Most cars are pretty much what you expect them to be, but every now and then something comes along that really takes you by surprise. This happened to me recently with the BMW i4, which really is staggeringly good. Now I’ve had a chance to drive it, it’s obvious why the i4 is so appealing – a stylish body similar to that of the 4-Series Gran Coupé, strong electric performance, a huge battery providing over 300 miles of petrol-rivalling range, build quality and interior design that only the German premium car makers can deliver, and a really good natively rear-wheel drive BMW platform.
It combines all of the advantages of smooth electric power with one of the finest lineages in the automotive world – compact rear-wheel drive BMW saloons and coupés. In short, it’s both a very good electric car and a proper BMW. And it’s this last quality that in my book distinguishes it from the company’s other electric models. The new iX3 and iX are both excellent, but with their SUV-style bodies and dynamics, they are further removed from the core of what BMW is all about. Much the same applies to BMW’s other main electric offering, the i3, which is stuffed with more cleverness than most other cars on the road, but which again is in many respects not what people think BMWs are all about.
Given that Mercedes-Benz hasn’t come up yet with a fully electrified C-Class, the i4’s closest competitor is probably the Tesla Model 3, which is now selling in enormous numbers. Is the i4 a better bet than the Model 3? Until now, I’d have said the Tesla was pretty much my favourite electric car, at least among those EVs that are fairly affordable (although let’s face it, almost all EVs are expensive by the standards of most car buyers’ budgets) but now I’m not so sure. The two cars are very similar in size and layout, although the i4 has a hatchback design rather than the Tesla’s through-loading conventional boot opening.
But despite this similarity of format, the two cars are very different in character. The Tesla has a freshness, purity and modernity to it that can probably only come from a completely clean sheet design produced by clever people who question everything about the way cars have been made until now, and who come to the task without too much baggage. It feels like something that has grown out of the technology industry rather than the motor industry. The BMW is in many ways at the opposite end of the scale. Electric cars are still cars, and the vast accumulated experience of the so-called legacy car makers is still relevant to electric vehicles. In BMW’s case that experience goes back almost a century. That’s a century of experience in producing door seals that carry on sealing for years, panels that fit superbly, paintwork that looks great and lasts for decades, a door ‘thunk’ that sounds just right – small things that sound easy, but are in fact really hard to get consistently right. And that’s before you add in other areas of expertise such as logistics and factory organisation, or the long-term management of supplier relationships and distribution networks. You can feel all of that coming through when you sit in the i4 and then drive it, but both the Tesla and BMW approaches have their enormous pluses and the Model 3 and the i4 are both among the best electric cars you can buy today.
A good way of looking at it is to think of the Tesla as being a product for those who are primarily interested in the ‘electric’ bit in electric cars, people whose main interest is in technology, and who have developed an interest in cars, perhaps for the first time, on the basis of electrification and advances in in-car technology. The i4 is more for people who are concerned mainly with the ‘car’ aspect of electric cars – long-standing car enthusiasts, perhaps, who are looking for an EV that retains the best aspects of the petrol and diesel cars they grew up with, and which carries an established badge.
For most people, that probably works as a tie breaker between the two. As a lover of gadgets and technology as well as a lifelong car enthusiast I have a foot in both camps, but I have to admit that the i4 has really turned my head.