My first surprise of the day is discovered in the Leaf. Its interior suddenly and unmistakably feels antiquated – and a little bit cheap. The plastics in here aren’t a patch on either the Volkswagen’s or the Hyundai’s, and neither is the infotainment system, which is tricky to navigate and looks blocky and backward by comparison. It’s not a small car, the Leaf, and yet it’s not desperately spacious. The front seats are high-mounted and flat-cushioned, while the steering wheel is quite steeply raked, like a bus wheel. Is the Leaf making all this hustle and bustle easier? I’m not so sure.
But a bigger surprise awaits in the i3 – a car quite unlike any other hatchback. You sit high in the BMW, swinging your legs in over a raised carbonfibre sill – but then adopting a relatively recumbent pose at the wheel. In front of you is a large windscreen and a low fascia slimmed down as if to visually prioritise the two focal points that actually matter: the simplified, downsized instrument screen and a widescreen infotainment display big enough and crisp enough to knock everything else here for six.
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It’s a tall, narrow, square sort of car, the i3 – great to see out of, easy to judge width-wise and with supershort overhangs. So if you weren’t already falling for the BMW as you opened its frameless coach doors and began admiring its fascinating materials, chances are you probably will be as you realise how peculiarly suited it is to city roads.
So what else matters? A responsive powertrain, good directional agility, good ride compliance and progressive, predictable controls: these are the four dynamic traits a really good town car needs, I reckon. Being electric, all four cars tick the first box, but from there on we can whittle things down a bit.
Neither the Leaf nor the Ioniq feels desperately agile, the former because it’s softly sprung and rolls quite hard, the latter because of its heavy steering and long wheelbase. The e-Golf rides best, quietly and with suppleness, followed by the Leaf and the Ioniq, and finally by the i3, which is firmly sprung and a bit brittle-riding but twice as agile as anything else here. The most consistent, pleasant and intuitive controls belong to the e-Golf, the least so to the Ioniq, whose brake pedal tuning is as unflattering as its steering.
But where the controllability of these cars really matters is when it makes them better-functioning EVs. Both the Ioniq and e-Golf are commendable for having switchable battery regeneration settings; you can allow them to coast when the road opens up in order to save power (and, having so little rolling resistance, EVs really do coast) and then blend the regen back in to slow the car without needing to go near the brake pedal. Neither the Leaf nor the i3 really allows you to do that as effectively.