BMW is known far and wide as the maker of great-driving sedans. Whether or not the predicate of the previous sentence is always true ain’t the point; the reputation didn’t come out of the blue. The original 1960s and ’70s 2002 shocked Americans (and especially American auto journos) by dint of its incredible handling. The E30 generation of the 3 Series was the yuppy’s whip du jour during the Reagan era. It was the car one aspired to, if Patrick Bateman were a car, and so forth—know what I’m saying? Then the M cars got better and better and the legend only grew. Driving a BMW meant you owned the Ultimate Driving Machine. ‘Nuff said. But what about an electric BMW 3 Series? Starting early next year you’ll be able to purchase the i4 sedan, a fully electrified version of BMW’s 4 Series Gran Coupe (which is essentially a swoopy roof 3 Series). The question is: Should you?
What Makes an I4 M50?
The first thing to know is that BMW is offering two i4s: the single motor i4 eDrive40 that serves up 335 horsepower and 319 lb-ft of torque with an estimated range of 300 miles. The version that’s the subject of this review is the i4 M50 that I spent a day driving all over Bavaria. It sports two motors for a combined output of 536 horsepower and 586 lb-ft of torque, and it has an estimated range of 275 miles. Following in the fast footsteps of the sporty but non-M i8, the i4 M50 is the first electric BMW tuned by the vaunted M Division. Put a shorter way, it’s the first BEV M. BMW refers to the i4 M50 as “sporty yet sustainable,” an apt description of the direction the entire company is headed, especially once the Neue Klasse platform arrives in 2025, the architecture on which all future BMWs will be built.
The i4 uses the current G26 4 Series Gran Coupe iteration of the CLAR platform (the regular, seventh-generation four-door 3 Series is internally known as G20). That means struts up front, plus rear air springs mounted within a five-link geometry. Active dampers come with the M50, not so on the eDrive40. The G26 has a 1.0-inch wider front track, and a 0.5-inch wider rear track than the standard G20, with increased negative camber on the front wheels. Due to the batteries living under the floor, the center of gravity is 1.5 inches lower than a normal G26’s. The synchronous motors are the fifth generation of BMW’s eDrive units. Each motor is married to a single-speed transmission and power inverter at BMW’s sprawling Dingolfing factory, forming a single power unit. As in the iX electric SUV, the front unit is slightly smaller, lighter, and less powerful than the rear. The M50 achieves a 48.2/51.8-percent front to rear weight distribution. It’s notable that the single motor eDrive40 is closer to 45/55.
The battery packs are specially designed for the i4. Measuring approximately 1.5 inches tall, the prismatic cell packs are stressed members of the chassis. BMW is doing all it can to reduce conflict materials from its batteries and motors. For instance, the company is picking and choosing where the cobalt in its lithium-ion cells is sourced from. Cobalt mostly comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the odds are high that the device you’re reading this story on contains cobalt mined by child labor. The i4 M50 supposedly, hopefully, doesn’t contain any such cobalt, and I applaud BMW for making the effort. The total battery capacity is 84 kWh, slightly larger than the biggest battery (82 kWh) available in a Tesla Model 3. The wheels are a mix of aluminum and plastic. This reduces weight by 15 percent and is claimed to add up to 9.3 miles of electric range. Finally, a Gurney flap on the top edge of the trunk reduces lift.
Outside and In
The i4 M50 is instantly recognizable as a BMW. If you know what you’re looking at, this EV screams 4 Series, specifically the G26 Gran Coupe. However, you’d have to be a massive BMW nerd to spot the differences between the gas-powered 4 Series and the i4 M50. The easiest way to tell from the front is that the 4 Series has a thick, chrome trim piece surrounding the massive double kidney grille, whereas the M50’s is blacked out. Also of course, the 4 Series Gran Coupe’s grille is an actual grille that lets air flow onto a radiator, whereas the i4’s kidneys are in fact a clever, brand identifying way to package radar sensors. Also, the 4 Series’ chipmunk cheek intakes below the headlights actually flow air to intercoolers, whereas the I4’s are simply smooth, air-cheating plastic. BMW is claiming an impressive drag coefficient of 0.24, largely due to a sealed underbody tray. Look extra hard and you’ll notice that the electric version has the power bulge hood that more resembles the muscular schnoz of the current M3/M4.
Inside, it’s fairly standard G20-generation design and materials, with the notable exception of the massive, curved infotainment screen that dominates everything. It’s the same size screen found in the much larger iX, and here in the i4 it’s almost too big. In a nice nod to BMW dashboards of yesteryear, where the physical controls were aimed at the person piloting the ship, the curve angles the screen towards the driver. The head-up display is also significantly improved, both in terms of legibility and information offered. There’s a button between the phone and the voice-control buttons that allows you to configure both the instrument panel and the head up display. For instance, you can have Apple CarPlay shown on the screen in front of you and receive turn by turn driving directions in the head-up area. Pretty cool.
One very personal note: no glass roof! Joy of joys! Since Teslas have glass roofs, it has seemed that every single premium EV maker is compelled to put one in its vehicles. Similarly, since Tesla doesn’t offer a shade of any sort—word is that Elon Musk didn’t want a shade—those other EVs follow suit. Meaning that many EV drivers always have the sun beating down on their skulls. Even in BMW’s iX. It’s literally de rigueur. Praise from on high to BMW for breaking this awful trend with the i4.
How Does the i4 M50 Drive?
The ride quality is quite great, as the M50 feels planted and sporty. It’s making no effort to hide its weight, which will be well over two tons, but you know that the vehicle is powerful. The extra pounds aren’t noticed in acceleration. BMW is claiming 0-60 mph in 3.9 seconds but believe me, it’s quicker. Maybe much quicker. The additional heft has the effect of smoothing out the ride compared to, say, a M440i. The ride is leagues better than that of the new M3 Comp. The i4 M50’s steering feels a touch overboosted, although there’s a nice locked-on-center quality to it, especially at high speeds. There’s not very much wind noise, and there’s only a little tire noise, as well. Honestly, driving around like a civilian in Comfort or Eco-Pro, the i4 M50 mostly feels like a normal BMW, just a very quiet one. It’s a pleasant overall experience. The brakes, which are brake-by-wire and assisted by battery regeneration, are quite good, too.
It’s when you switch to Sport mode and begin driving like an outlaw that things get, well, mixed. So, yes—this sucker is quick. We clocked the RWD M3 Competition to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds. Seeing how the i4 M50 is AWD (even though there’s no physical connection between the front and rear axles) and makes 107 additional lb-ft of torque, and weight seems to have little bearing on EV acceleration times (the Tesla Model S Plaid weighs 4,816 pounds and hits 60 mph in 2.1 seconds), I feel like it will stomp the M3 in a drag race. Even in Eco-Pro, I was able to rapidly accelerate up to 100 mph. As far as cruising on the autobahn goes, even in unlimited sections, the i4 M50 feels made for it. Straight line speed earns the car its M badge.
The handling was a different story. Here, the weight does show up, and its ill effects are compounded by the M50’s steering feel. It’s an old story by this point, but there’s a layer of insulation between what the front wheels are doing and what the steering wheel is telling your hands. Note that most of the time the i4 M50 runs around as a RWD vehicle, with the front motor supplying torque only when it’s needed. The odd part is that there’s a hint, a whiff, a head toss of initial understeer as you begin to come off the brakes and crack the wheel. Applying throttle suddenly, almost abruptly, yanks the car toward the corner’s apex as the front motor is now fully engaged. There’s just this odd mid-corner hiccup, and the indifferent steering feel magnifies the sensation. In fairness to BMW, this blip is well hidden and not something most consumers will ever notice.
Also true is the fact that the above is a critique of limit behavior. Back off a few tenths and the i4 M50 is perfectly sporty, or should I say sporty enough, for most of the people most of the time. Because of the stellar ride quality, I’d rank it above the M440i in terms of desirability. I’d even put it above the standard, non-Competition M3. But the real deal M3 Competition? No way, man. The electrified G26 might be the first ever electric M-fettled vehicle, but it doesn’t even come close to matching the driving thrills offered up by its super-sedan sibling. But what about—and much more importantly—a Tesla Model 3 Performance? Here I feel the BMW edges out the Tesla, but only just. However, I’m working off a distant memory, as I haven’t driven the constantly evolving Model 3 in quite some time (Tesla’s long been fussy with handing out cars, and that was before it eliminated its communications department). A future comparison test is obviously mandatory.
I noticed the i4 makes a cool noise when you accelerate. Kind of a deep burble, yet one that’s fully electric, not a combustion noise. Switching into Sport mode changes the sound to make it even more intense, something akin to several rushing jets layered on top of each other. Yes, it’s all artificial, and it’s on purpose. I say it’s good. As BMW says, “While the hush of electric driving offers an unprecedented level of comfort, the driving experience loses a degree of emotionality.” To combat this, BMW has created the weirdly named IconicSounds Electric department, and enlisted the help of multi-Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer. (Side note: The name doesn’t sound much better in German: Ikonische Klingt Elektrisch.)
This isn’t the first time Zimmer has worked with BMW to craft EV noises. However, as this is the first EV M car, IconicSounds Electric wanted to make sure it had a special audio flavor. There’s an Easter egg sound if you injure the car, which I unfortunately did. To be fair, on the narrow twisting road up to our hotel in Bavaria’s stunning Berchtesgaden region, a massive tour bus ran me off the road. That said, I curbed the hell out of the rear passenger side wheel. When something like this happens (or I assume, much worse) the car makes a sad sound, like you just lost a level on a video game. Pretty nifty, no?
Tesla sold 206,500 Model 3s to Americans in 2020, the year of the global pandemic. That’s more than double the next best-selling premium/luxury vehicle in the U.S., the Lexus RX. It’s the number one luxury car in the U.S., as well as the only sedan to earn a spot in the top 10! Not competing with Model 3 is leaving money on the table. Is Tesla beatable? The future is unwritten, but no car is invincible. Back in the time of Gordon Gekko, BMW occupied the psychographic that Tesla currently owns. There’s no reason that can’t change, and I think BMW’s green message (the company is even asking its suppliers to conform to its environmental practices) is much stronger than the EV company that just left California for Texas, of all places.
As for the i4 M50, BMW has built a legitimate electric M vehicle. Or, at least one where the M is followed by two or three numerals as opposed to just one. The i4 M50 has the technology, performance, handling, and luxury goods to go toe to toe with king Tesla, specifically the Model 3 Performance. I’m just left to wonder what took so long. Moreover, is it too late? We shall see.