BMW i3S — The BMW Version of the i3?

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BMW i3S (red, left) vs regular BMW i3 (blue, right)

I was really happy to get the opportunity to try out the new i3S on my recent trip to the US (many thanks, BMW USA!), as it would give me an opportunity to compare it to the standard i3 I had last year. After I thrashed drove it around New York on a separate road trip and then returned it to BMW, the car left me so “saudades” (a Portuguese word meaning: “missing you like the desert needs rain, like a town needs a name”). It was the most fun I ever had with an EV (until this year, that is).

But the thing that struck me most with the BMW EV, was that it was so … un-BMW.

That was great for me, because I’m not a fan of the current crop of the brand’s regular models, and I wasn’t the only one, as the un-BMW-ness of the i3 translated into a large conquest sales rate. Many i3 buyers previously had never considered themselves a BMW kind of person (insert BMW owner stereotypes here), but then went for the i3.

On the other hand, the majority of BMW loyalists shunned the little hatch for being too much of a … “weirdmobile.” (Where’s the noise? Where the size? Where’s the [ insert stereotypical ICE-addict complaints]?)

With that in mind, for 2018, BMW revised the front end of the car, giving it a small facelift and, most importantly, a new version, the i3S.

While it wasn’t the full “M” treatment (btw, an i8 M would be one badass smf), the “S” treatment the i3 got also has a lineage within the brand (see 320/325is, etc), so I was wondering if adding an “S” to the i3 would make it more palatable for hardcore BMW fans.

Let’s see if my experience with it helps us to find out.

Day 1

Angry as always, even after the facelift

After a delayed landing in San Francisco (SFO), we got the bad news — our loaner, a red i3S, had the battery completely discharged. After initial moments of frustration, I was thankful that this unit had the range extender (REx), as we were late for dinner and couldn’t afford to wait half an hour at a fast charger, so we headed to San Jose running on gas.

The range extender worked both as a blessing — because it allowed us to travel without wasting any time — but also as a curse — because of the annoying noise of the scooter-like engine in the back, ruining the Zen-like electric experience.

Anyway, our BMW behaved admirably during the terrible rush-hour traffic. (Are there non-rush hours in the San Francisco metro area?) Thanks to the instant torque (with perfect traction control), small size, and direct handling, it was a doddle to sneak into the faster lanes, which weren’t always the HOV lanes. That was something that surprised me — already too many HOV users? The use of HOV lanes was one of the most advertised EV perks in California for years.

Day 2

Napa winery

Traveling to Napa Valley allowed us to better explore the potential of the i3S, as well as its range (131 miles in EV mode). The i3 seemed more stable and planted on the road than last year, but I also got the feeling that the suspension was less compliant to absorb road irregularities, although it could just be the case that Californian roads are in worse shape than the ones in New England.

The tight turning circle was certainly as good as last year. In alliance with the small footprint, that makes this car brilliant in maneuvers.

One good thing about this part of California is that the charging infrastructure is dense enough for one to not worry about range, with available fast-chargers throughout the trip and in Napa too. Not that I was worried — after all, we always had a safety net called “Range Extender.”

Day 3

Going to the coastal town of Santa Cruz through winding roads, we had the chance to really try “Sport” mode, something unique to the “S.” While one can tell the differences over the standard “Comfort” mode, especially with acceleration, it does not change the character of the vehicle, adding just a little extra spice to what is already a warm hatch.

And that’s the thing with this version of the i3 — while it does improve what is already a good recipe, those changes (more power, better road handling, a few design goodies) are incremental and do not change significantly the overall character of the car. So, while the i3 remains my favorite small EV, and the “S” is now its most desirable version, I guess for most of the brand addicts, it is still not “BMW enough” to sit alongside the 330i and other popular nameplates.

As for the EV audience, while the badge and unique design continue to gather customers, once you start to factor price into the equation, the BMW starts to look overpriced. When compared to much cheaper competition that have double the range and comparable levels of space and performance (Chevy Bolt, Hyundai Kona EV…), as well as the similarly priced Tesla Model 3, it just has a hard time finding a high number of buyers.

With the recently announced 42 kWh version closing the range gap compared to the competition, it was a disappointment that BMW hasn’t increased the power output of the “S” version to some 250 hp. That would make the little hatch much more competitive in the all-important aspect of performance (and important category for BMW). It could then recover the lead over the 200 hp of the Bolt and Kona EV at least.

The i3S pros:

  • Unrivaled city driving, made even better with the “S” version;
  • Freeway driving benefits from the “S” treatment;
  • Interior still as unique and fresh as ever;
  • Range extender can be a life saver.

… and cons:

  • Small range, considering the price;
  • Multimedia system lags compared to others;
  • Although itself useful, the range extender has a scooter-like gas engine noise that spoils the EV experience.

12 stalls at this particular charging station (Cupertino)

California Charging Infrastructure …

Silicon Valley and the surrounding area have decent EV infrastructure, as ChargePoint and EVGo race to have the highest number of stations available. This limits “range anxiety” of local EV drivers, with some stations already offering a large number of plugs.

Interestingly, we didn’t see many EVs charging, despite the high, almost Norway-like, number of plugins on the road, which made us think that most people charge at home most of the time.

… And EV Fauna

Plugins are pretty common in the areas we visited, and with lots of models to choose from. We saw several compliance vehicles that I had previously only seen in pictures, like the Honda Fit EV and Toyota RAV4 EV.

Teslas are of course more prevalent than vehicles from other brands, with the Model 3 now being so common that they are already part of the landscape. Considering the number of trucks filled with Model 3s circulating at the time we were there, I guess this trend will increase even much further in coming months.

It seemed that the i3 (and the occasional i8) were concentrated in the most affluent residential areas, which is not surprising, as in those neighborhoods design and the right badge win over more mundane things, like price.

Outside Silicon Valley, besides Tesla, the Volt and Leaf were the most spotted EVs, with the Nissan product losing popularity as we drifted further from urban areas.

All images credit: Jose Pontes for CleanTechnica

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José Pontes

Always interested in the auto industry, particularly in electric cars, Jose has been overviewed the sales evolution of plug-ins on the EV Sales blog, allowing him to gain an expert view on where EVs are right now and where they are headed in the future. The EV Sales blog has become a go-to source for people interested in electric car sales around the world. Extending that work and expertise, Jose is also market analyst on EV-Volumes and works with the European Alternative Fuels Observatory on EV sales matters.

José Pontes has 481 posts and counting. See all posts by José Pontes