1,315kg for the range-extender version; it makes the most of an electric motor's ability to deliver a punch of power as soon as you press the accelerator; unlike with some rivals, batteries are included in the price; and it looks brilliant.

It sits quite high, for a start, on 19in wheels shod with skinny tyres. Artful flashes of black and blue suggest technical nonconformity, as does the curious rift-valley drop in the waistline as it passes through the rear-hinged rear doors. With all doors open, there's wide, unobstructed access to a roomy cabin, with no central pillars. The interior fittings are lightweight but solid and of good quality, while the floor is flat and the rear seats fold down.

If your i3 has just the 170bhp electric motor, mounted under the rear floor, it will typically go 100 miles before needing a recharge. This lighter i3 will also hit 62mph in just 7.2 seconds. If you have the range-extender version, which adds a 647cc, 37bhp engine that powers a generator to help recharge the battery pack, you'll be able to drive for maybe 180 miles.

The range-extender i3 goes 470.8mpg with 13g/km CO2, but unlike a Vauxhall Ampera, a range-extender with a much bigger engine, you will always have to plug your i3 into the mains when the range is used up. The extra weight also dulls the pace slightly, but it still does a very punchy 7.9 seconds to 62mph.

Perhaps the best thing about the i3, though, is that it's thoroughly good fun to drive once you've learnt its ways. It squirts through traffic with a mere flex of the right ankle, and slows down almost as vigorously when you take your foot off the accelerator to trigger the regenerative braking (and the brake lights). The brake pedal itself is used rarely, but you have to be careful to ease the accelerator precisely when slowing because there's none of the sense of momentum of a normal car.

Beyond that, it steers, rides and handles corners as you would expect of a small BMW, and the pleasure of driving it dismisses notions of self-sacrificing piety. If this is the future, it's fine by me.