2018 BMW i3s first drive: Sport is used in the relative sense

Maybe you watched “An Inconvenient Sequel,” the sequel to, you guessed it, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Or perhaps it was the film “Who Killed (and sequel “Revenge Of…) The Electric Car.” You even may have watched all four. The point is something struck a nerve. You stood up from the couch, clenched your fist, and with conviction shouted (wait — the kids are asleep…whispered) “I should buy an electric car!” But hang on. You are a bona fide car nerd, and it’s nothing short of blasphemy to putz around in a Prius, let alone some weak full-on electric car. What to do?

BMW thinks it has a solution for you and the proof comes in the form of the letter S. For 2018 BMW put a developmental polish on the i3 and added a sport model, naming it i3s. Being a sportier version of a car, it receives the usual sportier versions of things. More power, a stiffer suspension, wider and bigger wheels, and unique styling features. What’s unusual here is scale.

From the standard i3, output bumps up 13 hp to a total 181 hp, and torque jumps 15 lb-ft to 199. More, but still modest. And the wheels? They are wrapped around 20-inch wheels as opposed to 19’s, and they’re 20 millimeters wider in front, now 175/55R-20, and back at 195/50R-20. The rubber consists of Bridgestone Ecopia EP500s, the fattest mountain bike tires you’ve ever seen. Even with the S, clearly the i3 is much more a city dweller than canyon carver.

That’s not all bad. It’s also small, funky looking and lightweight. Thanks to a much-lighter-than-steel, carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) passenger cell, the i3s only weighs 3,005 pounds, despite carrying a 33-kWh battery pack. It’s weight-to-power ratio and electric motor instatorque allow the i3s to whirr its way to 62 mph in 6.9 seconds, better than the non-S by four-tenths, on the way to a 99-mph top speed.

And with the tauter suspension, the i3s will zip around corners with ease and without an excessive amount of understeer. If you get silly, the back end will even wiggle around a little bit. To do that, it’s best to have the drive mode set to sport for appropriate throttle response. All three other modes (comfort, eco pro and eco pro-plus) are keen to maintain battery charge as long as possible.

Especially eco pro-plus. That mode not only slows throttle way down, but it disallows use of the heated seats and air conditioning. It even keeps the fan from blowing too hard. Eco pro and comfort lose a little range but do a much better job maintaining civility in the cockpit, which, like the exterior, has a distinctly artsy, funky vibe.

BMW applied real leather and wood to the seats and trim, which look nice. The wood is a dark stain that blends well with the plastics of the interior, which also maintain a level of style above the norm. There could be high levels of smug, because BMW wants the world to know some trim is made from plant-based fibers and other projects are in the works to reuse plastics found in the sea.

At just 158 inches long, it’s a nice surprise that access to the rear seats comes via suicide-style rear-hinged doors. I’m 5 feet 11, so it’s at my limit for leg and headroom. But this is an urban car, so totally manageable for adults on shorter commutes. Unless the i3 comes with the optional two-cylinder, 38-hp “range extender” — but even in that case, the fuel tank is 2.3 gallons, so time to stretch your legs is only so far in the future. And no one has to take the center seat, because no one can. The i3 strictly seats four.

Price for the i3s starts at $48,645. Well above most entry level electric cars, but it’s also much more stylish, especially vs. the awkward and slightly bulbous Chevrolet Bolt. On the other hand, the Chevy will take you 238 miles on a single charge. BMW has not yet released range for the i3, but we suspect a similar figure to the 114 miles of the 2017 model.

In a word, the i3s is eccentric. And that’s compared to the already eccentric i3 non-sport. But in our quickly changing automotive universe, you can take solace in the fact that our future filled with electric auto pods with roughly the same perimeter as a Radio Flyer wagon won’t necessarily condemn you to a life of total driving boredom.

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