Electric hatchbacks don’t come much more usable than VW’s latest e-Golf. But is it better than the radical BMW i3?
*** Note : £1 = $1.30
BMW i3 94Ah
List price £33,070
Target Price £28,570 (after £4500 government grant)
Space-age looks and technology are matched by strong performance
List price £32,190
Target Price £27,690 (after £4500 government grant)
New version benefits from an improved range and the same practicality as any Golf
PC or Mac? Regardless of your interest in tech, it’s a question you’ll no doubt have an answer for. In reality, both do virtually the same job – namely, to act as a personal computer – and yet they encapsulate two entirely different ways of thinking.
The same can be said for the two cars in this test. Both are electric, both claim a near-identical range and both achieve similar results, albeit by following distinctly different paths. For example, the BMW i3 has been built from the ground up to be the ultimate urban electric car. It positively shouts about its electrification with its carbonfibre construction, quirky rear-hinged rear doors and futuristic styling.
The Volkswagen e-Golf, on the other hand, takes a more functional approach, sacrificing none of the excellent ergonomics that make the standard Golf a dominant force. It’s restrained and classless and blends into the crowd. So, which approach results in the best electric hatchback?
Driving – Performance, ride, handling, refinement
It’s unlikely that you’ll want to drive your electric car fl at out very often, but it’s the i3 that will get you away from the lights quickest. Plant your right foot and it scampers from 0-60mph in a hot hatch-rivalling 7.2sec – a whole 1.5sec quicker than the rather more pedestrian e-Golf can manage.
Benefiting from its carbonfibre construction, the i3 is a whopping 285kg lighter than the e-Golf, and BMW, unlike VW, has gone to the trouble of fitting stiffer suspension than you’d normally find in a family hatchback. But while the e-Golf steers accurately and generally stays composed, the i3 all too often feels unstable, with overly quick yet uncommunicative steering forcing the driver to take several bites at corners. Granted, the relatively skinny tyres provide more grip than you might expect, but hit a mid-corner bump and the tall i3 feels nervous and twitchy.
The e-Golf has a much more comfortable ride than the i3, staying composed even over nasty, sharp-edged bumps, while smaller imperfections are shrugged off with ease. The i3’s ride, even on standard 19in wheels, is decidedly poor at low speeds, with smaller bumps being transmitted straight into the interior. The situation is only exacerbated on the optional 20in wheels.
The i3 and e-Golf are more evenly matched in terms of refinement. The electric motors are virtually silent in both cars, with none of the high-pitched whine that you get in, say, the Nissan Leaf or Renault Zoe. However, the i3 generates slightly more road noise at higher speeds.
BMW claims a real-world range of 125 miles for the i3, while VW says the e-Golf can cover 124 miles between charges. However, in our test it was the e-Golf that came out on top, eking out 78 miles to the i3’s 74. That’s a surprise, because the i3 has far stronger energy recuperation when you lift off the accelerator, almost rendering the brake pedal redundant.
Behind the wheel – Driving position, visibility, build quality
Although the e-Golf is one of the most futuristic hatches on the market, its interior is distinctly traditional. In fact, apart from some blue stitching on the steering wheel, a bespoke digital instrument panel and extra modes on the gear selector, there’s little to indicate that it’s an electric car at all. And for some, that familiarity will be a major drawcard.
By contrast, the i3’s interior looks far more modern. The upright seating position, low dashboard and large windscreen give you a panoramic view of the road ahead. BMW has also done away with traditional instrument dials, opting instead for a small digital screen ahead of the driver. Most other functions are handled by the central infotainment screen.
Our only real gripe is that the i3’s driver’s seat doesn’t offer adjustable lumbar support, even as an option, and despite looking distinctly premium, there are a few areas (such as the leading edge of the glovebox) where the VW has the BMW beaten for build quality.
A 6.5in display is standard, but the Professional media package (£960) fitted to our test car is a must-have option, adding a 10.2in screen, a bigger iDrive rotary dial controller with a touchpad on top (for entering postcodes with your finger), a 20GB hard drive and upgraded sat-nav with real-time traffic info. The rotary dial is easier to use than a touchscreen, but it’s disappointing that Apple CarPlay and Android Auto phone mirroring aren’t available.
The e-Golf receives VW’s glossy new 9.2in Discover Navigation Pro touchscreen as standard. It comes packed with tech, including Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and MirrorLink, as well as a suite of applications and services, including those from Volkswagen’s own Car-Net scheme. However, the screen can be difficult to operate on the move, and the new gesture control system is more of a gimmick than a genuine tool.
Space and practicality – Front space, rear space, seating flexibility, boot
Both cars are spacious in the front, although the i3 feels roomier, because there’s no conventional centre console. The fact that the parking brake switch and drive selector are both located on the steering column also frees up space between the front seats.
Things are different in the rear, though. While the e-Golf offers easy access and enough head and leg room for six-footers, the i3 is decidedly cramped and claustrophobic. And although those rear-hinged doors look cool and open to reveal a decent aperture, a high floor hampers access. What’s more, the fact that you can’t open the rear doors without first opening the front ones is highly inconvenient.
The four-seat i3’s rear seatbacks fold down in a 50/50 split, whereas the five-seat e-Golf’s split 60/40. Both cars have a similarly wide boot opening, and there’s virtually no load lip on the i3, but the e-Golf is in a different league in terms of capacity. The i3’s boot is smaller than a Ford Fiesta’s, with just about enough space to swallow a modest weekly shop.
Official boot capacity 260-1100 litres Suitcase capacity 4
Official boot capacity 341-1232 litres Suitcase capacity 5
Buying and owning – Costs, equipment, reliability, safety and security
The e-Golf is around £1000 cheaper to buy than the i3 if you’re paying cash for it. However, it’s a different story if you’re buying on finance, with the i3 offering lower monthly PCP repayments. It’s cheaper to lease, too.
The money you save initially will be offset by the i3’s higher running costs, though. While the i3 will cost you less per charge (due to its slightly smaller battery), it will be significantly more expensive to service and will lose more in depreciation over three years. Insurance premiums will be higher, too, due to the cost of repairing the carbonfibre body.
Both cars come with the capability of rapid charging, with the i3 able to return to 80% capacity within 40 minutes and the e-Golf taking five minutes longer. It’s possible to charge both cars using a domestic 240V supply, although it’ll take 10 hours in the BMW and 13 hours in the VW just to return to 80%. From a charging station (the home-installed kind), both cars will take around four hours to reach this level.
Out of the box, the e-Golf is the better-equipped car. Luxuries such as front and rear parking sensors, LED headlights and a top-spec infotainment system, all of which are standard on the e-Golf, are options on the i3.
As for safety, it’s the e-Golf that comes out on top, receiving a full five stars in its Euro NCAP crash test. The i3, on the other hand, scored highly for adult and child occupant protection but lost a star due to its poor performance in both the pedestrian impact test and safety assist section; unlike the e-Golf, the i3 doesn’t get automatic emergency braking as standard.
BMW should be commended for going above and beyond in its attempt to build the ultimate urban runabout; the i3 is fast, energy efficient and well put together. However, for a vehicle designed from the ground up to be all-electric, it’s also surprisingly compromised. The i3 suffers from a poor low-speed ride, while its rear seats are cramped and it can’t cover quite as much distance between charges as the e-Golf.
The e-Golf succeeds because it works brilliantly as an electric car, yet it doesn’t compromise on practicality, equipment or driving dynamics. It may not excite you as much as the i3, but at least it doesn’t over-promise and under-deliver.
1st – Volkswagen e-Golf
For Longer real-world range; comfortable ride; more practical; cheaper to run
Against Higher monthly PCP payments; so-so performance; dreary interior
Specifications: Volkswagen e-Golf
- Engine Electric motor
- Battery capacity 35.8kWh
- Gearbox Single-speed automatic
- List price £32,190
- Target Price £27,690 (after £4500 government grant)
- Power 134bhp
- Torque 213lb ft
- 0-60mph 8.7sec
- Top speed 93mph
- Range (real-world claim) 124 miles
- Range (real-world claim) 78 miles
- Cost of a full charge £4.65
- Cost of electricity per mile 5.9p
2nd – BMW i3
For Classier interior; impressive performance; futuristic looks
Against Poor ride; not as practical; nervous handling; costly to service and insure
Specifications: BMW i3 94Ah
- Engine Electric motor
- Battery capacity 33kWh
- Gearbox Single-speed automatic
- List price £33,070
- Target Price £28,570 (after £4500 government grant)
- Power 168bhp
- Torque 184lb ft
- 0-60mph 7.2sec
- Top speed 93mph
- Range (real-world claim) 125 miles
- Range (real-world claim) 74 miles
- Cost of a full charge £4.29
- Cost of electricity per mile 5.8p