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For the very first time, BMW targets its spiritual heartland with an all-electric model

Nobody can accuse Munich of rushing the BMW i4.

As far back as 2010, the company was already putting experimental versions of an electric Mini into the hands of civilian testers to gather as much everyday data as possible. The findings went on to inform Project i: an ambitious attempt to put BMW ahead of premium rivals in the sustainable mobility game. Launching in 2014, it almost succeeded.

Spec advice? First, think carefully about whether you want the M50 at all. In truth, the single-motor cars are the more sweetly balanced and easy-going driver’s cars. Otherwise, we’d have M Sport trim, the M Sport Pro suspension and steering upgrades, and BMW's Comfort Pack.

After years of tantalising concepts, Project i bore production-ready fruit in the form of the all-electric BMW i3 city hatch and the plug-in hybrid BMW i8 coupé – sophisticated models and cast-iron future classics both, but they pushed the envelope too far for existing BMW customers, and neither caught on quite as successfully as BMW would have hoped. Then nothing for seven years, until an electrified BMW iX3 arrived in 2021, allowing BMW to plant a flagpole bang in the centre of the SUV EV Venn diagram. The BMW iX, iX1 and i7 have all flooded in behind since.

But still we waited for an all-electric BMW that might just have the breadth of aesthetic and dynamic appeal of the evergreen, ever-popular, ever-brilliant BMW 3 Series.

Finally, here it is: the i4, which you could fairly describe as the first ‘proper’ electric BMW and therefore an exceedingly significant car for the brand. Certainly, the execution has been given the gift of time.

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This saloon - whose launch was considered so important that it was prioritised over other BMW models regarding the allocation of precious semiconductor chips right at the worst of the shortage - arrives one decade after the Tesla Model S, five years after the smaller Model 3, and two years after the Porsche Taycan. In short, others have already demonstrated that it’s possible to build an electric four-door with usable driving range, engaging handling, and the polish that luxury sports-saloon owners have always sought.

But while BMW isn’t breaking any ground, there’s still room at the top of this incipient class for a car with an exceptional combination of performance, practicality, quality, dynamism and price. Indeed, if you were to simply electrify the existing G20-generation 3 Series, the result might well be that car.

Of course, while the i4 is based on the same platform as the 3 Series, simply swapping powertrain technology and achieving compelling results is much easier said than done.

The BMW i4 line-up at a glance

The BMW i4 can now be had in three different guises: the less powerful, single-motor, rear-wheel-drive eDrive35 and eDrive40, and the M-flavoured M50 tested here, which gets an extra motor on the front axle for 4WD.

Sport and M Sport trims are available below the M Performance-branded M50, and the latter's expected to outsell the former, opening up as it does BMW's options catalogue a little.

DESIGN & STYLING

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As we've just explained, the BMW i4 comes in three derivative flavours. We’re testing the most powerful, dual-motored M50 derivative, which makes 537bhp and 586lb ft from its two electrically excited AC synchronous motors (one per axle) and in doing so eclipses the BMW M3 Competition in terms of outright clout. The entry-level i4 eDrive35 has just the one motor and 282bhp to power it; the mid-level eDrive40's single rear-mounted motor puts out 335bhp and 317lb ft instead. Both eDrive50 and M50 are fitted with the same 83.9kWh in-house battery pack, which is 20% more energy-dense than the one in the BMW i3, and which has 80.7kWh of usable capacity. In the eDrive35, that's cut to 67kWh of usable capacity, and the WLTP claimed range is cut by around 60 miles to just under 290.

Fifth-generation eDrive technology means the car's maximum charging speed is also the fastest BMW has achieved to date, at 205kW, though this is realised only at lower states of charge. The i4 rapid charges at closer to 100kW through the mid-range of battery capacity.

The i4 has the same controversial kidney grille as the 4 Series Gran Coupé, in this case useful for housing the car’s array of sensors. In eDrive40 trim, it’s rigged in blue, but the M50 gets the more menacing treatment.

Underpinning the i4 is the same modular CLAR platform found underneath the 3 Series and 4 Series. In terms of footprint the two cars are closely aligned, the i4 being just 5mm longer in wheelbase and with marginally wider tracks. This much you can surmise simply by looking at the car, whose silhouette and general proportions resemble those of the 4 Series Gran Coupé.

Twenty-two bolts fix the battery pack into the floorpan, where it adds considerable torsional rigidity to the platform but also adds 550kg, which is why the i4 M50’s claimed 0-62mph time of 3.9sec trails the M3 Competition xDrive by almost half a second. In the entry-level eDrive35, 0-62mph is advertised as taking 6.0sec.

All i4 models get additional bracing around the front struts, and there’s an extra aluminium shear panel below the subframe. Unique to the M50 is another new brace that connects the strut towers, though rather than being flaunted like the carbonfibre brace in the old F80-generation M3, it’s a simple aluminium shaft, hidden beneath undramatic black cladding.

Aside from the battery pack, the only other major departure the i4 makes from the 3/4 Series recipe is to use air springs for the rear axle. That and the traction control system are integrated into the motor management, which eliminates long signal paths for the DSC and allows the system to act up to 10 times faster than it would in a conventional ICE arrangement. Adaptive dampers and variable-ratio power steering are standard on the i4 M50 and can be added to M Sport versions of the lesser models at extra cost by optioning up BMW's M Sport Pro pack.

INTERIOR

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The i4’s interior is effectively a straight translation of the BMW 4 Series Gran Coupé’s. EV-centric changes include small adaptations to the switchgear on the transmission tunnel (and it is a transmission tunnel, even though the i4’s has nothing to fill it), but that’s about it.

There’s also the vast array of the new BMW iDrive 8 infotainment system and integrated digital instrument display. It’s an impressive-looking set-up – if sparkling displays appeal to you – though for anyone in the passenger seat, the ‘floating’ effect of the screen is undermined by the visible and inelegant strut that supports it.

BMW's first i4s featured a chunky, lever-style gear selector, which made them feel slightly more familiar. It's since been replaced with a more fiddly, VW-alike fingertip selector, though, which we regret.

Elsewhere, it’s mostly good news. Perceived quality is very high indeed and the driving ergonomics are best in class, with plenty of adjustability in the steering column and seats. Slide aboard and you become aware that you’re sitting a little higher than you would in a 3 or 4 Series, but that’s on account of the battery pack.

That BMW hasn’t scalloped the pack to preserve the ICE models’ low driving position is hardly cause for complaint. However, it might have found some way to remove the central hump in the second row. Back-seat passengers are already limited in terms of head room, and the redundant propshaft housing only makes space tighter.

Passenger space is one area where the Tesla Model 3 comfortably outperforms the i4, though in terms of boot space, the BMW is back on top. At 470 litres with the back seats in place, it betters not only the Tesla but also the Porsche Taycan and the SUV-style Ford Mustang Mach-E.

BMW i4 infotainment and sat-nav

BMW has taken a leaf from Mercedes’ book with the i4’s huge, anti-reflective curved display, which unifies the 12.3in instrument panel and the 14.9in central infotainment hub. It will divide opinion, and marks the starkest departure to date from the simplicity of BMW’s traditional orange-tinged roundels.

The software itself is that of BMW’s eighth-generation iDrive, and the graphics are ultra-sharp, which is just as well because there is an awful lot of information, and icons that can be shown at any given time. Fortunately, the rotary controller familiar to owners of all modern-era BMWs remains, and it makes short work of navigating between maps, multimedia and charging information. With a little practice - and once you know where to go looking for what, and what shortcuts are at hand - iDrive 8 quickly becomes one of the more slick infotainment experiences in the class.

However, there is also the option of linking your smartphone, either via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Both programmes are well integrated, making use of the entirety of the display, and navigation instructions can also be sent to the head-up display.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

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We’re becoming accustomed to the explosive acceleration EVs can offer, but the BMW i4 M50 still has an ability to take your breath away any time you fully depress the accelerator pedal.

The numbers are impressive: 0-60mph took just 4.1sec even on a damp surface, and the 1.5sec taken to dispatch 40-60mph trails the best effort of a Lamborghini Aventador SVJ by just 0.2sec. But it’s the nature of the performance that’s memorable, particularly in terms of mid-range, roll-on acceleration. Response from the 17,000rpm motors is effectively instantaneous, and with the car’s Sport Boost function engaged, you’re given access to all 537bhp and 586lb ft for up to 10 seconds at a time.

Credit to
BMW because,
without naming names, certain makers have shown that adapting an ICE platform for an EV application yields all sorts of compromises, but the i4 feels much more bespoke and complete than those cars.

Ask everything of the powertrain and you might elicit a momentary shimmy from the rear axle, and perhaps a fleeting scrabble from the over-rotating front tyres, but the i4 M50’s traction control system gets its house in order with remarkable speed and deftness, and thereafter the car devours the road ahead.

As with all the most serious supercars money can buy, you need to have a clear head and good situational judgement before exploring the M50’s full performance potential. Naturally, acceleration is an event devoid of any real sound. The i4’s synthesised substitute for cam whine, intake roar and exhaust growl is the result of a collaboration with celebrated film-score composer Hans Zimmer, but most testers felt the resulting cyber-din came off as one-dimensional and just a little unnerving, as massive speeds accumulate with little audible fanfare. This remains something of a blindspot for fast EVs.

There is, of course, a less frantic side to the i4 M50’s brand of performance, and easy-going pace and precision are arguably its most convincing traits. The car delivers linear, responsive acceleration that can be calmly micro-dosed in a way that makes getting from A to B a relaxing and instinctive experience. You can always tap into the well of performance for warp-speed overtakes, but it’s the powertrain’s straightforward and quietly muscular drivability that makes the car a cinch to live with. However, you get a similar experience with the 335bhp i4 eDrive40, which still feels quick by modern mid-level BMW standards, and even the entry-level eDrive35 has abundant punch away from urban speeds, and for A-road overtakes.

As for braking, it’s largely academic. BMW thinks that with the adaptive regenerative braking programme enabled, 90% of all deceleration can happen without any instance of pad biting disc, and in everyday driving we can vouch that hardly any true brake intervention is required. The pedal is well calibrated, juggling regen and friction braking well.

However, during emergency stops, the i4 M50 was less than convincing, taking 61.4m to stop from 70mph and slithering out of its lane in the process. On the same day, in the same conditions, the Porsche Taycan took just 54.0m and remained arrow-straight. The difference could be in the tyres, the Porsche wearing Michelin Pilot Sport 4 to the BMW’s Pirelli P Zero Elect.

RIDE & HANDLING

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The BMW i4 M50’s centre of gravity sits 34mm lower than that of the 3 Series, and it’s impossible not to notice this and the feeling of added security it brings.

It’s also impossible not to notice the many hundreds of kilograms of extra weight the car carries over its platform-sharing ICE cousins, and this applies when driving both at car-park speeds and when you find yourself on that perfect stretch of B-road. As with any electric car, there are both positive and negative implications from having a battery pack nestled beneath the floor of the car, but with the i4 M50 these seem especially apparent.

The i4 M50’s prodigious performance is all of its own, but it’s those reassuringly familiar 4 Series dynamic properties that might above all else win over BMW loyalists.

Perhaps that’s because the fundamental feel of the car is so recognisable from an M440i Gran Coupé. In this respect, BMW has done a fine job, because the four-door 4 Series is the benchmark for handling in its own class, and the i4 M50 steers with much of the same alacrity and possesses the same brand of poise and balance, only with a good portion of natural agility traded for stability.

On its adaptive suspension – via steel springs at the front but with air springs at the rear – body control is also first class. Anybody swapping their M Sport 3 or 4 Series for an i4 M50 might actually rue the slight loss of the pitch and roll movements, which are useful in communicating grip levels and more importantly can help establish a confidence-inspiring sense of flow. The quality of the steering is similarly influenced by knock-on effects from the weight of the battery; it has a more leaden feel than that of any CLAR-based combustion BMW, but still delivers more uncorrupted precision and feel than any rival EV not named Taycan.

Begin to work the M50’s chassis and the favourable impressions continue. Propulsive duties fall solely to the rear motor until limited grip or traction force the front motor into action and the integration between the two is effectively seamless.

The handling balance is one of rear-flavoured neutrality in much the same style as any xDrive-equipped conventional BMW, with the caveat that the i4 M50 can slip into oversteer with far greater speed and ease. Set the DSC system to its more lenient setting and you can use the i4 M50’s instant torque and rear-led balance to entertaining effect, the car gracefully driving out of the corners with just a touch of yaw but still rampant levels of acceleration. You’ll not derive BMW M3 Competition levels of satisfaction from the i4 M50 – its style is a touch too one-dimensional, and it’s more prone to understeer – but there’s fun to be had, and safe fun at that.

The real elephant in the room, though, is the presence of the purer-handling single-motor models. With a reduced steering ratio and less bracing in the nose, they lacks the M50’s sense of precision and focus, but cover ground more sweetly and, at legal speeds, more fluidly. They're lighter and slightly nimbler, simpler in their delivery of power to only one axle, and in many ways they feel the more cohesive cars to drive. Given the limited emotional pull of any EV powertrain, the case for having the M50 over either the eDrive40 or eDrive35 is weaker than that for, say, having an M3 Competition instead of an M340i.

Track notes

The i4 M50 doesn’t entertain as naturally on track as an M340i can. The physical forces at play are simply too great to take much enjoyment in the car’s limit handling, and there’s a sense of jeopardy that comes from taking slip angles with the thick end of 2.3 tonnes underneath you.

Although the M50 is accurate and stable, adaptations to the power steering and suspension on account of that weight have also toned down the communication levels you get from CLAR-based ICE cars.

Moreover, limit handling seems compromised by the tyres, which relinquish grip quite suddenly when weight transfer is involved. The car’s aptitude in biasing torque can cover its tracks to some extent but, even then, sometimes the system doesn’t know whether to sustain a slide with more power to the rear or kill it by favouring the front axle.

Comfort and isolation

There are times when the i4 M50 summons the kind of serenity you’d expect from the 7 Series. The ride quality is never without sporting undertones and it's never quite as filtered or isolating as in bigger BMWs, but low-speed bump absorption is particularly good in light of our test car’s 20in alloys and the quietness and crisp responsiveness of the electric powertrain mean the car glides through urban environments in effortless fashion.

As speeds increase, ride comfort continues to be one of the i4’s strengths, though during motorway cruising, the effect is more class-leading junior saloon than luxury-focused mid- or full-sized executive. Even so, for a car of huge performance potential, the i4 M50 remains superbly well mannered when covering big distances. Recording 65dBA at 70mph, it is conspicuously quieter than even a BMW M8 Competition.

The BMW bolsters its credentials with fine, supportive seats, an excellent driving position, the intuitive layout of its various controls and good visibility all round, even if we would prefer the tailgate to afford the driver a broader view of the road behind. It cossets front-seat occupants in almost GT-car style but offers the sense of light and space those cars typically lack. The i4’s adaptive braking programme, whereby regenerative braking force is automatically adjusted in response to junctions and traffic ahead, is also calibrated well enough that you learn to rely on it instinctively.

Where the i4 slightly blots its copybook concerns its turning circle. At 12.5m, the car needs much more space to change direction than an M440i Gran Coupé (11.3m). You’ll be reminded of that every time an unusually tight turn is required.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

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Prices for the i4 start at £49,995 for the entry-level eDrive35 Sport, rising to £53,405 for the eDrive40 M Sport, before jumping to £63,850 for the range-topping M50 tested here. With an interesting paint job, some trim-based extras and one or two option packs, the price rises to more than £70,000 – in the case of our test car to £76,715.

Like for like, the i4 costs around £10,000 more than the equivalent 4 Series Gran Coupé, though the ICE model will still be far more profitable for BMW than the EV. So the i4 M50 isn’t in bargain territory, but BMW does seem to have dropped it into clear air.

BMW can’t match the freakishly good residuals of the Porsche Taycan, but over time it equals those of the Tesla Model 3.

There are some SUV-style EVs that are almost as fast as the M50, look sharp and cost notably less (the Kia EV6 among them), but they offer little of the dynamic engagement or GT-style charm of the BMW. On the other hand, the entry-level Porsche Taycan is a fabulous driver’s car and also seats four, but it’s quite a bit slower than the M50 and costs £73,000 before options. The fact is there’s nothing to touch the M50 in its price range when it comes to all-round appeal. Certainly not, as anyone who has sampled an i4 and its arch-rival Tesla Model 3 Performance back to back will attest, for those who value carefully tuned, quietly satisfying driving dynamics.

Meanwhile, if you're considering a higher-end Hyundai Ioniq 6, Volvo C40 Recharge or Nissan Ariya, you might well be impressed to find out that something as stylish and desirable as the entry-level i4 eDrive35 can be had for a comparable price.

As for efficiency, in cold conditions our test car averaged 2.3mpkWh for an outright range of 186 miles, but that average included a lot of performance testing. It increased to 2.9mpkWh on the motorway, which translates to more than 230 miles between charges. In warmer weather, expect around 230 miles from the eDrive35, 250 from the M50 and around 275from the eDrive40.

VERDICT

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Unlike Mercedes, Volkswagen and Volvo, BMW has so far elected not to publicly declare that it is set to go ‘all in’ when it comes to electric cars. This makes it all the more impressive that, in the i4, the company has built the most broadly desirable mainstream EV to date, at least in terms of everyday appeal.

The range-topping, Porsche Taycan-baiting M50 derivative tested here might not even be the sweetest i4 in the line-up, but its small victories over various rivals in terms of refinement, performance, handling security and usability add up to make it an obvious front-runner for anyone who wants a premium EV that isn’t an SUV. Only Tesla’s Supercharging network and Porsche’s handling mastery give pause for thought when it comes to serious alternatives, those being the Tesla Model 3 and Taycan respectively.

Arguably the most complete electric car money can buy, and a fine performance saloon in its own right, though I'd save a few quid and be very happy with an eDrive40.

Something lighter, more feelsome and with greater range would cement the i4 M50’s position as a true alternative to higher-level 3 and 4 Series saloons, but those attributes will surely come in time. For now, though, this car is some statement of intent by BMW – and with derivatives appealing powerfully at both ends of the price spectrum, against Hyundai and Volvo at one end and Porsche at the other, it's quite a piece of work.

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017, arriving from Evo magazine, and is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests, performance benchmarking and supercar lap-times, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found on Autocar's YouTube channel

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year, and focuses mainly on the more driver-orientated products, as is tradition at Autocar. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Away from work, but remaining on the subject of cars, Richard owns an eight-valve Integrale, loves watching sportscar racing, and holds a post-grad in transport engineering. 

BMW i4 First drives