While BMW has toyed with the world of electric vehicles in the past, its latest project isn’t a side-show; it’s the real deal – developed from the ground up to be electric only.
|1. The i3 offers 170 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque for a 0-60 time of 7.2 seconds.
2. BMW claims from 80 to 100 miles of electric range, or 150 to 180 miles with the optional range extender.
3. It weighs under 2,700 lbs. thanks to a carbon-fiber passenger cell.
4. BMW charges $42,275 including destination and before incentives.
The BMW i3 is the first of two production cars developed by BMW’s Project i team. Past works from the team were lease-only pilots of ‘conversion’ electric-vehicles based on current BMW and MINI models. Taking a gas powered car and modifying it into an electric one will always result in some compromises, much like trying to substitute flour in a baking recipe for anything gluten-free.
Organic Approach to Electric Vehicles
As such, the BMW i3 is gluten-free; err gas-free, from the get-go. Since BMW imagines that tree-huggers like boasting about their tiny carbon footprint, the i3 features an eco-friendly approach and a focus on lightweight materials. At under 2,700 lbs. the i3 uses a copious amount of carbon fiber – a strong lightweight material usually reserved for high-performance and pricey sports-cars. In fact, the i3 features the first mass produced carbon-fiber passenger compartment.
Due to the low weight of the vehicle, BMW uses a small battery and electric motor, which are mounted low and rearward, by the drive-wheels. This layout allows optimum cabin space – there’s no transmission tunnel or mass of batteries invading the passenger compartment. With the weight over the drive wheels, the car should also deliver solid traction and performance.
The one-two combo of battery and motor deliver an acceptable 170 hp and hard-hitting 184 lb-ft of torque. The peppy i3 will drive an estimated 80-100 miles before needing a recharge. By using the i3’s Eco and Eco Pro drive modes (and maybe uttering a quick prayer to Elon Musk) the driver can eke out 24 percent better range at the expense of responsiveness and constant air-conditioning.
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Recharge time is under 4 hours using a 240-volt charger and just 30 minutes using the optional DC combo fast charging system.
Without a doubt, that 80-100 mile range isn’t as jaw dropping as the rest of the car’s stat-sheet – so the i3 is available with a 650 cc two-cylinder engine borrowed from the brand’s motorcycle division. When the electric range reaches a certain point, the gas engine turns on, but doesn’t turn the drive wheels; instead it maintains the battery’s charge and nearly doubles the car’s original range to about 180 miles.
We didn’t get a chance to test it, but the range-extender may dull the enjoyment behind the wheel as it adds 330 lbs and presumably alters the near 50/50 weight distribution.
The Geek-Chic Look Is In, Isn’t It?
BMW knows that buyers of hybrids and electric vehicles like a sense of differentiation, but is the i3 a bit too kooky looking? Its upright look reminds us a bit of the Honda Fit and the rear suicide doors are a unique flare with their larger window opening than the front doors.
BMW’s usual signatures are present; including the dual-kidney shaped grilles, the LED corona headlights and the sleek looking LED tail lights. It’s hard to call the i3 sexy, but it certainly is noticeable – in a friendly alien sort of way.
Step inside the i3 and it’s a similarly polarizing design. The only element recognizable from the rest of the BMW family is the iDrive screen and controller. The gear shifter and start/stop button is actually a steering column mounted knob. A decidedly less-cool location for a shifter, the interior does gain a bit of space by moving it up and away from the center console. The aura of the interior is decidedly high-tech, even feeling a bit like a concept vehicle due to the clean and uncluttered look.
However, it doesn’t exactly feel like a premium product. While some parts are interesting to look at, like the eucalyptus wood dash, they feel odd to the touch. This is a result of sustainable, eco-minded approach to the i3.
Materials in the car made from renewable resources include that eucalyptus dash, Kenaf plant fiber panels and leather seats that are naturally tanned using olive-leaf extract. The overall look is nice, but the materials feel coarser than other BMW interiors.
In terms of interior capacity, BMW says the car is as spacious as its 3 Series sports-sedan – an impressive feat considering the i3 is shorter than even the 1 Series. BMW hasn’t released any interior dimensions on the car, however, and a real world test proves the rear seat to be rather tight on legroom. Up front it’s plenty spacious though, and feels it thanks to generous headroom afforded by the vehicle’s oddball shape.
Charged Up and Raring to Go
Step on the go pedal and you’re immediately reminded of what brand is behind this goofy looking EV. The response is immediate and the torque allows you to close any gap in the city. The 170 hp and low weight help the car to accelerate. From a dead stop, 60 mph comes in at 7.2 seconds – or perhaps even faster judging by the feel.
The brakes are incredibly grabby. The first unsuspecting brush of the left pedal will almost bring the car to a complete stop. From there you realize that the i3 features a very interesting one-pedal feel, as aggressive regenerative braking occurs the moment you let off the accelerator. After a brief acclimatization period the car begins to feel natural and intuitive to drive. Details like that make the i3 feel like a next generation vehicle.
The steering is direct and responsive helping the car feel a bit more cheerful and peppy. Due to the small footprint of the i3 and excellent steering, the car is a joy in the city.
Unfortunately that’s the only place we got a chance to test it, leaving our judgement on its handling (already in question considering the use of super-skinny 155/70/19 tires) reserved for a later date.
The i3 starts at $42,275, including destination. That’s before any government incentives, and also before the $3,850 range extender. Without a doubt, that price gets you into a futuristic vehicle that both looks and feels the part.
But is it worth it? Maybe for early adopters who don’t trust or can’t pony up for the ultra-luxurious Tesla Model S. While the i3 isn’t as road-trip capable as the Model S, it’s far more affordable and easier to drive in the confines of the city.
Tesla aside, its more expensive than other EVs, though it does deliver a significantly more unique and exclusive experience. An electric 3 Series it’s not, but if this is the first mass produced car from the BMW i team, we can’t wait for the next models to come.