Up until now, most automakers hawking electric vehicles, especially in the compact segment, have made driving range the juiciest upgrade available to potential buyers. BMW, however, has chosen a different tack by promising more smiles per mile, rather than miles per charge, with the latest iteration of its entry-level EV, the i3s.
Engine: Single electric motor
Output: 184 hp, 199 lb-ft of torque
Transmission: Single-speed direct drive
Weight: 2,948 lb (1,340 kg)
Battery Range: Up to 125 miles (200 km)
US Price: $48,645
CAN Price: $52,350
(all prices include destination fees)
BMW fans will be happy to note the return of the ‘s’ badge on the back of the i3’s hatch, a nod to the not-so-distant performance past from our modern era where another (capitalized) consonant – M – has all but displaced it from the order sheet. It’s an indication that the 2018 BMW i3s isn’t intended as a hardcore corner carver like a traditional M car, nor a valet station accessory like the M Sport models. Rather, it’s an effort to deliver a quicker and more engaging version of an already well-tuned chassis.
Did I just use the term “engaging” to describe an electric automobile? You’d better get used to it, as EVs are here to stay and there’s no reason to expect engineers to abandon the concept of fun when designing more whimsical versions of battery-powered vehicles. The BMW i3s isn’t intended to one-up the standard i3 at the charging station, but rather beat it from light-to-light in a drag race while also holding its own much more effectively should a sudden slalom present itself mid-intersection.
This newly fleet-of-foot attitude has been made possible through several adjustments to the electric car’s platform. Although the vehicle’s battery size remains the same as that found in the top-tier i3 (94 ampere hours/33 kWh, with last year’s 60 ampere hour option erased but the range-extending gas generator is still available), output from the electric motor jumps to 184 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque thanks to a new controller system. This boost of 14 ponies and about 15 lb-ft of twist is only part of the story, as the motor itself has been given taper roller bearings intended to improve how the i3s behaves at higher rpm — a decision punctuated by the 6 mph (10 km/h) increase in its top speed versus the base i3 (100 mph versus 94 mph). In a straight line, the s also enjoys a 0.4-second advantage in the sprint to 62 mph (100 km/h), clocking in at 6.8 seconds.
ALSO SEE: 2018 BMW M5 First Drive Review
If you thought the new BMW i3s also looked a bit chunkier than its predecessor, you’re right, as the car features somewhat flared bodywork in order to maintain modesty over its 40-millimeter wider track. This, in combination with a 10-mm suspension drop, gives the i3s a purposeful look that was absent from the original EV, and it’s intended to help improve stability when changing direction in the rear-wheel-drive car in a spirited manner. Although the interior of the car maintains the same wood and recycled materials on the dash and door panels, along with iDrive on the center stack and a modest gauge cluster for the driver, stiffer dampers at all four corners and a new Sport driving mode round out the list of changes made to the i3s’ on-road personality.
The gnarled cobblestone streets of Lisbon, Portugal, provided ample opportunity to experience the redefined ride of the BMW i3s. That is to say thump, bang, bump: this is a car that has traded in the buttoned-down approach of the regular i3 in favor of a suspension setup that isn’t shy about communicating its displeasure with the rough road below, even when set to Comfort mode. Never unstable but certainly louder and more brusque than its sibling, the i3s is about as far from a Prius as one can get in the compact EV segment, and the car does feel more confident compared to the s-less hatch.
This boisterous character is exactly what BMW needs from cars wearing an “s,” because otherwise, what’s the point? The i3s backs up its asphalt gymnastics with a Sport mode that legitimately adds an edge to its acceleration, thanks to more aggressive power delivery that at times can startle if you haven’t yet mastered the delicate balance between it and the car’s (equally assertive) regenerative off-pedal braking. I had little opportunity to seek out the upper limits of the vehicle’s top speed on Portugal’s crowded highways, but that “EV sag” that can plague battery-powered vehicles as the speedo needle edges towards the right was completely absent when I pushed harder than might have been prudent. Driving it on an autocross slalom in both the wet and the dry, I found the i3s to be surprisingly nimble (a credit to its better, less eco-minded tires), and it transformed into a precision-guided missile with traction control backed off and DTM driver Bruno Spengler in the left seat hanging the tail out.
The Verdict: 2018 BMW i3s Review
The 2018 BMW i3s is seemingly aimed at that narrow slice of eco-conscious customers who want a little attitude in their equally little EV, without wanting to wait on the Tesla Model 3’s interminable deposit list. These performance-minded folk will have to be that unique blend of buyer that doesn’t care that in the real world the s drops the battery range slightly from the i3’s advertised 125-mile (200-km) rating, nor that the on-paper performance gains are incremental. What they’re buying — and what BMW is delivering with the i3s — is character, and that’s something that’s in short supply among the car’s electrically powered peers.
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