Test: BMW iX3: the electric car is coming of age

BMW started selling electric vehicles that were standing out from the rest of its range. Now, the company wants to become a leader on the electric car market with an SUV. The strategy is well thought out as this type of vehicle is currently very popular with buyers. On top of that, its size makes it much easier to integrate an electric propulsion system than in a city car! It seems to be the right strategy for BMW as it is leading registrations on the Belgian market since the beginning of the year!

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The iX3 is pretty big. It’s the first BMW available in petrol, diesel, rechargeable hybrid and full electric guise. Its assembly takes place in a BMW Group’s Chinese factory.

A global concept

Unveiled as a prototype at the 2018 Beijing Motor Show, the iX3 SAV (Sports Activity Vehicle) arrived on the European market just a few months ago. Compared to the concept, very little has changed and, externally, it is very easy for the untrained eye to mistake it for a petrol or diesel-powered X3. The iX3 doesn’t come out of BMW’s american factory but from the one it shares with Brillance in Shenyang, China! The X3 is the brand’s first model to be available with petrol, diesel, plug-in hybrid and full electric engines.  The iX3 is also BMW‘s first electric model that is not built on the aluminium and carbon fibre « LifeDrive » structure. Instead, it is based on the group’s classic steel-and-aluminium « CLAR » (Cluster/Architecture) platform, which also underpins the third-generation petrol and diesel engined X3. That platform was designed from the outset to accommodate different types of engines, including an electric one, and batteries. It seems other electric models will also use this architecture in the future, such as the forthcoming i4.

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Beneath the dominant plastic cover, there are no traditional in-line 6-cylinder engines… and there isn’t even an engine here as it sits on the rear axle!

The iX3 features fifth-generation eDrive technology. The power density of the electric motor increased by 30% compared to the BMW Group’s other electric vehicles, while the energy density of the battery also increased by 20%. The electric motor is located on the rear axle and develops 286 hp at 6,000 rpm. Its instantaneous torque value is 400 Nm. It is a current-excited synchronous motor. It’s got a higher power output and its construction requires less rare materials.  BMW announced a 30% weight reduction compared to the i3’s engine. It is mated to a continuously variable gearbox and an electromechanical differential that offers three driving modes: Eco Pro (with a customisable mode), Comfort and Sport. This ensures the iX3 can boast  “adequate” acceleration times, despite tiping the scale at a paltry 2,260 kg ! As it is the case with other electric vehicles,  maximum speed is limited. In this instance, maximum speed is 180 km/h. Electric cars are very accelerative. The iX3 reaches 100 km/h in 6.8 seconds! However, this is slightly slower than the     X3 Drive 30 e plug-in hybrid that will sprint to 100 km/h in just 6.3 secs.  It is equipped with an 80 kWh lithium-ion battery, allowing up to a 450 km range (WLTP). A quick charge to reach 80 percent of capacity shouldn’t take more than a good half-hour. The manufacturer claims power consumption is 19.5 kWh/100 km. This is a fairly realistic figure, as during our test drive we used between 20 and 22.5 kWh/100 km.

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The devil’s in the details…

You have to pay attention to details like the front grille, the small body ornaments, the bumpers’ shape or the design of the wheels to realise the iX3 is indeed a model in its own right and different from the rest of the X3 range. It’s also an ideal vehicle to avoid loosing a large chunk of the brand’s customer base who did not necessarily like the i3 or the i8. People who need more interior space than what these two unconventional models could ever offer, for example. A whole family can travel together in the iX3, while enjoying a high level of comfort. Unlike the brand’s traditional policy, allowing each customer to configure his vehicle in a unique way,  the iX3 is only available in two versions: the « basic » version, named « Inspiring », as well as a fully equipped « Impressive » one. That’s an “all inclusive” marketing strategy offering plenty of equipment with a 74.824,99 € starting price. You get metallic paint, heated seats, a large panoramic roof with opening front section, 20″ wheels, Vernasca leather, heated electric seats with lumbar adjustment, adjustable backrest width and seat length, comfort access, tinted rear windows, acoustic glazing, Adaptive LED lighting, parking assistance with numerous cameras, haptic controls for infotainment (with Android Auto and Apple Car Play, of course), head-up display, Harman/Kardon hi-fi system… in the end there’s hardly anything left off, apart from the adaptive M suspension and the tow bar.

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The « Impressive » version gets these unique 20″ wheels, reminiscent of those fitted to the prototype introduced three years ago.

I like it

Both its volume and its size don’t seem to have any influence on the iX3’s ebullient, even sporty, character… which is very much in the BMW tradition. A second engine on the front axle would make it even harder for its competitors! Even if the iX3 is not the fastest or the quickest off the mark, the way it works shows how well BMW masters electric powerplants. Refinement is here in spades, too. Inside, the soundproofing is good, with only some aerodynamic noise disturbing things above 120 km/h. Our test version was fitted with specific Yokohama Advan tyres, 245/45 at the front and 275/40 at the rear, on 20″ rims. In sport mode, a synthetic noise contributes to the driving experience. Braking is as easy and effective as in any other BMW. The pedal is firm but always easy to balance and there’s no fading. Inside, the iX3 is a real BMW. The ergonomics are excellent. The controls for the different driving modes are placed on the central tunnel; to the left of the gear lever… just like on other BMWs fitted with an automatic gearbox. Pushing the lever to the left allows maximum battery recharching, instead of allowing manual upshifting or downshifting. The boot volume is slightly reduced compared to the X3, from 550 litres to « only » 510 litres but… that’s still 60 litres more than the plug-in hybrid version! Its shape is user-friendly and the load sill is low enough for an easy access.

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A BMW driver will quickly feel “at home” : everything is where you expect it to be, the ergonomics are excellent and the infotainment easy to use, either via the i Drive or through hand movements. The iconic Hofmeister kink can now be found throughout the interior.

Quite clever…

Energy recovery during braking is programmable: low, medium, high or adaptive mode. In the higher position, driving is possible without using the brake pedal in order to recover as much kinetic energy as possible. Unless you have to stop completely, obviously. In adaptive mode, the system takes the driving style and the route encoded in the on-board GPS into account. Alternatively, it acts completely independently and decides to recover energy during braking or to coast for a certain period of time once the accelerator pedal is released, thus avoiding any friction losses. Putting the lever in ‘B’ position, to the left,  allows for extended regeneration of braking energy. In ‘D’ position, regeneration is adaptive and includes the ‘deceleration’ function. It improves driving comfort and efficiency by adjusting the regeneration to the driving situation. Tricky? Don’t worry, all this works quite well, even in ‘Sport’ mode. For example, we did a 104 km trip, mostly on the motorway, with the car in sport mode. In the end, the range was reduced by no more than 95 km… which shows how effective the system is.

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While the lever is identical to that of the excellent 8-speed ZF automatic gearbox, here, there is no manual upshift or downshift by pushing the lever to the left… it just recharges the battery!

I don’t like it

Our test car wore a dark exterior colour, had a black interior and tinted back windows… fortunately the panoramic roof made things airier, otherwise it would have been like sitting in a coal mine! Fit and finish are pretty good, even though some cost- cuttings can be felt… the quality and feel of some interior plastics let the iX3 down a bit . The lower part of the dashboard is really hard and easily scratched. We’re no big fans of the « piano black » trim either, as it quickly gets dirty… just like the touch screen full of fingerprints. The leather is quite soft but it barely covers the sides of the seats. The heated seats are very pleasant in cold weather, but strangely, no steering wheel heater is available!

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The electric front seats allow a multitude of adjustments in order to find the perfect driving position: lumbar adjustment, backrest width, inclination and seat length, it’s hard to do better. However, things would be perfect with a little more padding.

Why I buy it

For the fun of driving a rear wheel drive car! The engine and battery are ideally located at the back, giving a weight distribution of 47% at the front and 53% at the rear. This set up is in the BMW tradition and makes the car handling in a very entertaining way. The steering has a good overall feel but is best in sport mode. The lack of torque steer also contributes to its precision. On winding roads, the iX3 takes the curves sharply and quickly, despite its bulk and overall size. Even if the suspension settings are quite firm but the car is far from being uncomfortable. To sum it up, the iX3 may be an electric car but its road manners are very much like the ones of a petrol or diesel powered vehicle. Even if its weight and size impose physical limits, let’s not be afraid of the words, it is really possible to have fun behind the wheel. The corners are taken at high speeds, without any roll and it is very easy to place it where you want it. Compared to a petrol or diesel-engined X3, its ground clearance is reduced by 2 cm and its gravity centre is 7 cm lower. When cornering at high speeds, the DSC sometimes kicks in to counter a slight oversteering tendency.

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The Harman Kardon audio system is a well-known BMW equipment. “X” can be found everywhere, like here on the front of the doors or stamped on the top of the B-pillars.

Why I don’t buy it

The iX3 is packed with driving aids : these being more and more compulsory to get a good NCAP test rating. Fortunately, most of them can be switched off. The worst is certainly the lane departure warning. Even though it can be adjusted, sometimes, when avoiding an unpredictable obstacle, activating the indicator is the last thing on your mind! You have to hold the steering wheel firmly to force the car do what you want and this is highly unpleasant. The iX3 high price is just good for professional buyers who will appreciate its full tax deductibility. Its aesthetics let it down a bit compared to the petrol and diesel-powered versions. The iX3 is different, even challenging from an aesthetic point of view  compared to other BMWs.  We think it has a less distinctive personality or charm than the rest of the BMW range.

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With 286 bhp (same power as an E28 M5…) and 400 Nm instantaneous torque, the performance are worthy of a sports car’s. The iX3’s behaviour is the one of a “real” BMW, with an almost ideal weight distribution and rear-wheel drive set up, with numerous driving aids as a bonus.

If you have the money and want to go electric, the BMW iX3 is about the best way to do it . It’s quite pleasing on the eye with an inoffensive styling. Admittedly, it’s not the fastest, nor the quickest off the mark but its range is very good and it offers a good balance, with decent performance under all driving conditions. It is spacious and can move a family of five and their luggage without any problems. The iX3 most obvious competitors are the Mercedes EQC, which starts at €70,543, the Audi E-tron, which starts at €82,400, and the Jaguar I-Pace, which starts at €80,850. (Text: Dimitri URBAIN, Photos: Pierre FONTIGNIES and Paul-Edouard URBAIN)

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The interior is spacious and can easily accommodate five passengers and their luggage. Once the rear seat is folded down, the volume will be even bigger and its shape makes it very easy to use efficiently.

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