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Why the BMW i3 only has a four-star Euro NCAP safety rating

Why the BMW i3 only has a four-star Euro NCAP safety rating BMW-i3-side-impact_test BMW-i3-frontal-crash-test
Tristan Honeywill

A lot of people will be surprised that the BMW i3 only received a four-star safety rating from Euro NCAP. This is the world’s first mass-produced carbon fibre electric vehicle. It uses state-of-the-art materials science to produce a car that is lighter, more energy-efficient – and people hoped – safer than conventional vehicles.

So was BMW aiming for four stars, or with so much innovation on board, did they just forget the human factor in a few places? In part, the four-star rating is a reflection of how high Euro NCAP’s standards are. A four-star car still offers occupants very good levels of protection. The i3 just doesn’t quite make it in a couple of areas.

The protection for adults in the front seats is good. In the head-on crash, the impact energy is handled by an aluminium structure and it works well.

The side impacts are against the carbon fibre structure and it behaves quite differently to a conventional steel car. In the more severe pole-strike test a normal car’s side caves in as it hits the pole. The i3 absorbs the energy without crumpling.

So what let the car down? The protection for pedestrians isn’t good enough for five stars and BMW has neglected to fit seat belt reminders on the rear seats

That doesn’t necessarily mean better safety, however: the rib compression readings from the dummy indicate that protection of the chest was weak. That’s allowed in a five-star car, but many conventional steel cars do better. And in the whiplash test, BMW’s stylish, ultra-thin seats provided only marginal protection of the driver’s neck. Again, that’s acceptable for a five-star car too.

So what let the BMW i3 down? Basically, the protection for pedestrians isn’t good enough for five stars and BMW has neglected to fit seat belt reminders on the rear seats.

For a car with so much plastic and no engine under the hood, it’s surprising that the i3 didn’t do better than more conventional cars. It did worse in some respects: the leading edge of the bonnet scored zero points and poor results were recorded at the base of the windscreen and along the windscreen pillars.

The lack of seatbelt reminders on the rear seats may seem a minor omission, but Euro NCAP’s requirements are the same for all cars. The reminders cost little to fit, but they matter. If anybody’s going to forget to wear their seatbelts, it’s kids.

BMW-i3-childIn Euro NCAP’s assessment, the i3 did score maximum points for its protection of young children. It’s worth pointing out that the tests were conducted with the rear-facing seats recommended by BMW. The only problem is BMW’s “suicide doors”. With the door hinging at the back, manoeuvring a toddler or three-year old through the gap and into a child seat looks pretty difficult. For a petite mum, it could even be impossible.

To be fair, nobody has ever designed and produced a car like the i3 before. It needed to make a statement. It needed to be super lightweight and still protect the high-voltage batteries. The car also has some great safety technologies that aren’t recognised by Euro NCAP.

The i3′s e-Call system is one of them. As soon as the car hit the barrier at the crash test lab a BMW operator was in contact, puzzled that such a crash could have happened apparently off-road. Impressive. You can also fit pre-crash and pedestrian alerts to the car.

A lot of would-be electric car drivers will decide that a four-star car with the right safety assist options is better than a five-star car with none. If they’re worried about pedestrians not hearing their electric i3 coming, or have young children, they may feel that BMW has under-delivered.

Read more about BMW’s plans to use carbon fibre make electric vehicles lighter and safer


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