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2014 BMW i3 Overview
Overall User Score
Based on 2 reviews
BMW launches its new "i" line and its first mass-produced all-electric city car with its innovative and somewhat quirky i3. The 5-door compact electric vehicle marks a distinct departure from the typical BMW fare. While the i3 still displays the iconic dual-kidney grille and the expected upscale cabin, it opts for a lightweight carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) body rather than one of aluminum or steel, a tall boxy design rather than a low sleek profile and an electric powertrain rather than a turbocharged gas or diesel one. The i3 also produces zero emissions, features rear-wheel drive and makes extensive use of recycled and sustainable materials throughout its design, from its key fob to its owner's manual.
Built from the ground up as an electric vehicle, rather than retro-fitting an electric powerplant into a body and chassis designed for a gas-powered vehicle, the i3 in many ways represents the next generation of BMW's vehicles and could hint at how more and more vehicles might be built in the coming years. Essentially it's constructed by fitting together two modules, each with a specific purpose. BMW refers to this as LifeDrive architecture, consisting of a Life Module and a Drive Module. To construct the Life Module, which essentially serves as the passenger cabin, BMW uses CFRP, because it's as strong as steel but 50 percent lighter. The lower Drive Module, which houses the powerplant, suspension and structural components, is made from aluminum. The innovative two-module design results in a low weight of around 2,700 pounds for the i3, which in turn means the car can travel a wider range on a single charge.
With an overall weight distribution of 50/50, the i3 has a stable feel and good balance. In addition, the lightweight Life Module, combined with the heavier Drive Module, results in a lower center of gravity, resulting in good handling. The low placement of the battery in the chassis also helps lower the center of gravity, enhancing the vehicle's stable feel. And although the i3 rides on a subcompact footprint similar to that of the BMW 1 Series, it offers the interior space of a 3 Series, due to the lack of a traditional drivetrain and transmission tunnel.
The electric powerplant itself also helps conserve space and keep weight down. The i3's hybrid synchronous electric motor weighs just 110 pounds and produces 170 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, with maximum torque available the moment the driver steps on the accelerator pedal. Providing smooth, quiet acceleration, the electric motor pushes the i3 from 0-30 mph in 3.5 seconds and to 60 mph in about 7 seconds. BMW limits the i3's top speed to 93 mph, saying any speeds above that would be too inefficient for the electric powerplant. The motor drives the rear wheels through a single-speed transmission, resulting in steady, uninterrupted acceleration.
In another unique feature, the i3 uses a single-pedal design. The accelerator pedal also acts as the brake, slowing the vehicle when the driver lifts his foot. In addition, the accelerator pedal has a neutral position, so the vehicle can cruise at a particular speed using almost no energy. A speed-sensitive brake energy regeneration system, which delivers power to the battery during braking, provides a stronger braking effect at lower speeds.
Because of the i3's light weight, BMW was able to keep the battery small and light as well. The 22kWh lithium-ion battery weighs just 450 pounds and powers the i3 to a range of 80-100 miles on a single charge. Owners can increase this distance by approximately 10-12 miles by operating the vehicle in either Eco Pro or Eco Pro+ modes (the i3 also operates in a normal Comfort mode). Using a charging cable, which comes standard, owners can charge the battery using any 120- or 240-volt outlet, with the charge time at 240 volts of around 3 hours. However, owners can install a BMW i Wallbox home charging station, which reduces charge time to about 30 minutes, or about 20 minutes for an 80-percent charge.
The i3's navigation system, as well as a mobile app, helps drivers find public charging stations in their areas, where they can top off their batteries. Owners worried about running out of power can opt for an available Range Extender generator consisting of a rear-mounted 34-hp gas generator, which nearly doubles the i3's range but adds about 330 pounds to its weight. The Range Extender, which has a fuel capacity of 2.4 gallons, maintains the battery's current charge when it hits a certain level.
The i3 has a tight turning circle of just 32.3 feet, which makes it especially maneuverable in urban environments, as well as in parking lots everywhere. It features a MacPherson strut front suspension and a 5-link rear suspension, which help provide stability and agility, and an electric power steering system. The i3 rides on large 19-inch light alloy wheels with low-roll-resistance all-season tires. Owners can add 20-inch wheels as an option.
Outside, the i3 displays a short hood and a high sloping roofline, with short overhangs and a unique side beltline that dips dramatically at the rear windows. A "black belt" color scheme, which runs from the hood over the roof to the rear, also creates visual appeal. The dual-kidney grille, as well as lower side accents, feature an i blue background, while the air curtains and U-shaped LED headlights up front help minimize air resistance. At the rear, U-shaped taillights and a diffuser, along with a hatchback, complete the unique exterior look.
Inside, owners will find a cabin equally unique. Light and airy, it makes extensive use of recycled and sustainable materials, and takes advantage of the fact that there's no central transmission tunnel. A low dash ensures excellent visibility out the front, while the freestanding steering wheel incorporates the instrument cluster as well as the driving controls, such as the gearshift selector and start/stop button. Trim for the dash and instrument cluster uses fibers from the Kenaf plant and wood from sustainably harvested eucalyptus, while 25 percent of the plastic inside the cabin comes from recycled materials. Like the body module, the interior roof is composed of recycled CFRP, and BMW uses an olive leaf extract to tan the available leather upholstery.
BMW offers the i3 in three trim levels, which it calls "worlds." The base Mega World trim comes equipped with Sensatec and sustainable cloth upholstery made from recycled materials, a leather-trimmed steering wheel and grained dash trim, as well as a navigation system with a 6.5-inch touchscreen, BMW's ConnectedDrive mobility services with the eCall system and the automaker's i Remote. The mid-level Giga World trim adds leather and wool cloth upholstery, a sunroof, satellite radio and contrast stitching for the leather-wrapped steering wheel. At the top of the line, the Tera World trim includes full leather upholstery tanned with olive-leaf extract, textile accents and contrast stitching. Bluetooth, HD radio, automatic climate control and rear park distance control are among the other features standard across the line.
In addition to the safety cocoon effect provided by the CFRP Life Module, the i3 includes such safety features as Dynamic Stability Control with a start-off assistant, Dynamic Traction Control and high-performance 4-wheel antilock brakes with Dynamic Brake Control and Cornering Brake Control. BMW also offers an optional Driving Assistant Plus, which warns the driver of impending collisions, includes a traffic-jam assistant and adds such features as camera-based Active Cruise Control with a Stop & Go function, which automatically maintains the vehicle at a safe distance from the vehicles ahead.
Rob has been a contributor to CarGurus since 2007, and an automotive test-driver and writer since the early ’90s. He’s test-driven everything from BMWs and Jags to Bentleys and Saabs, with an occasional Range Rover, Ferrari, Porsche or Lamborghini thrown in. He also created the annual Car of the Year and Exotic Car of the Year awards for Robb Report magazine. He currently resides in Florida.