First Drive

2018 BMW i3s First Drive Review | Is the i mightier than the M?

Come for the power increase, stay for the retuned suspension and stability control.

  • Image Credit: BMW
Here in the United States, BMW's M division reigns supreme. Customers equate the German brand with big power, crisp handling, and melted tires. So it may come as a surprise to Americans that, globally, the lowercase letter i outsells the uppercase letter M in BMW's product portfolio.

Of course, nobody is going to turn their noses up at a little extra power, not even someone who is primarily concerned with the overall efficiency of their automobile. And not even when the increase is only by 14 horsepower and 15 pound-feet, as is the case with the new BMW i3s over the standard version of BMW's little electric hatch. But a mild power increase isn't all that separates the new BMW i3s from the standard i3. There are a whole host of small improvements that make the i3s a better automobile than the original, which continues on sale without any of the power or suspension updates you'll read about in this review.

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There's no increase in the lithium ion battery's capacity of the i3s, which remains at 33 kWh. If you've got BMW's i Charging Station, the i3s will deliver about 90 miles of range in a little under three hours. Even if you don't have the official BMW charger, charging options abound, and you can always just plug into a standard 240-volt outlet and wait about 11 hours for a full battery. In other words, just charge it up overnight for the next day.

Given the additional power, we'd imagine some of the regular-grade i3's 124 miles of maximum range will be sacrificed, but BMW hasn't yet released U.S.-specific figures for the i3s. We don't expect a massive drop in real-world range, but when you're driving electric, every little bit counts. So, you're not going to choose this new Sport model for its extended green credentials. Instead, you'll choose it for the those few extra ponies, and, more important, for changes made to its suspension, wheels, tires, and recalibrated stability control.

From the outside, there isn't much to tell the casual observer that the i3s is any different from BMW's other electric hatchbacks. There's a new badge, naturally, and some small fender flares to cover the wider rubber the i3s packs at all four corners. The 20-inch wheels are each a half-inch wider, and the tires are 175/55 up front, and 195/50 at the rear. That's up by 20 millimeters all around, which pays dividends with significantly higher levels of at-the-limit grip.

BMW lowered the i3s by about half an inch, which in turn lowers the center of gravity. This helps the car feel planted, especially during quick side-to-side transitions. We were only able to test the regular EV-only version of the i3s, but it will also be available as a range-extended model with a 647cc gasoline-fueled engine to keep the onboard battery charged up. The extra 270 pounds of a two-cylinder engine and fuel tank are sure to impact performance somewhat, but we found the EV to feel rather quick and sporty at below-highway speeds. BMW quotes a 0-60 time of 6.8 seconds (about a half-second quicker than the standard i3), and the instant torque of the electric motor makes it feel powerful off the line.

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If you don't expect much in the way of steering feel from the i3s, you won't be disappointed by the way it drives. The i3s isn't meant to be a sports car, but that doesn't mean it isn't fun. The ride is firm but comfortable, power from the electric motor is easy to modulate, and the regenerative braking that slows the car as soon as the driver lets off the throttle is fun to play with. The small overall dimensions of the i3s, combined with its excellent turning radius, makes it a perfect plaything for tight, urban confines.

Really, there's only one significant drawback to the i3s over the standard i3, and that's price. The 2018 BMW i3s starts at $47,650. That's $3,000 more than the regular i3. Add the range extender and that price swells to $51,500. In a world where a prospective buyer can march into a Chevy dealership and drive off in a Bolt — which is a very good electric hatchback — for $37,495 (not counting any federal or state EV discounts a buyer may qualify for), the BMW comes off as an expensive proposition. But the Bimmer brings with it a unique sense of style inside and out, a high-tech chassis, sporting pretensions, and the all-important Roundel.

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Whether the BMW i3s makes sense depends on your point of view. For one, any i3 has to be seen and appreciated as a premium product to make it worth more money than something like the Bolt. If you're willing to make that concession, the $3,000 surcharge for the i3s might be worth it, if for no other reason that it's a bit more stylish and exclusive than the standard version. If you just want a stylish electric car, you would probably be better off spending the extra money on a fast charging system.

It seems like a foregone conclusion that BMW's M and i divisions will join forces, probably someday soon, on some sort of mainstream electrified performance vehicle. The i3s is not that vehicle. It's a step in that direction, and the additional performance is more than welcome. Any BMW i3 makes a good city car, and the i3s makes the carbon-fiber hatchback more fun to drive on twisty roads and at highway speeds. If the regular BMW i3 appeals to you, and you're not scared away by the slightly dearer sticker price, there are plenty of good reasons for a driving enthusiast to choose the i3s for a few grand more.

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