Bursting onto the scene like a life-sized remote control car, BMW's 2014 i3 city runabout is just the thing for those looking to make a statement, impress friends with their "green cred" or - and here's the big surprise - just to have a good time.
Let's just say BMW has their "i" on you. We went to Los Angeles, a big electric car market and an even bigger BMW haven, to check it out.
What is it?
The i3 is BMW's first volume-produced electrically driven city car (excepting the 1-Series-based ActiveE from 2011, which was only available as part of a special lease program).
Constructed of renewable materials including a carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) unibody, is arguably the most thoroughly thought-out and sustainable electric car ever made. Power goes to the rear wheels via a 170 horsepower, 184 lb-ft. of torque hybrid synchronous motor that gets its power from a lithium-ion battery pack. That battery pack can be charged via a public charging station, a home unit called the BMW iWallbox or even a conventional power outlet and an electrical cord.
Brake energy regeneration and a number of drive modes that tailor the throttle and climate control give the i3 an 80 to 100 mile range.
Uniquely, an optional 700cc, 34 horsepower two-cylinder range-extending generator engine powered by gasoline derived from BMW's motorcycle family boosts the EV's range to 185 miles. Importantly, the generator isn't directly connected to the i3's drive motor. BMW says the range extender will add about $5,000 to an i3's base price.
BMW says that 450 lbs. of the i3's lithe 2,700 lbs. curb weight comes from the battery and power unit, while the range extender adds 330 lbs. plus a 2.4 gallon fuel tank. Look beneath the second row seating area to find the battery, power unit and the optional range extender; under the front "hood" is a modest storage area better suited to grocery shopping than golf outings. Sorry, Caddyshack fans: This is not your next golf cart.
What it's made of
The i3 has the benefit of not being encumbered by previously used architecture in the same sense that the ActiveE was. As a result, BMW designers and engineers were able to start with a clean slate. The result is a striking, almost foreign-looking device, which maintains the visual cues that make it instantly recognizable as a BMW. A BMW from the future, that is.
Despite a slightly different look than we have become accustomed to, the appearance of the i3 is still 100-percent BMW. From the trademarked kidney-shaped grille to the roundels liberally placed throughout, although in this case now adorned with blue accents, a car-savvy 7-year-old can identify the i3's brand from 100 paces.
The i3 will be available in six different two-toned color combos that combine a major shade with black accent that offers a look at the vehicle's carbon fiber makeup. Minimal amounts of chrome help to give a little blinginess to the overall look while LED daylight running lights nod to the latest technologies. The carbon fiber construction obviates the need for B-pillars and the resulting coach-style doors that open wide for easy egress and exit.
Built from ultra strong carbon-fiber reinforced plastic, the car is comprised of a light but strong safety cell capable of protecting its four occupants. In the event of a shunt, portions of the i3 can be cut out and replaced in a fashion similar to how the vehicle was constructed in the first place by using adhesives and rivets. This, BMW says, should help reduce the cost of fixing this vehicle's complex body, although we wouldn't recommend taking one to MAACO.
Thought it rides on skinny tires, the breadth of the i3's features list is very wide. Driving Assistant Plus, an intelligent cruise control that includes automatic start and stop functions, while halt the i3 if another vehicle gets too close. A collision warning system alerts drivers to an impact. Traffic Jam Assistant tells drivers how to come up with the most efficient route home. And, in the event of a mishap or simply the need for some directional assistance, BMW has included its TeleServices and Intelligent Emergency Call functions that operate similarly to General Motors' OnStar system.
We found the i3's interior surprisingly roomy including in the back seat. First timers will typically bump their head on the doorframe until they realize that the front seat flips and moves forward. Once in the back seat, which requires opening of the front doors to access the rear, it is relatively easy to climb in. Ingress and egress is made all the easier by the fact that there is no center tunnel hump to take up valuable floor space since the electric motor sits directly on top of the rear axle.
BMW claims the i3 interior's space approaches that of the brand's mainstream 3-Series.
Eucalyptus wood trim with an open cell treatment adds green car cred, but it's the cloth upholstery and spun polycarbonate materials that really show BMW's commitment to renewable materials. Those expecting leather trim will find that high-spec models include hides tinted with extract of organically-sourced olive leaves. Other materials that gave their lives only to live again in the i3 include hemp (yes, really) and plastic soft drink bottles.
Around the town
Starting the i3 requires a smart key in its vicinity and the push of a starter button on what could almost be called a stalk on the right side of the steering column. Once the gauges come to life, that's your only indication that the vehicle is turned on and ready to go. The gear selector lies at the end of the same stalk and offers the traditional settings (D, N, R as well as a Park button) as found in others, but the control requires some acclimation.
It might look like a city runabout, but the i3 is plenty peppy: 0-60 mph clicks off in about 7 seconds. The skinny pedal features a tall tip-in, which helps drivers modulate the mountain of torque that seemingly came out of nowhere to propel the i3 forward. Don't get too carried away, though: The i3's top speed is capped at 93 mph.
We enjoyed the feeling of approaching warp drive velocity from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, but just as quickly reminded ourselves the faster we drove it, the shorter our range would become. Lift off the gas and you'll find what would best be described as dynamic braking that allows for one pedal driving. Not only does this help boost the battery's charge, it will make you rethink just why coasting is necessary in the first place.
Underneath, the i3 offers BMW's trademark handling - in small doses, at least. The 155/70-19 tires are as skinny as you'll find on any modern car, but they don't dampen the driving experience as much as you might expect. Befitting a city car, the i3 is comfortably composed at low speeds on lousy pavement. Turn up the wick and it almost encourages drivers to toss it into corners. An M3 with an electric motor it is not, however.
Eerily, there's almost no external road noise present to penetrate the cabin - but that's just one of the many ways this i3 turns every notion we've ever had of a BMW on its head.
Leftlane's bottom line
Proving no two electric vehicles are alike, BMW continues to march to their own drummer. The i3 is an impressive vehicle for a safari of the urban variety, yes, but what ultimately surprised us is how fun it can be to drive.
We think BMW is onto something; as sad as we are to see the brand's general shift away from producing only performance-oriented cars, our responsible side applauds the automaker for building something that can almost completely be reclaimed, ground up and reused as something else in the future.
BMW i3 base price, $41,350.
Photos by Mark Elias.