One of the steepest challenges faced by the car industry is the task of instilling electric cars with the same driving romance as soon-to-be-extinct combustion engine vehicles. Without the theatrics of the smell, noise and almost endless variations in power delivery of petrol and diesel engines, there’s a very distinct danger that every EV will feel the same. Sure, some are fast and some slow, some have the range of a milk float while others can lap the M25 three times before needing a top up. But in terms of character? Most feel like an electrical appliance no different to food mixer or hairdryer.
That’s because they are, of course. They are battery powered pieces of tech therefore behave as such: switch on, switch off. No gears, no over-revving for drama, no hiss of a turbo or throat-clear of a V8. But the driving public is hungry for something which will convince us. At the moment we’re on course to make the government-mandated switch in a decade or two with gritted teeth and become a nation of resentful motorists clogging up car shows and pubs talking nostalgically about cars like the Dacia Sandero. ‘At least you could pull a handbrake turn’ we’ll growl at bored 18 year olds through booze-fumes: the only flammable liquid we're still allowed to enjoy. What a state of affairs that would be.
BMW is on the case, and it’s going down the sound route. To do so it has enlisted the help of Hans Zimmer – the Academy Award-winning Hollywood music maestro responsible for scores of movie scores from The Lion King to Dunkirk. He knows a thing or two about creating drama through sound, and he’s come up with the ‘acceleration’ note and ‘on/off’ sound of the new BMW iX3, a system called the BMW IconicSounds Electric. You know what? I don’t hate it. Does it make you fall in love with electric powertrains in the same way you went weak at the knees the first time you heard a V10 Formula 1 car? Hell no. But it’s not a bad first stab, and when coupled with the rest of the car’s great attributes I would go so far to say it’s one of the best attempts I’ve seen to imbue an electric car with enough character to make you choose it over, say, an Audi E-Tron.
The BMW iX3 is, in its most simple terms, a fully electric version of the X3 SUV. The iX3 is the first model to execute BMW’s new ‘Power of Choice’ mantra, as it means the X3 is the first in the range to be available in petrol, diesel, plug-in hybrid or fully-electric guise. It’s a strategy soon to be adopted by Mini too. It’s curious that the brand who created the charmingly unique i3 has changed tact to make its electric onslaught a series of electrified versions of its existing cars. It could make the challenge of attracting buyers to the EV dark side harder, in that the X3 is superb car for what it is so why would you want it minus the shouty engines? But the iX3 is every bit as engaging to drive, if not more so.
First of all, its 80kWh battery is housed in the belly of the car, which affords the iX3 an advantageously low centre of gravity, 74mm lower than the X3 xDrive30i in fact. Then there’s the fact the 282bhp and 400Nm electric motor is situated on the rear axle, which makes the iX3 a typical BMW in that it’s rear wheel drive. It’s the first car to be powered by the fifth generation of BMW’s eDrive system, which will soon find its way into the BMW i4 and iNext and is smaller and more powerful than ever before (power density is up around 30%). All of this means the iX3 does the 0-62mph business in 6.8 seconds, which is on a par with the BMW X3 xDrive30i, and it tops out at a limited 112mph.
For a SUV the iX3 is incredibly fun to drive, with that torque being delivered throughout the ‘rev band’ to create one hell of a thumping feeling. It’s got the chops in the corners too, you can really feel the rear wheel drive system pushing you through corners, keeping the nose faithful to the corner. In Sport mode you can even coax a bit of oversteer out of the iX3, which will be an unfamiliar feeling for most SUV drivers.
Standard adaptive dampers temper the driving experience via drive modes, as per every other BMW with adaptive damping. It’s Comfort mode which actually betrays most the iX3’s sporty setup most: you would be hard pressed to call it truly comfortably over potholes and speed bumps, it’s suspension has clearly be tuned for fun, and I’m all for it. Using the iX3’s active recuperation system you can dial up the energy harvesting under braking to the point it becomes a one-pedal car, which was one of the most enjoyable features of the i3, and there are three modes of recuperation in total.
While it’s true the iX3 is a lithium powered X3, it still has the odd bespoke visual touch which will help convince the early adopters. Most notable are the 20-inch wheels, which look bizarre but reduce drag by 5% and are 15% lighter than BMW’s earlier aero-informed wheels, and help the iX3 achieve a WLTP range of up to 285 miles. The front end of the car is also cleaner-looking, with no need for cooling vents, and it’s trimmed with blue accents inside and out.
Other observations: Charging via a 150kW DC fast charger will top up the range by 80% in 34 minutes, BMW says, while a 10 minute squirt is enough to add 62 miles of legwork. The load space is uncompromised by the electric powertrain, with 510 litres in the boot which canincrease to 1,560 with the back seats folded. And it can tow up to 750kg.
If all of this makes the iX3 sound like an EV you can get on board with, remember you’ve got a long time to stump up the deposit: first deliveries won’t be until summer 2021. In the UK we’ll get two trim levels – Premier Edition and Premier Edition Pro – and four paint options. The Premier Edition comes with an ambient lighting package, electric and heated seats, wireless phone charging plus BMW’s Driving Assistant Professional, Parking Assistant and BMW Live Cockpit Professional. That will set you back £58,850. If you go for the £61,850 Premier Edition Pro you’ll also get a head up display, a Harmon Kardon surround sound audio system, parking assistant plus and that BMW IconicSounds Electric package, courtesy of Hans Zimmer.
Hollywood soundtrack or not, the iX3 is moving EVs in the right direction in that it makes an effort to put the driver first and focusses on sharp handling to match the instant-torque-at-zero-rpm characteristic of electric cars. As with all EVs though, the progress is incremental, and we’re still waiting for the electric car which will make us stand back and say ‘ahhh, now I get it.’ I fear we will be waiting for a long time for that, if not forever.
Model tested: BMW iX3
Engine: 80kWh battery, single electric motor
0-62mph: 6.8 seconds
Max speed: 112mph
Range: 285 miles