2014 BMW i3 review
Is the new electric city car enough of a BMW?
- Long electric-only range
- Roomy and comfortable interior
- Easy to maneuver in crowded cities
- Aggressive regenerative braking
- Clunky gearshift
- Interior feels unfinished
It's not an overstatement to say that the i3 is one of the most significant vehicles ever introduced by BMW, and the company has a lot riding on its success. While the German automaker has a long, successful history of producing performance-oriented luxury cars, this is its first all-electric vehicle. It's also the debut of BMW's new and separate EV-only i brand.
Beyond being BMW's first major stake in the EV market, the company believes the i3 "heralds the dawn of a new age in electromobility," a company official proclaimed at a test-drive MSN Autos attended in Amsterdam. While this may sound like the customary PR puffery that comes with the launch of almost any new vehicle, the i3 does mark a huge shift for the company, and for reasons that run deeper than the car's radical exterior and interior design.
BMW has grand plans for how the i brand will fit into the future of transportation, but what we wanted to know is what it's like to drive the i3 on today's roads — and whether consumers should consider buying one when the car hits U.S. showrooms in 2014. That likely depends on two factors: How loyal you are to the brand if you're a dedicated previous owner, and whether you're less of a BMW fanatic but simply want an upscale but downsized EV.
The U.S. version of the i3 will be available in three trim levels: Mega, Giga and Terra. All three come standard with air conditioning, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, LED daytime driving lights, a backup sensing system, USB and auxiliary-in ports, hands-free Bluetooth, BMW's base-level navigation system, and a charging cable for use with a standard residential 110-volt electric socket.
Options include a rearview camera, automatically dimming rear-view and exterior mirrors; adaptive cruise control with a fully automatic stop-and-go function; BMW's Traffic Jam Assistant to keep a car centered in its lane; pedestrian recognition and collision warning with automatic braking under 37 mph; and automatic parking. Some of these are grouped into option packages and some are standard on higher trim levels.
An example of how different the i3 is from other BMWs — and how the company considers it just a piece of the transportation puzzle — is that it will come with features that aren't even part of the car. An Intermodal Routing feature found on the BMW i remote smartphone app will indicate to a driver when it may be better to take alternative forms of transportation such as trains and busses when the traffic gets too heavy to continue by car. Another is the availability of "long-range" loaner vehicles for when an i3 owner wants to take a trip that exceeds the battery's range.
Under the hood
The BMW i3 uses an electric motor powered by a lithium-ion battery. The hybrid synchronous electric motor has a maximum output of 125 kilowatts (170 horsepower) and a peak torque of 184 lb-ft. The rear-wheel-drive car uses an integrated differential gear and the transmission is single-speed.
According to BMW, acceleration from zero to 60 mph takes 7.2 seconds and top speed is electronically limited to 93 mph. The car has three drive modes — Comfort, Eco Pro and Eco Pro+ — that balance performance with range.
BMW said range under "everyday conditions" is approximately 80 to 100 miles in Comfort mode. This can be increased by about 12 miles in both Eco Pro and Eco Pro+ modes. An optional 2-cylinder "range extender" gasoline engine that adds 34 horsepower and maintains a minimum charge level for the battery increases range to around 185 miles.
The i3's battery can be recharged from a residential electrical socket, an optional BMW i Wallbox, or at public charging stations. A card that comes with the car allows owners to use the ChargePoint network of public pay-as-you-go charging stations.
While the exterior of the i3 is radically different than any other BMW model — except for the trademark kidney-shaped center grille, which is nonfunctional since the electric motor requires no cooling — the interior is unlike anything available from any major car company. And it literally wears the i3's green credibility on its seat coverings and door panels.
Parts of the interior are covered in a material made from recycled plastic beverage bottles and fibers of the kenaf plant. Even the leather used inside the BMW i3 is treated only with natural substances such as olive leaf extract, which is used as a tanning agent.
The i3 has seating for four, and the backseat is surprisingly spacious. The backseat also has a generous side view since the car doesn't have center B pillars because access to the rear seats is through coach doors.
Opening the doors also makes visible (in the door sills, for example) one of the defining elements of the BMW i3: its lightweight carbon-fiber frame. While the company claims that the exposed carbon-fiber sections of the interior give it "an extremely functional look," so does a concrete wall in, say, an art gallery. But such minimalism makes the interior of the i3 appear unfinished.
The "freestanding" steering column houses the start-stop button and gear selector on a clunky rotary control. Equally freestanding are the 5.2-inch LCD instrument cluster and the 10.2-inch display in the center of the dash.
On the road
If the i3 doesn't look like any other BMW both inside and out, it also doesn't drive like any other vehicle from the company, either. This is in large part because it's an EV. But as much as the automaker wants to convince the brand's devotees and a broader range of eco-conscious car buyers that i3 is still the "ultimate driving machine" and includes the BMW DNA, it's an entirely different species.
The i3 is quick to accelerate compared to similarly sized EVs, such as the FIAT 500e and Chevrolet Spark, but it's certainly no Tesla (which BMW plans to answer with the upcoming i8). The i3's ride quality and handling are definitely a cut above its few competitors in the EV segment, although not on par with what we've come to expect from a BMW. The interior isn't as quiet as other vehicles from the brand, even with a lack of engine noise.
The i3's tall 19-inch tires can only do so much to keep the car firmly planted and the ride steady given their smallish contact patch. But our biggest complaint with the driving character of the car is that the regenerative engine braking feels overly aggressive and has the same jerky feeling when lifting off the accelerator in all three drive modes.
Because BMW is targeting the i3 as a vehicle for urban dwellers, our drives were mostly conducted in and around Amsterdam on streets crowded with bicycles, scooters and pedestrians. While weaving between bikes and people, the i3's size and power wasn't an issue. In addition, the small car's tight turning radius (less than 11 yards) makes it easy to maneuver and park.
Right for you?
The i3 marks a bold new direction for BMW, and company officials acknowledge that the car is designed to attract an entirely new group of customers beyond the brand's typical buyers. BMW hopes the car will appeal to people of means who are interested in EVs and want a luxury experience, but not a car as large as the Tesla Model S.
BMW has said the i3 will cost $42,275 in the U.S., including destination and excluding any federal or state incentives. That's a steep sticker, even with federal and state tax breaks, for what's essentially an entry-level, albeit luxury, EV. The real test will be whether the i3 can draw deep-pocketed, urban-dwelling, eco- and brand-conscious car buyers without alienating loyal BMW fans. And whether the brand's first EV and debut i vehicle will set a new standard in the segment or become a setback in the still uncharted path to a new age in electromobility.
(As part of a sponsored press event, the automaker provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitate this report.)
Doug Newcomb has been writing about automotive-related topics since 1988. His work has appeared in Consumers Digest, Road & Track, Rolling Stone, Men's Journal and many other publications. His book, "CarAudio for Dummies," is available from Wiley Publishing.