The i4 takes BMW into uncharted territory. Jonathan Crouch drives it.
Ten Second Review
BMW's i4 is a mid-sized EV sports saloon aimed at the very heart of the business sector, a car that incorporates all of the company's traditional brand values. And does so in a way that should appeal to EV customers looking for a more involving, individual choice in this segment.
The ICE age, as in 'Internal Combustion Era', is almost over and BMW is ready for what lies beyond. This car, the i4, was at launch the most important EV the brand had introduced to date. And there's a good case for calling it the most important BMW for decades.
The company's been dabbling with EVs for a very long time now, ever since its 'Project i' division produced the ground-breaking little i3 back in 2013. After that though, there was a rather disappointing seven year gap, at the end of which we got a conventional looking EV version of the X3 (the iX3), then a year later, what looked like a properly dedicated design, the iX, which did in fact merely run on a (heavily modified) version of the company's combustion-orientated CLAR platform. The i4, launched in 2022, isn't designed around a properly bespoke EV platform either - that's coming with the 'Neue Klasse' EV models the company's introducing later in this decade. But it is very much a 'proper' BMW, as we're about to find out.
When you imagine a 'proper' BMW, the car you tend to think of is a 3 Series saloon and if you were to conceptualise one of those as an EV, this is pretty close to what you might end up with. Actually, this i4 has a bit more in common with the brand's swoopier 4 Series Gran Coupe, not least because it has a swept-back GT silhouette with a tailgate rather than a boot. Anyway, what you need to know is that there's lots of carry-over between this i4 and those 3 and 4 Series models, all three designs made at the same BMW Group Plant Munich German factory.
This car gets the fifth-generation of the brand's advanced 'eDrive' system, which incorporates this Bavarian maker's latest battery, motor, and charging technologies. And it's intended as a sportier alternative to pricier versions of more established Executive mid-sized EV sporting models, nearly all of them cars that really were designed from the ground-up as EVs, like the Tesla Model 3, the Polestar 2, the Hyundai IONIQ 6, the Kia EV6 and the Volkswagen ID.7.
i4 customers choose between three powertrains. The eDrive35 model gets a rear-mounted electric motor putting out 286hp and is good for 299 miles. The eDrive40 model gets a rear-mounted electric motor putting out 335hp, enough to power the car to 62mph in 5.7s en route to 118mph - the WLTP-rated range is up to 365 miles. If that's not fast enough, your alternative is the high performance M50 variant, which offers a rear-biased xDrive all-wheel drive system. Here, the rear-mounted electric motor is joined by another on the front axle, creating a total output of 537hp, enough to get the car to 62mph in just 3.9s on the way to 140mph. The driving range figure falls though, to 318 miles.
BMW hopes to set a fresh standard for handling in this segment and to that end has stiffened the chassis, given the car sharp, engaging steering and incorporated wider tracks than you get on a 3 Series. Rear air suspension is standard across the range and the M50 adds adaptive M dampers, plus a unique 'Sport Boost' function that can be used to release the drivetrain's maximum output when the car is being driven in 'Sport' mode. All i4 variants get a Dynamic Stability Control system that works 10 times quicker than a conventional set-up.
Design and Build
Visually, this i4 aims to offer a more sporting take on what a mid-sized EV should be. The dimensions, 4,785mm long, 1,852mm wide and 1,448mm tall, are similar to those of the brand's 3 Series saloon, but there's also a 'Gran Coupe'-style GT look that gives this car a more upmarket demeanour. Unlike the larger iX, there's no EV-specific platform. Instead, under the skin, the i4 uses basically the same CLAR modular cluster architecture that features in all of the brand's other mid and large-sized models, though with a super-slim lithium ion battery inserted beneath the floor of the passenger cell. The sleek shape has a drag coefficient of just 0.24Cd, helped by active elements like 10-stage adjustable flaps in the front kidney grille that open and close to aid aerodynamic efficiency.
Inside, there's a completely new approach to the company's iDrive cabin screen design. This sees a 12.3-inch digital instrument panel paired to 14.9-inch central infotainment screen, creating what the brand calls a 'Curved Display'. This is held in place by a supporting structure concealed from the occupants' view, so it appears to be standing freely in the cockpit. And the use of anti-reflective glass makes it possible to dispense with the binnacle usually required to shield the readouts from sunlight.
Because there's no bespoke EV architecture, the wheelbase length's the same as a 4 Series Gran Coupe, which means there's way less space in the rear than many rival EVs. But some compensation comes with the tailgate rises to reveal a big 470-litre boot.
Market and Model
Prices start at around £50,000 for the i4 eDrive35 model with base 'Sport' trim; allow £1,500 more for 'M Sport' trim. You'll need around £58,000 for the i4 eDrive40 'Sport' - and the same premium for more dynamic-looking 'M Sport' spec. The top i4 M50 flagship model costs around £71,000.
Most will want the eDrive40 'M Sport' model, which comes with 18-inch M aerodynamic wheels, BMW's 'Live Cockpit Plus' dual cabin screens and black Alcantara and 'Sensatec' (man made leather) upholstery and trim. It also shares the same M Sport Exterior Styling, M Sport Spoiler and Aluminium Rhombicle Anthracite Trim of the flagship i4 M50.
Equipment standard to all versions includes a reversing camera, Parking Assistant, automatic air conditioning, ambient lighting and LED lights front and back. A host of options are also available, enabling customers to personalise their i4 to their own individual requirements. BMW offers around 40 assistance functions for the i4 either as standard or as an option to enhance safety and comfort when driving and parking. For those looking for the ultimate sound experience, there is the Harman Kardon surround sound system, complete with 16 speakers and a digital seven-channel amplifier delivering 464 watts of audio power which is optional on the i4 eDrive40 and standard on the i4 M50.
Cost of Ownership
We'll re-state the range figures we gave you in our 'Driving Experience' section. The i4 eDrive40 delivers a claimed WLTP-rated range of up to 365 miles per charge from its 81.5kWh-plus battery pack, 66 miles more than the base eDrive35 variant (which uses a smaller 67kWh battery). With the i4 M50 model meanwhile, the extra weight of the 4WD system lowers that range figure to 318 miles. In a bid to keep weight down, the Munich maker has optimised driving range by increasing the energy density of the batteries used, rather than increasing their size.
All models have a maximum recharging rate of 200kW, which means the battery can be recharged from 10-80% in as little as 31 minutes. Adaptive and individually regulated recuperation during overrun and braking allows the efficiency of the drive system in the i4 to be increased in a way that no other model in this segment can. Intelligently connected drive management means the intensity of the brake energy recuperation can be adapted to the road situation, as detected by data from the navigation system and the sensors used by the driver assistance systems.
Over an ownership period of 125,000 miles, BMW claims that the i4 eDrive40 will have a 45%-lower global warming potential than that of a comparable diesel 3 or 4 Series model. And the brand is seeking to enhance the sustainability of its supply chain and increase its use of recycled materials for the i4. All of which will help to cut production emissions by 18%.
The i4 sets new standards for drive dynamics in the mid-sized EV segment. But the combustion-orientated chassis that allows it to do that compromises practicality and rear seat space. If that's not an issue and you don't mind paying a touch more than expected for your mid-sized premium-badged EV, then there's lots to like here.
We can't really see why you'd compromise with the smaller-battery eDrive35 version. Or why you'd really need the manic performance of the top M50 variant. Which leaves the mid-level eDrive40 model offering the sweet spot in the range. It's a pity BMW hasn't invested in the 800V architecture that features in some rivals for ultra-rapid charging. But battery charging speeds are very competitive by 400V system standards.
The challenge now is to BMW to replicate the engaging handling on offer here as part of the bespoke 'Neue Klasse' EV chassis that will be used in the brand's future electric models. What we need from them is what we've got from this i4; which feels like a BMW to the core, from its rear-biased drive system to the style of the panel work and the iDrive-cleverness of the interior. Previously, if you loved BMWs but needed an EV, you really needed to buy something else. Now the Munich maker has your number. And this might well be it.