Can a BMW i3 beat an old school-style hot hatch round a racing circuit? That’s probably not a question you’ve ever asked before, but there is a reason behind what is undoubtedly the most unusual track battle video we’ve ever filmed for Auto Express. 

While it may be one of the cheapest cars to run, few feel as quick as the i3 in real-world driving. The instant response from its electric motor means it can get from 0-30mph faster than the previous-generation, V8-engined BMW M3.

Our car has even taken the scalps of Porsches, Aston Martins and Ferraris in away-from-the-lights sprints that are a common occurrence on its daily London commute. And this got us thinking...

Seeing as the i3 is such a hoot to drive in town, how would it fare on a track? It’s a BMW, after all, so it should be just as adept in corners as it is on straights. A Suzuki Swift Sport was chosen as the benchmark because, just like the i3, it’s entertaining to drive, yet its naturally aspirated 1.6-litre petrol engine is almost the opposite of the hi-tech electric motor and lithium-ion technology found in the BMW. 

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And when we compared their stats, the match-up looked like it could go either way. Our i3 Range Extender is rear-wheel drive, has 168bhp and can do 0-62mph in 7.9 seconds, whereas the front-wheel-drive 134bhp Suzuki completes the sprint in 8.7 seconds. These numbers don’t tell the whole story, and that much was evident when the i3 took to the track.

The BMW may get off the line quickly, but this counts for very little when you are recording a flying lap. Mid to top-end power is more important here, and this favoured the Swift’s high-revving petrol engine. And at 1,390kg, our i3 is also 345kg heavier than the Suzuki. You can blame the batteries for this, although they are mounted low in the car to improve the centre of gravity. So, despite being tall, the i3 doesn’t roll as much as you’d think in corners. 

What it does do, though, is run out of grip pretty quickly. Its 20-inch alloys have a large diameter, but the tyres are very thin to reduce rolling resistance and maximise fuel efficiency. So, while the car responds keenly to steering, the stability control kicks in early to stop the BMW getting out of shape. Like in other BMWs, the safety system can’t be turned off, so you can’t exploit the rear-drive set-up and lack of grip to adjust the car’s line through a corner.

In the end, we weren’t too surprised that the i3 was 8.4 seconds slower than the Suzuki round our track. What we weren’t expecting, though, was that it would still be enjoyable. However, driving it 170 miles back to London from our test track wasn’t so fun. With little charge left in its batteries, the BMW ran most of the journey in range extender mode. 

The paltry nine-litre fuel tank meant we had to stop to fill up four times en route – and that’s part of the reason why we’re ‘only’ averaging 134mpg instead of the claimed 470.8mpg. Also, the car would occasionally restrict power by limiting speed to around 60mph to let the 650cc petrol generator cool down.

Still, the journey wouldn’t have been possible in the all-electric i3. And when we eventually got back to its stomping ground in the city, all was forgiven.

BMW i3 long-term test review: first report

We’re ready to embrace life with groundbreaking electric hatch

Mileage: 4,780
Real-world fuel economy: N/A

Collecting your new car from the dealer is a very exciting time, so it can be hard to stay focused and listen to what showroom staff are telling you about the vehicle during the handover process. 

And in the case of the new i3, there is more to take in than normal. Which charger do you use for what? How do you find the nearest charging station? What is the best way to maximise efficiency? These are all important things you need to know, and currently only 46 of BMW’s 153 outlets are allowed to sell the i3 and its bigger brother, the i8

Staff not only need special training, but workshops must be properly equipped and showrooms need to be in keeping with the new ‘i’ sub-brand. 

BMW Park Lane in London was the first dealer in the world to have a separate ‘i’ showroom, and there’s a whiff of the Apple store about it. Thankfully, unlike with an iPhone, you aren’t sent on your way with the manufacturer mistakenly assuming that its product is so intuitive that instructions aren’t necessary. Instead, BMW’s thorough handover, with one of its dedicated i Genius staff, such as Park Lane’s Ali Khawaja, means you’ll be able to get the best out of your hi-tech set of wheels. 

Our i3 is loaded with a wide range of equipment – although I was a bit disappointed that I’m not able to use ConnectedDrive to its full capability. The technology lets you read text messages and E-mails on the car’s central display. However, if, like me, you have an iPhone, then this function can’t be accessed – apparently that’s Apple’s fault, not BMW’s. 

I also haven’t yet used the park assist auto parking feature, or the active cruise control, which includes auto braking and even auto steering on the motorway.  I have appreciated the Interior World Lodge trim upgrade, though. The Eucalyptus wood on the dash sets the i3’s interior apart, but you have to pay £1,500 for this finish. It also includes a multifunction steering wheel, but even so it’s a little steep.

In fact, with options, our test car is a hefty £42,115, although you can get a £5,000 Government grant towards this. Either way, despite the claimed 470mpg economy, this isn’t a car you buy to save money – yet the i3, with its futuristic interior and BMW badge, has the kind of allure people will pay for, just like Apple products. 

Having said that, thanks to its 100-mile electric range I’ve not had to put a drop of petrol in so far, and I’ve only called on the two-cylinder generator on rare occasions.

It’s genuinely good fun to drive – the instant response from the electric motor means little can touch it in town. The proof came in a story I was told about a wealthy banker who bought an i3, not because it’s hi-tech, or green, but because it kept beating his Aston Martin DBS away from the lights on his drive through the City of London. High praise, indeed...

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