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Car tech review: BMW i3, the futuristic EV made from hemp

95 percent recyclable and with a spacious interior flooded in light

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I used to think the interiors of the Tesla Model S and Model X were the most striking and futuristic on the road. But then I revisited the BMW i3 — and feel Tesla has lost its crown.

Having received a small update at the start of this year, the i3 is BMW's electric city car aimed to rival the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model 3. While it doesn't quite have the electric range to match those two, the i3 has a trick up its sleeve — a small range-extending engine which acts as a generator when you're running lower on charge, or want to save the battery for later in your journey.

But instead of focusing on the technology under the i3's skin, I'd like to start with its sci-fi interior, which blends computer displays and high-tech controls with classic wood and even hemp. Open the doors and you can spot the car's chassis which is made from carbon fiber reinforced plastic, or CFRP for short, which makes the i3 both strong and light.

The car's use of alternative materials makes for an interesting look, but also means the it is lighter than its rivals (helping range) and BMW claims 95 percent of its components are recyclable.

The 'floating' display measures 10 inches but is not touch sensitiveGearBrain

Step inside the i3 and you are greeted by an elevated driving position and low, deep dashboard which combine to create a cabin which is incredibly light and airy for a compact car. The interior really is a lesson in what isn't there, as much as what is. For example, the two-spoke steering feels less cumbersome and chunky than a traditional three- or four-spoke alternative, simply because you can see through it more easily.

Similarly, there is no center console below the dashboard, which when combined with a flat floor and no transmission tunnel adds further to the i3's sense of space. This is also achieved by the dashboard, which swoops down in its middle and back up again behind the steering wheel. This downward swoop outlines a 10-inch infotainment display which appears to float in mid-air - and guess what? All of these details make it feel like there's loads of space in here.


It isn't all useful space - I can't see anyone storing possessions in that space beneath the floating display - but it all makes the car feel roomier than it really is. The car's spacious interior and compact exterior - plus the simplicity and quietness shared by all electric cars - make the i3 a disarming vehicle to drive. As a driver you immediately feel confident threading through traffic and parking in tight spaces. It's just...fun.

Relaxing, too. Although the wood trim of my review car was quite dark, optional lighter woods gives the i3 a Scandinavian feel that emits a sense of soothing calm with its minimalism.

Backwards-opening doors make it easier to get into the rear seatsGearBrain

Displays and infotainment

There are two displays inside the i3, replacing all conventional dials and readouts. The smaller of the two sits behind the steering wheel and displays critical information like your speed and the local speed limit (as spotted by sign-reading cameras), and above the display are lights for your indicators, fog lights, high beam etc. The majority of the display is taken up by a graphic showing whether the battery is charging or being used.

Accelerate, and the graphic swings to the 'power' side, but when you ease off, coast or brake it swings across to the other side to show the motor is harvesting energy back into the battery.

BMW normality is restored when you look at the steering wheel. Here you will find the same media and cruise control buttons as on other vehicles in the range. Being kitted out with a wide range of options, this particular i3 includes both radar-guided cruise control and a lane-keeping assistant which nudges the wheel to keep you between the white lights of the highway. There are also conventional stalks for the wipers and indicator, and a dial for the lights. The gear selector is sat at two o'clock and features an embedded start/stop button to switch the car on and off.

The gear selector is just behind the steering wheelGearBrain

The center of the dashboard is also recognisably BMW, with buttons for adjusting the radio, climate and heated seats. We can't praise BMW enough for keeping these in place and resisting the urge to follow Tesla in fitting tricky-to-use climate controls to a touch screen. We firmly believe some controls should remain physical, and hope BMW sticks to this formula going forwards.

Look down from here and ahead of the central arm rest sit the same iDrive controls as fitted to all other cars made by BMW, Mini and Rolls-Royce. This means there are dedicated buttons for quickly accessing the media, map, navigation and options screens, plus a large rotating dial which can be turned, nudged up, down, left and right, tapped, pressed and even drawn on.

All of these controls feel wonderfully natural and intuitive from the moment you sit in the car. However, as we recently said with the Mini Countryman, drawing letters on the iDrive dial's trackpad with our left hand is tricky. Right-handed drivers in countries who place the steering wheel on the left won't have this (admittedly small) problem.

The iDrive system itself is BMW's latest, with a bright and clear user interface that is easy to read at a glance and simple to navigate with the control dial and its surrounding buttons. The display is not touch sensitive, unlike in other models of BMW like the latest 5-Series, but unless you regularly need to type out addresses (which can take a little time with the dial) it's a none-issue.

BMW's latest iDrive system has a dedicated app for weatherGearBrain

The satellite navigation and media system work just as you would expect, plus there is an entire weather app - much more useful than the single, rarely accurate, temperature readout found in most cars. Another useful detail we found is how the satellite navigation map shows local fuel stations and public charging points. We were also impressed by this car's optional 12-speaker Harman Kardon sound system.

There is a cup holder ahead of the iDrive controls, a second behind, and a pair next to each other for the two rear seat passengers. Below the front central armrest there is place to store your phone and wallet, and a USB port for hooking up an iPhone to the car's optional Apple CarPlay system.


While the Tesla Model X makes getting into the back seats easier with its elaborate, slow and hugely complex falcon wing doors, the BMW i3 solves this problem in a far simpler way. The rear doors open backwards, making it easy to step into the rear seats. Of course, these are two very different cars and the Tesla can be bought with a third row of seats, but BMW's simpler approach to problem-solving deserves praise - and the doors look cool when they're all open.

That said, the rear doors cannot be opened without the front doors also being open, so you can't quickly drop someone off from the back seat without someone in front opening their door, exposing the rear door's hidden handle. Rear seat space is adequate for a car of this size, but tall adults might find the i3 uncomfortable on a long journey, and there is no middle seat.

The smaller display can be obscured by the steering wheel, depending on your seating positionGearBrain

Electric drive with range extender

The regular electric i3 works just like any other EV. It is incredibly simple to drive, yet has the instant torque and punchy zero to 40mph performance which never fails to surprise other motorists. Being a car from BMW, self-proclaimed maker of the 'ultimate driving machine', the i3 is sharp, nimble and packs a more sporty character than you might expect from a city-dwelling electric car.

Understeer is kept to a minimum despite the skinny tyres, and the car has a purposeful, slightly firm feeling to it. This is welcome when driving more enthusiastically, but around town the ride can become annoyingly hard over poor road surfaces and speed bumps.

Being the i3 with a range extender this particular car has a 650cc petrol engine next to the electric motor on the rear axle. The engine doesn't actually drive the car, but when switched on it acts as a generator to refill the batteries. The engine is so quiet and unobtrusive, I really struggled to tell when it was on. Three presses of the iDrive dial and you can quickly dig into the range extender menu, then tell the car to use its engine to maintain the battery's current state of charge.

This is useful when coming onto the highway, as sustained high speed driving is hard work for electric cars. Switch the engine on, and the i3 sips at its small gas tank to keep the battery charged and ready to be used when you reach slower roads. BMW claims 174 miles of electric range, with the engine adding a further 90, but we suspect total real-world range would be closer to 200 miles depending on how you drive.

Made with hemp, the door panels have a more interesting feel and look than traditional plasticGearBrain

Verdict

This is said a lot about car interiors, but the BMW i3 really is a lovely place to be. It is light and airy, with more space than you could imagine possible from a compact city car. When I first drove an i3 three years ago I thought the car was trying too hard to be different, but now I adore it.

The wood and alternative materials are pleasing to the eye and kinder to the environment, while the infotainment system is easy to use and the car's complex hybrid drivetrain is presented to the driver in a way which is simple to understand and get the most out of. The i3 is a fun car to drive and a remarkable lesson in interior design.

Pros:

  • Huge amount of space and light
  • iDrive system is intuitive and not distracting
  • Physical controls sit hand-in-hand with large displays

Cons:

  • Steering wheel can obstruct some of the display behind it
  • Apple CarPlay is an optional extra
  • Android Auto is not available



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