Going the Extra Mile BMW i3
Can you really cover big miles in an electric car? We talk to Lee Marshall about his 100k-mile i3 and discover an EV convert and his love for the electric BMW.
Words: Bob Harper
Photography: Lee Marshall
It’s hard to believe that it’s the best part of ten years since BMW launched the groundbreaking i3 and possibly even harder to understand why it’s due to cease production this summer. During this time it’s sold over 250,000 examples – a decent number no doubt, but perhaps not the sort of volumes that BMW might have hoped for. When it launched it seemed like BMW had opened up a huge gap on its rivals with an electric vehicle (EV) that used bespoke carbon fibre construction to keep its weight down and a brilliant mix of materials both inside and out. If this was to be the brave new electric future that everyone was talking about then the future wasn’t looking too shabby at all.
But how has the i3 fared over the years? Can it be used as an everyday ‘go anywhere’ sort of car, or did its relatively small battery harm its credentials? Over the years BMW has added to its spec with denser batteries, now endowing the i3 with a greater range than it had before, and there’s even a more performance-orientated model, the i3S, to choose from too. And these tweaks have worked with the i3 selling in greater numbers in recent times than it did when it was new. And that’s what makes its demise even more infuriating but perhaps the world just wasn’t ready for its avantgarde styling and construction back when it was launched?
Lee’s i3 is one of the higher mileage examples having recently ticked over 110k miles, but he knows others that have done over 130k...
Lee covers around 25,000-miles every year in it, using the BMW as his main work vehicle
Its replacement will be the far less exciting electric version of the X1 so if you’re considering an i3 you best get your skates on if you want a new one, or you could do what Lee Marshall, the owner of the i3 you can see here, did and buy a used one. As we’ll find out this turned out to be a very savvy move but it’s unlikely that you be doing as many miles in your i3 as Lee does, he covers around 25,000-miles every year in it, using the BMW as his main work vehicle.
Lee is an automotive and motorsport photographer and for someone who needs to cover plenty of miles an i3 might seem like an odd choice, especially as his is one of the earlier 60Ah cars with a quoted range by BMW of 80-100-miles.
“My history prior to the i3 involved lots of large executive saloons and sports saloons” says Lee, “and I did have a Ford Ranger just prior to getting the i3 which was the complete opposite of the BMW, but it was mainly for tax reasons as it was a commercial vehicle for my business.” In fact when Lee bought the Ranger three years before he got the i3 he did consider an i3 as a tax efficient motoring solution but the charging infrastructure wasn’t nearly so good back then so he decided against it. “Eventually I got fed up with getting 22-25-miles to a gallon with the Ranger so the i3 then seemed like a great option. I actually bought the i3 personally, not through my business, and now charge mileage back to my photography business which is great from a running cost perspective,” comments Lee.
It was three years ago that Lee took the plunge and bought his i3 after having visited the EV Experience in Milton Keynes (evexperiencecentre.co.uk) which allows prospective owners to try before they buy. Initially he was quite taken by a Renault Zoe but then he sampled an i3 reporting that it was “superior in every way.”
“I had two choices when I got my i3 – I could have leased a brand new one with the then new 120Ah battery which would have potentially given me a 160-mile range or I could have put the same amount into a used car on a hire purchase,” Lee tells us. “At the time I thought that 160-miles of pure electric range would worry the hell out of me, especially as back then I was doing 18,000- miles a year and I was thinking I’d be worried about charging the whole time, so I went for a used Ranger Extender (REx) instead. I could have leased the bigger battery model without the REx but having leased my previous vehicle I didn’t want the restrictions on what you can actually do to the vehicle rather than when you actually own it. I also wasn’t so keen on the fact that with the lease you effectively hand it back after a few years with no asset. I’ve got a four year hire purchase on the i3 and I’m three years into that and it’s hardly depreciated. At the end of the fourth year I’m still hoping it’ll be worth around £10k which is a £10k asset that I wouldn’t have if I’d have leased the new one.”
That’s not to say that i3s don’t depreciate although that factor has lessened a little now there’s more demand for EVs as used purchases. Lee’s i3 is a 2016 model and he bought it when it was a little short of its third birthday at 43k miles for £16,700 which means the first owner took a pretty hefty hit – it was about £38k new with the options it has fitted. Given he’s done over 60k miles in the i3 its depreciation has been glacial during his ownership meaning running costs really are minimal. The best bit though is the cost to charge at home; “With my government subsidised Pod Point charger it costs me around 90p to recharge at night from empty,” Lee says. Given the relatively short distances Lee’s i3 can travel between charges you might think it’s an incredibly odd choice of vehicle for someone who averages around 25k miles per year but Lee reckons it fulfils his needs for the vast majority of the time; “My office, at Bedford Autodrome, is a 50-mile round trip so most days I don’t have to public charge. I do fantasise about a car with a 200-plus mile range but when I am using public chargers it’s not wasted time for me – it actually works pretty well for what I do, being an automotive and motorsports photographer. I’ve always got editing work to do on my laptop so if I’m on my way back from a job that’s 150-miles away I know I’ll have to stop a couple of times but I can just get the laptop out and do some work – it’s not lost time for me and it generally only takes half an hour to charge.”
The public charging network can be a bit hit and miss though but Lee says that with a bit of familiarity and experience it’s easy to navigate; “The charging network is a lot better now than it was a couple of years ago but it’s by no means perfect. Some providers are a massive pain in the backside especially those that only have one charge point or the ones that don’t recognise when a charger is faulty. You learn to use the charging networks that are more reliable and that only comes with experience. When you first look at how many charging networks there are and the number of different payment methods there are it all looks a bit bewildering but you soon get to work it out. The majority now use credit or debit card payments but if you want the cheapest charging you usually have to sign up to that company’s set up. Public charging costs are on the rise though – it’s still vastly cheaper than petrol but prices are on the up across the board. You just need to plan your journey in detail before you leave and it’s vital to have a back-up plan!”
So Lee’s more or less happy with the charging network but what about the i3 itself? Has it lived up to his expectations? Has it been reliable? And how has it coped with the rigours of being an everyday workhorse? “It’s been one hundred percent reliable,” comments Lee, “and the only items that have been replaced are the rear shock absorbers which were done under warranty as they were leaking. It’s never let me down and I’ve never run out of charge.” Perhaps one thing Lee would change on his i3 would be the interior, but not because of its design, but the colour’s not the most practical for his needs. “The interior’s holding up well – there are no flaws with it that I can see, the only thing I would say is that it’s in what is called ‘Lodge’ specification and that’s light coloured material and fake leather and it gets very dirty. I regularly get in there after having been taking photos at a race track when I’m dripping wet and muddy and cleaning the seats is a regular job. I love the way the Lodge interior looks but for me to live with it’s a bit of a pain because of what I do for a living and if I were to get another one I would go for full leather as it’s easier to clean. But in terms of wear and tear there’s no splits on the seats or anything else. There’s a little bit of wear in the steering wheel but then again it has done 100,000-miles, and for a car that’s done that mileage I think it’s stood up well and no worse than any other car I’ve owned,” reports Lee.
Lee’s i3 is one of the higher mileage examples out there having recently ticked over the 110k mile mark but he does know of a couple of others that have done over 130k miles. Reliability and battery degradation just doesn’t seem to be an issue though and Lee reports that the battery on his car seems to be as good as the day he first bought it. Ultimately they are designed as a city car and a lot of them are based in London to avoid the congestion charge and the new ULEZ and that sort of thing – Lee’s is an ex-London car. Many of the used examples are relatively low mileage as they’ve mainly been used in urban areas and even at six, seven years old they’ve only done 30 or 40k miles.
Lee’s pretty active on i3 forums and user groups so tends to hear of any common problems and says he only knows of one case where someone’s had to have a battery replaced and that was at something like 90k miles when a few of the cells had died so the whole thing was replaced under warranty. “I don’t have any noticeable battery degradation at all,” he says, “and I believe that a lot of that comes down to BMW’s battery management system with both a heating and cooling system built in to the battery so it will always run at an ideal temperature.”
Like many automotive photographers Lee’s a keen driver and is very happy with the way his i3 performs; “During the course of my work I get to drive quite a wide variety of cars and I always look forward to getting back into the i3 as it is good fun to drive. If I was being critical I would say that it is a little understeery – it’s set up as a city car after all – but the power delivery more than makes up for that. Its acceleration is ridiculous! There’s so much torque low down which makes it very pleasurable to drive. It’s not brilliant at the top end – 80-90mph isn’t the most exhilarating – but it gets up to the legal limit very nicely.
“There are some modifications that can improve the i3 though,” comments Lee. “Straight out of the factory the i3 was very much set up for town use, particularly the pre-LCI cars and to my mind the original equipment Bridgestone tyres were a disaster. Fine for city use but not giving the car much composure out of town. I also fitted the Eibach springs and wheel spacers which really improved the car’s stability, especially on the motorway and made it far less susceptible to cross winds. Then I swapped to Continental tyres and the difference was night and day. The Bridgestones were puncture magnets – everyone online complains about this – but the Continentals offer a superior ride and much better grip and less susceptible to punctures.”
Lee’s obviously a keen EV convert but what will he replace the i3 with? “When my hire purchase is finished in March 2023 I will be looking at a longer range vehicle – I’ll keep the i3 though and hand it over to my wife as her daily transport. When I look at what’s available at the moment in the EV marketplace I’m probably going to buy another i3, at this moment in time I don’t see why I should be buying anything else. They’re spacious, much bigger than they look and are great to drive.
“Since I bought my i3 three of my friends have bought i3s which is quite a recommendation and these guys all drive for a living – race car instructors, tyre testers – professional drivers who know about cars. Part of the appeal is the low running costs, but part of it is the fun way they drive. A lot of i3 people on the internet groups I’m part of are on their second or third i3 it’s a very loyal and enthusiastic owner base. It’s such a shame that BMW didn’t develop the concept further as many of the people I know who had i3s that have outgrown them, either needing more space or a longer range, have turned to Tesla as the BMW offerings these days just don’t seem as advanced. There just isn’t an equivalent BMW – yes, there’s the new i4, but it has a arrived a little too late and doesn’t really have a bespoke EV platform. The i3 was so ahead of the game that it seems like a crying shame BMW didn’t replace it.”
And Lee’s final comment? “I’d not call myself a BMW fanboy… an i3 fanboy yes, but not a BMW fanboy! I’ve driven a lot of its cars but to my mind nothing matches up to the i3.” You can’t get much higher praise than that.
Owner Lee is an automotive photographer shooting at MSV circuits around the country, we couldn’t resist getting his car on track for our photoshoot.