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BMW i3s electric hatch back car Portugal First Drive Review
The BMW i3s is not just smart, but also fun to drive. Read on about our experience with this electric super-hatch as we drive it through Lisbon city and at the Estoril circuit in Portugal.

In the last three years since its launch, the BMW i3 has made its mark as a practical, modern and premium electric hatchback, and has many things going for it. But it seems to have missed out on the most vital aspect — that of being an exciting car to drive. For a company that takes the thrill of driving very seriously (refer to our BMW M5 story in this issue), this is a big deal. And in an age when smartphones become obsolete within a few months, it was time the i3 was upgraded to version 2.0.
BMW i3s electric hatch back car Portugal First Drive Review

And here it is — in the ‘i3s’ avatar. The ‘s’ prefix boasts of sportier performance, which is one of the main reasons people buy a Beemer over the competition. Compared to its predecessor, the i3s is 10 millimetres lower now, thanks to the Sport suspension, has a 40-mm wider track and its larger 20-inch wheels housed in bulging wheel-arches. As you can guess, these tweaks have changed the way it rides and handles.

Clearly, the focus is on performance. That’s why the electric motor makes additional 13 PS and 20 Nm as compared to the regular i3. It continues to rely on the 33 kWh battery but, when it comes to India, it will additionally get a 38-PS, 647-cc twin-cylinder range-extender. This means, if the battery drains out, the car can still be driven, using the combustion engine. The configuration hasn’t changed, and the electric motor and the conventional engine are positioned at the back of the car and they power the rear wheels. The car I drove in Portugal didn’t feature the range-extender and since the route was selected by BMW, they had ensured there were plenty of charging stations en route, just in case. We drove the zippy little car around the various course setup at the Estoril circuit before driving it straight back to the airport. Surely, this exercise helped flaunt the EV’s new found multifaceted personality.
BMW i3s electric hatch back car Portugal First Drive Review

When it comes to driving electric cars, the experience is very different compared to their conventional cousins. You can’t hear the engine crank up or idle, there are no grunts or vibrations from the motor when you accelerate, and there’s just no lag in the power delivery. All you get is a spinning motor’s whizzing sound, which for some reason reminds me of a washing machine. There’s no drama, no emotion, no thrill — just plain, simple power on demand which at best is just about adequate.

The i3s isn’t just another electric hatch but a BMW. So, although it has most of these traits, it was clearly more eager to go fast, which I realised the moment I stepped on the accelerator pedal. That’s why I had to be gentler on the ‘gas’ as I eased it out of the basement parking and headed for the motorway. The suspension has also been tweaked, along with the steering system, and now with the larger wheels offered excellent grip as we bolted through the highway.

The performance was impressive for an electric hatchback, with the motor doling out power in a linear fashion. More importantly, the electric motor supplies a strong surge of torque right from go which makes the drive even more enjoyable. This hatch doesn’t shy away from reaching three-digit speeds and feels surprisingly quick to hit the ton. BMW claim a 0-100 km/h time of 6.9 seconds and the i3s felt eager to match that time.
BMW i3s electric hatch back car Portugal First Drive Review

The mid-way coffee stop was a scenic location overseeing the bay, where BMW explained how they have taken over the responsibility to remove the waste plastic material disposed in the sea and reuse it in making car parts such as the i3s’ door-panels. A big thumbs-up for this initiative. The cabin of this car still has a spunky layout and uses interesting materials and unusual design. And our test car also featured the latest infotainment system along with a 10.3-inch colour display.

In spite of being sub-four metre, the cabin feels airy with great visibility and the layout is chic and not the usual subdued BMW affair. The designers have smartly utilised the small cabin space and given it great ergonomics. Being a tall car, ingress and egress are easy, the smaller rear doors opens in Rolls-Royce like ‘suicide-door’ style, and there’s a decent 260 litres of boot space too.

BMW i3s electric hatch back car Portugal First Drive Review

You hardly associate excitement with small electric cars, but I confess that the puny i3s is fun to drive, much to my amazement. It can hold three-digit speeds for kilometres at a stretch, and it was amusing to overtake many conventional cars.

Soon I realised that it’s not a good idea to drive electric cars at such speeds for long durations. My enthusiastic driving had made the 280-km full charged range drastically drop down to 160 km. I decided to reduce the speed to around 80 km/h and play around with the car’s adaptive cruise control where it follows the car in front, maintaining a safe distance, slowing down with it in traffic and speeding up again when the roads open up.

BMW i3s electric hatch back car Portugal First Drive Review

With this I could stretch my legs and not worry too much about the accelerator and brake pedals. While manoeuvring, I also stumbled upon the lane assist system which ensures the car sticks between the two white lines of the lane it is in. So I didn’t even need to steer the car. The electric machine had taken over the i3s, and all I needed to do was keep my hand gently on the steering to pacify the car’s sensors as it undertook the task of autonomous driving.

In exactly 60 seconds, I almost dozed off, so I got back on the gas and overtook everything in sight and enjoyed the remaining motorway and the car’s nimble handling as it cut through traffic and held its line through fast sweeping turns. Taking an exit towards the city centre, we entered the i3s’ true habitat. It’s compact proportions, miniscule turning radius and terrific visibility make it perfect for this environment.
BMW i3s electric hatch back car Portugal First Drive Review

The large wheels with low-profile tyres and taut suspension of the i3s do hamper the ride and concrete road joints can be felt through the cabin. It’s a trade-off that BMW have made to reduce the body-roll of this tall car.

The i3s breaks away from the cliché ‘dull to drive’ notion most EVs are branded with, as this peppy little hatch is engaging and enjoyable to drive. More importantly, the BMW i3s was unveiled at the 2018 Auto Expo and hopefully will be launched in India later this year.

 

About the author: Sarmad Kadiri

 

 

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