First Drive: 2021 BMW i4 Review
There are two schools of thought when it comes to EVs, be that electrifying an existing model to minimise the emotional leap for those transitioning from ICE models or coming up with something truly innovative and different to make the switch feel like a decisive leap into a new automotive age. BMW is arguably hedging its bets and playing both sides to see which way its customers want to go. We’ve had the bold, technically innovative i3 and i4 and – if somewhat less subtle – the iX from the same electrified sub-brand. But at the same time EV versions of existing ICE models, like the iX3. The i4 is definitely in the latter camp, given it’s effectively a 4 Series Gran Coupe with the petrol or diesel powertrain replaced by a chunky underfloor battery pack and – in the case of the M50 version driven here – motors on both axles. With 544PS (400kW) and 795Nm (588lb ft) the M50 combines Model 3 chasing performance with over 300 miles of official range and, while it’s not an official M model, has the pace to keep an M3 honest. Rear-wheel-drive versions with less power but more range will follow in due course.
- Goes like stink
- Handles like a proper BMW
- More range, less anxiety
We don't like
- That grille (still)
- An ICE car in drag
- Assisted driving fails to convince
Hand on heart, upon arrival at Munich airport and presented with a line-up of i4 M50s as we were you could be mistaken for wondering where the EVs were at. No great surprise given the batteries and motors have been squeezed into a body very much playing by the ICE rulebook, with a traditional long bonnet, sleek windowline and rear-set bodywork, complete with cutouts in the rear valance for exhaust pipes. Bar a few ‘i’ flourishes there really is very little to set it apart from a ‘normal’ BMW, which for some people may be exactly the point. Credit where it’s due; unlike a lot of ICE-adapted rivals the i4 seems less compromised in terms of space for batteries and motors and, with well over 300 miles of range, it’s on a par with dedicated EVs like the Model 3.
Performance and Handling
There’s lots of both, you’ll be pleased to hear. Thoughts on the rear-wheel-drive, 340PS (250kW) eDrive40 version will have to wait until we’ve had a chance to drive it but, given it’ll hit 0-62mph in less than six seconds and has an official range of 365 miles, it sounds like a pretty healthy balance, and roughly on a par with the six-cylinder turbocharged 3 and 4 Series models we know and love.
No such subtly for the M50. A total of 544PS and a crushing 795Nm of torque are enough to make a mockery of the 2,290kg kerb weight, all scored by Hans Zimmer with a commendably exciting electronic soundtrack carefully matched to your chosen mode, throttle input and (rapidly) building speed. From the eerie silence of Eco Plus mode the transition to Sport Plus and its combination of scenery blurring acceleration and increasingly intense ‘noise’ is literally shocking, and much more than a gimmick. The team behind the M50 clearly grew up on ‘proper’ BMWs, too, and the nifty self-contained drive units (comprising motor, diff, gearbox and control unit) have been tweaked in power and gearing to contrive a definite rear-bias to the handling thanks to a single control unit (known as ARB-X) cleverly balancing their output. With front end grip and steering feel to lean against, throttle adjustability mild or wild is there for the taking, a centre of gravity 37mm lower than an ICE 4 Series Gran Coupe combined with expertly judged air-sprung rear suspension meaning the i4 handles with alacrity at odds with the listed kerb weight. The response of BMW’s ‘electrically excited’ motors (as opposed to conventional magnetic ones) and features like the neat integrated brake system combining conventional retardation with automatically controlled regeneration are all perfectly carried off, the sense the i4 has been developed as a driver’s car first and EV second going some way to repair BMW’s ‘ultimate driving machine’ cred.
Short version? Conventionally BMW… with a big screen jutting out of the top of the dash on the basis that’s what people seemingly expect of anything claiming future tech bragging rights. Little to spook anyone coming from a 3 or 4 Series of the last couple of generations, in other words, with a low-slung seating position, driver-oriented cockpit and nice balance between the hard-edged modernism and unabashed opulence. True, it’s a lot more old-school than the pared-back minimalism of a Tesla or Scandi-cool of Polestar but it’s at least cohesive and well made. Given the proportions you might be surprised to see a hatchback liftgate on the back and the seating is definitely geared for four rather than five occupants but, for an ICE-derived EV, BMW has been very smart with tucking away the batteries, motors and control systems without intruding into the interior or load spaces.
Technology and Features
For a car that’s so good to drive it seems odd BMW has gone to so much effort to automate the process but such is progress. If you can suspend disbelief the assisted driving is actually pretty impressive in the way it uses both cameras and sat-nav to steer and adjust speed, even on rural roads. But you still need a (light) hand on the wheel, and the fact you have to remain fully engaged even when the car is supposedly in control seemingly negates the whole point. Especially when it suddenly hands control back without warning or – seemingly – decides it’s not going to stop at this stop line or T-junction despite having done so the last few times. In terms of the tech you interact day to day the all-new evolution of iDrive at least offers you the choice of voice, gesture or physical control according to your preferences (or demographic) and the structure has enough fundamental similarity with previous versions to make it an easy swap for existing BMW drivers.
An EV for people who want a BMW, not an EV, the i4 is a convincing reinterpretation of BMW’s long traditions for the electric age. And, arguably, one of the better driving non-M products it’s built in years. For fans of the brand that’s great news, given it means they support their chosen team and finally have something to get the Tesla bros shifting uncomfortably in their seats. Electrification offers the opportunity for radical reinvention of the automobile as we know it, but the i4 is not that. It’s what we know and love in the BMWs we’ve grown up with, reinvented for the battery-operated age. And in that a pragmatic, rather than innovative, step on the path to the post-ICE age. Clever with it. But one for those whose first move into EVs will be a tentative toe in the water, rather than full immersion.
Dual electric motors, 83.9kWh battery
|Torque||795Nm (588lb ft)|
|Range, efficiency||318 miles, 3.8 miles/kW|
|Charging||8.5 hours to 100 per cent with an 11kW charger, 31 minutes from 10-80 per cent with a 200kW fast charger|
|Price||£63,905 (i4 eDrive 40 Sport from £51,905)|
Reviewed by Dan Trent