Electric i4 challenges Bavarian brother

It’s called, in some quarters at least, the European Tesla.

Which could be flattering or insulting.

It looks just like any other machine sitting in the swanky BMW dealership.

Same sweeping profile. Same powerful stance. Same aggressive, yet cultivated styling.

The 3-Series has long been a triumph of engineering evolution, getting demonstrably better, and more sophisticated with each of its seven generations since its release in 1975.

It is, without question, one of the most iconic and admired models in motoring history. And this one looks just like part of the family.

But this is no ordinary 3-Series, by any shot. The little badge just beneath the boot lip gives it away – this is the all-electric i4.

It’s not the first electric BMW to hit the market (that honour belongs to the i3 and i8). And it’s not necessarily the most impressive electric machine created by the Bavarian brand – the company’s iX trumps it there.

But the i4 is intriguing nonetheless.

It’s pretty much the first-time comparison of a conventional BMW and its electrified alter-ego.

And the comparison is startling.

The i4, with two electric motors (one driving the front wheels, the other driving the rear) delivers a stunning 400kW and 795Nm of torque. Yes, 795.

It has a cruising range of just over 500km on a single charge, according to BMW.

And, when planting the right foot, it reaches 100km/h in 3.8 seconds. Enough said.

So what is this car’s internal combustion equivalent? Well the “conventional” vehicle that best rivals is actually the iconic M3 – the most admired and most sought-after model in BMW’s M-fleet.

The M3, in its latest and most powerful guise, almost matches the i4 with its 375kW output (for the M3 Competition variant). It also brings 650 Newton metres of torque. That, in turn, means a 0-100km/h sprint time of 3.5 seconds.

So compared to its silent-running cousin, the revered M3 is barely quicker than the rather unassuming electric i4. A car that will sit there at the traffic lights, all innocence and light, and then blow all but the premium hot rods into the weeds. With barely a sound.

Impressive, no?

But the most impressive part might be the price.

Owning the BMW i4 M50, tested here, costs $124,000, plus a contribution to Treasurer Jim Chalmers.

The M3? Well, that tips the scales at $163,500. It’s 40 grand more than the i4. Or roughly 10 grand for every fraction of a second gained by choose the M3.

Oh, and the i4 doesn’t use any petrol, or emit any nasty carbon.

Still reckon these electric things won’t catch on?

The i4 is also available in more sedate form – without the M50 label – which is still a match for most ordinary performance machines, yet it comes with a tempting $99,990 price tag.

As yet, there is no M60 – that designation is only available in the “pure” electric flagship, the iX M60 (455kW, 1100Nm). But that eye-watering performance costs well over 200 grand.

It makes the M50 look like quite the bargain.

And there’s no hook.

In fact it enjoys technology (including its beautiful infotainment screens) which are yet to make their way into other 3-series models (the current 3-Series range is due for a refresh in the coming months).

That latest widescreen display brings with it some not-before-seen software that makes the traditional BMW i-Drive system look a bit archaic.

The i4 is initially offered solely in one body style, the five-door hatchback known as the “GranCoupe” in BMW-speak. Technically, the donor car is part of the 4-Series, hence the i4 designation.

With an electric range of a tick over 500km, and an additional 160km range with just 10 minutes on a fast charger, the i4 is hardly likely to cramp weekenders’ style.

In most other aspects it basically matches the conventional 4-Series – a bit heavier, of course, and consequently not quite as as nimble and dynamically adept.

The M3 comfortably shades it for hard-edged handling, even if the i4 is quicker in a straight line.

But it’s as comfortable, as sensible and as enjoyable to drive as just about anything from the Bavarian Motor Works, with the environmental sensibility of being emissions free.

So, is it fair at all to compare the i4 with the M3? Well, of course it is. With just about any other “electrified” EV, it costs a premium of at least $10k or $20k for the privilege.

This one is quite the opposite – offering all the benefits of an electric machine at a staggeringly lower cost.

The big question of course, is how come BMW can produce an M3 in disguise and sell it for 40 grand less than the original? The answer probably lies in the simplicity of electric cars, keeping in mind the technology and the 40 years of evolution that the M3 represents.

Some might provocatively suggest that Mr Musk’s Tesla Model 3 manages to undercut the i4 substantially on price. However, with the deepest of respect, the little propeller badge sitting in the middle of the bonnet commands respect.

So, which of these vehicles to buy? Funnily enough, it’s still the M3 – not least because it will probably disappear soon in its current format.

The style, the sharper handling, the street credibility and, of course the sound it makes all remain an intoxicating brew. For as long as it’s around, that is.

BMW i4 M50

* HOW BIG? It’s a genuine 3-Series, which over the years has grown big enough for four adults, plus roughly 500L of cargo space in the boot.

* HOW FAST? Not quite as rapid as the M3 – but damn close. It will reach the speed limit in 3.8 seconds which is truly supercar territory.

* HOW THIRSTY: It will require recharging roughly every 460km. But that can be stretched with judicial use of the air-conditioner and other luxuries. Ten minutes on a fast charger adds about 150km.

* HOW MUCH? At $124,900 the receipt will make M3 owners weep.

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