2017 BMW i3 94Ah Munich-6

The recent BMW Innovation Days 2016 in Munich, which showcased BMW Connected and developments in battery technology as primary content, also saw a working presentation of the updated BMW i3 that the automaker first announced in May.

Design changes to the full-electric hatch – of which 50,000 examples have been sold so far – are minimal, left very much to a new exterior colour (Protonic Blue, as seen on the BMW i8, to make it six available for the car) and new interior trim options (now four, Design Suite and Design Lodge with Eucalyptus trim as well as Design Atelier and Design Lodge with Dark Oak trim) to carry the day for the “facelift.”

The big news with the 2017 version – which already has 7,000 orders as of July – is with its improved driving range, brought about by an upgraded battery pack. Co-developed with Samsung, it’s still the same size as before, but power density is up from the previous 60 Ah to 94 Ah, the result of being able to achieve a higher storage density with the lithium-ion cells.

Over the past two years, the automaker says it has been able to increase the efficiency of the cells in the battery pack by a factor of 50%, accomplished with the introduction of new materials. Capacity is up as a result, with an 11 kWh bump to 33 kWh over the original unit’s 22 kWh.

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Operating range for the pure electric variant, measured under an official NEDC test cycle, is up by more than 50% from 190 km in the 60 Ah version to more than 300 km. In real-world conditions, with air-conditioning (or heating) in use, the range is touted at 200 km on a single battery charge, translating to an electricity consumption of 12.6 kWh/100 km.

A 94 Ah range-extender model is also available, with a 25% larger fuel tank (nine litres) supplying the 650 cc two-cylinder petrol engine, which maintains the battery charge during a journey. The mill extends the car’s range by an additional 150 km.

Performance remains largely unchanged, with 170 hp and 250 Nm on tap from the i3’s rear-mounted synchronous electric motor, and the 94 Ah version can get from standstill to 100 km/h in 7.3 seconds.

Charging times have also been improved, close to the 60 Ah model despite the new larger battery capacity. The 94 Ah version utilises three-phase charging at a rate of 16 amp/11 kW, a 50% increase compared to the 60 Ah version, which uses a single-phase alternating current at 7.4 kW. As for DC charging, no change in time to tank up the battery to 80% capacity, which is in around 40 minutes (125 amp/50 kW).

An updated, more compact version of the BMW i Wallbox has come about. Two versions of the Wallbox are offered – Plus and Connect – where the former automatically detects the connected vehicles and associates the relevant charge data using a local smartphone app. The later meanwhile, comes with Wi-Fi, allowing owners to remotely access the charging station’s functions.

The automaker says that the new 94 Ah version won’t replace the existing i3 with the 60 Ah battery, which will remain in the line-up as a more cost-effective option for buyers, as will the range-extender variant with the 60 Ah battery. As such, the revised i3 line-up will consist of four models, two 94 Ah and two 60 Ah versions, each in EV and range-extender forms.

In Europe, buyers will have to fork out an additional 1,200 euros if they want the 94 Ah model. It’s possible for current customers who are looking to upgrade from the first-generation battery to do so through a special retrofit programme, though the company says the upgrade is only possible for the pure electric version of the car.

There’s a slight penalty for the increased range, and this comes in the form of increased weight – the new i3 weighs in at 1,245 kg, which is 50 kg more than the 60 Ah version. The Range Extender version adds even more, with 120 kg being piled on.

The automaker also highlighted developments made on the carbon-fibre and renewable/recycled materials front, though these are still at the exploratory stage and aren’t yet utilised in production processes.

For the former, this involves the use of fibre-glass sheets as a bridging sandwich material in between CF weave layers, without any compromise to structural strength or ability. Besides making components lighter by 10-15% than existing items, it will also be cheaper to make, so it goes. New weave/stitch patterns are also being looked at, so you could be seeing your CFRP in a different style in the future.

Also on show in Munich were a mix of natural/recycled materials that the company says it is investigating for automotive applications. Natural resources include the fibre from the fruit of the Kapok tree, while on the recycled front the company is looking at deriving by-products from oceanic waste and unknown secondary sources. Materials such as ropes/nets as well as polypropylene and PET waste are items that are being explored.

The presentation was capped with a 50 km-long drive in the new car to move between venues. While that doesn’t sound like much, it’s still a sight more than that managed closer to home back in 2014, when the i3 was sampled briefly at BMW Malaysia’s headquarters in Cyberjaya.

The road-going route nicely fleshed out all the latent suggestions offered two years ago that the i3 would be a neat, fun drive. And it is; the allure of the zip was evident once again, and out on the road there’s plenty of usable, inviting tractability, notably in the midband.

That push is thoroughly engaging and makes for the primary level of involvement. The steering is a bit wooly and lifeless in terms of feedback, but places the car cleanly to input. As for handling, buyers aren’t going to be eyeing an i3 because of its dynamic ability, but it handles well enough for what it is.

Actually, it’s thoroughly capable of responding to the odd moment of exuberant cornering ask nicely enough, though by and large the outlook is clean and competent, with everything presented in a matter of fact manner, which is keeping in line with its urban and short intra-urban commuter leanings.

Ride is firm, but not jarring, and aside from slightly intrusive road noise levels at highway speeds the report card for comfort gets high marks. The front seats look to be highly accessible for long periods, and the driving view perspective is first-rate.

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The novelty of the interior continues, especially so with the organic stuff. Question marks still surround the durability of some, but no complaints to how they are presented to sight. It really does offer a different outlook than the usual plastic fare found in Munich’s regulation offerings.

It’s a neat little car, the i3, and the ideas offered by it remain as engaging as when it first appeared, so it continues to be a shame that it remains absent from our market.

There’s talk that BMW Malaysia is continuing to look at the possibility of the i3 making its way in to join its sportier i8 sibling, which is a shift from the “it isn’t ever coming here” view from two years back. Considering that the i8 was also very much a non-event, that thought doesn’t sound as far-fetched as it was then.

Pricing, however, remains the biggest obstacle, and there’s still no clarity as to whether that issue – or that of tax exemptions – can be resolved. Will Munich’s little EV ever make its way here? That guess well and truly remains.