International First Drive - BMW i4
FOR: Looks like a BMW. Drives like a BMW.
AGAINST: M50 is fast but flawed.
BMW i4 eDrive40
BMW i4 M50
The south-east of France is many things. Picturesque, yes, boasting some of the finest blue-watered coastlines and lakes ensconced by snow-capped peaks and stunning vistas. This also means some beautifully carved roads that BMW has chosen to allow us to meet its latest all-electric car, the BMW i4 destined to make Mzansi landfall in Q3 this year.
Whatever your opinions of BMW’s adventurous design with the all-electric iX featured in our last issue, whether misadventure or success, you’ll be pleased or surprised to know that the next electric model making its way here won’t be as polarising. In fact, you may not even notice it until you rubberneck it in traffic and question whether you really did see a 4-Series Gran Coupe with an ‘i’ on its snout or boot lid.
On the face of it, the BMW i4 is indeed a 4-Series GC that just happens to be powered by batteries. Only the keen-eyed among you will notice the slick omission of tailpipes or the closed kidney grille or the blue-bordered BMW badges. Those are the easy tells but specific to the new BMW i4, BMW has also seen it necessary to ensure air performance, two-tone alloy wheel designs to set it apart from the ICE 4-Series Gran Coupe.
BMW’s electric architecture is well and truly resolved into its overall strategy. The i4 emerges as one of the ‘greenest’ electric products from BMW, with sustainable sourcing and CO2-free battery production. The entire hardware and packaging solution for BMW EV’s is now scalable and modular, allowing BMW to custom-pick the right-sized hardware for the vehicle in question.
The case for power
In the case of the BMW i4, there are 110mm lithium-ion battery cells in tubs of cell-modules with management and water-cooling units all built into the structure. These power the synchronous motors, one within the rear-drive setup of the eDrive40 or two within the all-wheel-driven 400kW M50.
The M50, like its larger iX sibling sports a 190kW motor at the front axle with a 230kW motor at the rear. The difference between the iX and the i4 range is that the overall battery capacity is smaller, the i4 having to work with a net capacity of 80.7kWh as opposed 105kWh on the larger iX.
The big news with this new duo is the ability to access up to 205 kW DC charging. In the real world of first-world charging, our charge test juiced us up from 10% - 55% in 21-minutes, for a resultant 292 km of range given our driving efficiency at the time. It means a regular coffee-stop off the highway could yield 164 km in around 10-minutes (in the eDrive40). In order for this to be achieved, you need both the DC charging infrastructure as well as the vehicle hardware to be able to charge at this rate. The first-world infrastructure of France’s motorways has a number of 300 kW fast-charging stations along many main routes. Here in SA however, we’re further behind with our fastest charging stations doling out some 30 kW or 60 kW in most cases. But we will see 80 kW and 150 kW charging stations rolling out as the year progresses so the technology won’t be lost on us when these cars arrive later this year.
We’re all set to drive a near-400km route that will see us escape the blue-watered coastal roads of the Côte d'Azur heading up into the mountains of St Vallier de Thiey and on to the famous Verdon Gorge. It’s a spectacular route unearthing stunning pieces of small-town France and even more stunning roads. The roads are narrow yet immaculately tarred especially as we near the gorge itself. Every corner type is revealed as we dial into this electric BMW that feels very much like a…BMW.
We’re driving the eDrive40 for the first leg of the route. The 250 kW on tap is effective in any setting but the 40 rides with the poise and directness of any other BMW saloon. There’s a weight to the steering and the rear bias isn’t unfamiliar. It’s an easy car to drive fast or slowly and knitting it through the myriad corners and road surfaces doesn’t show up any signs of concern. With up to 116 kW of brake energy recovery, it’s a no-brainer to just leave the car in this setting. It will recover energy every time you come off the pedal or coast; or when you actually hit the brakes. We have no issues of range anxiety at all, even if we cover the entire trip sans charging. The eDrive40 feels solidly put together and drives like a BMW. Job done then?
Familiarity on the inside
The cabin appointments too are familiar BMW fare. The switchgear, materials and build quality all signal normal BMW until you get to the new infotainment centre. This is the next generation BMW OS8 version, quite similar to that found on the iX. It features a floating screen that stretches from the driver’s view instrument display across to the central screen. As much as it is one piece, it houses two screens, a 12.9" surface on the instrument display and then a 14.9" piece for the infotainment console. It’s BMW like never before with customisable views and access to a lengthy list of features including those for in-car connectivity. The big news here is that this OS also features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – with an ability for the screen to use almost the entire display for the app view and an ability to project some app views onto the driver’s display as well. It’s the first car I know of to do this and it provides a more natural phone connectivity experience. Whilst the system speed and overall UX is excellent, I can’t help feel BMW has loaded too much functionality into the iDrive system where it could have added either shortcuts or actual buttons for certain functions. The lane assist is a default setting that resets at every start. In order to turn it off, involves a few clicks to the system and this was a little time-consuming.
The other oddity is the design of the screen(s) which sits atop the dash almost as an add-on. It just looks odd, almost similar to the older Mercedes Benz infotainment screens that jutted out from the dash in a not-so-sexy fashion. This i4 system is much better of course, but odd nonetheless.
Some (M)agic still
Our afternoon driving session sees us hop into the much anticipated BMW i4 M50. That ‘M’ is the key difference between this and the eDrive40. The M50 has been markedly tweaked by the M-Performance division and as such, the M50 comes with standard fitment of the Adaptive M Suspension, M Sport Braking system, M Sport Aero package and a few M interior details. It looks the part sitting on larger wheels some 10 mm lower to the ground and with a centre of gravity that is 37 mm lower than a 3-Series.
It's also far more powerful, those two motors responsible for 400 kW but BMW couldn’t just rely on power alone for the M50, it had to increase rigidity through additional bracing elements on the front and rear axle and work in adaptive dampers with a sports steering set up. The result was supposed to be a more dynamic drive still with the inherent feel of a BMW M-Sport-oriented car. I’m not sure I got that entirely but in fairness, my drive of the M50 had far less mountain pass cornering that was experienced the eDrive40 and instead consisted of a fairly short mix of B-roads with a lengthy section of motorway driving. What I felt in that time was a car that had a fussy edge to it and exhibited a more skittish behaviour over imperfect surfaces. It didn’t exude that ease with which one can generally drive a BMW and it was certainly very different in nature to the eDrive40.
Any car with some 150 kW more power and 365 Nm more torque is going to feel different but the M50 as fast as it is, doesn’t feel as natural a drive as its less powerful sibling and even its 4-Series ICE colleagues. Its speed is undeniably memorable with that immediacy of power being quite addictive. It accelerates with formidable shove all the way to its electronically limited top end. It’s the right-pedal solution to that occasionally needed overtaking acceleration. Its steering is also sharper and with driving modes that include a Speed Boost mode, accessing all the available power is done at the touch of a screen click. If only there was a sound to go with that name, Speed Boost. There is, actually. BMW chose to call on the services of multiple Oscar-winning film score composer Hans Zimmer to create what is now BMW electric car’s symphonic sound. The result is something out of the best sci-fi movie set in 2050. As contrived as it is, it pairs well with the performance of the i4 M50 in warp Speed Boost mode. Well done Hans. We’ll be awarding the Best Electric Car Sound award very soon.
As an overall package the i4’s appeal is in its normalcy. Its design is unashamedly 4-Series and it will do near 500 kms on a single charge which is commendable and comfortable for most people. Pricing will be key here but given BMW’s aggressive pricing on its iX, the i4 may just be priced well enough to warrant very serious consideration by 4-Series GC buyers who are up for the switch to the electric life.