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2014 BMW i3 Test Drive Review
Change very little on any given car and things start to feel quite different. More than football, engineering is the true game of inches—or millimeters, if we’re being honest. Look at the i3, and all the usual suspects are still there: 4 wheels at the corners, steering up front, doors on the sides, and seats in the middle. What this car does differently from nearly every other vehicle on the road is just a small deviation from normal. But it’s enough of a change to make it a wholly new experience.
Look and Feel
Electric versus gasoline power aside, BMW's i3 is fresh right down to its architecture. Because this is a ground-up electric rather than a conversion from an existing vehicle design, it was never intended to house an engine up front. Instead, the i3 was built utilizing BMW’s Life-Drive platform, separating passenger and drive architecture into two “modules” in a neo-retro update of the body-on-frame design of long ago. Here an aluminum chassis houses drive and suspension parts while a carbon-fiber body houses passengers. Batteries down low and drive components out back mean more room for passengers inside with a completely flat floor and plenty of legroom. And a wealth of lightweight materials throughout means a curb weight below 3,000 pounds—hundreds less than competitors like the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt.
But it’s not just the skeleton of the i3 that’s different. Small changes inside can be seen everywhere, proving that a small deviation from the norm can make a big impression. Hemp and kenaf fibers form the door panels, trim, and dash. Wood trim is open-pore eucalyptus, and any leather you add is naturally tanned. This means the i3 feels familiar yet strange as soon as you drop into the seat. In an industry where every car interior feels sickeningly similar, strange is a welcome feeling. Plant-fiber panels and wood are left naked, some might even say unfinished, but at least it’s not more hard-grained plastic. Textiles may be the high point here and add a touch of class that even the best leather seats would have a hard time matching. Quirky as it is, I love the interior of the i3.
For my time with the i3, I was given an example in the base Mega World trim with Range Extender ($3,850) in Andesite Silver ($550). Rather than traditional “trims,” the i3 is offered in different “worlds.” Moving up to the Giga World ($1,500) or the Tera World ($2,500) means you’ll get extra trim pieces like eucalyptus wood and leather seats, but not much else. The only options here were the heated seats ($350), which thankfully went largely unused in Northern California, but there are packages and options to be checked if the $46,250 base MSRP for the i3 with Range Extender isn’t lofty enough for you. Twenty-inch wheels ($1,300) or the Harman Kardon sound system ($800) are the only other standalones. As delivered ($950), this i3 stood at $47,050.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: The i3 is the fastest BMW ever from 0-30 mph. At 3.5 seconds, it’ll beat most anything on the road up to the typical city speed limit, and taking another 2.5 seconds to make it to 60, it’s not going to have any trouble hitting the highway, either. Stomp the accelerator, and the torque on tap is simply scary. Passengers yelped in shock as the little Bimmer leapt away from the line, quietly scooting its way to the posted speed limit.
Weighing just a couple hundred pounds more than your typical smart car, the i3 exhibits a nimbleness limited only by its tall, skinny tires. At a base size of 19 by 5 inches, they’re like nothing you’ve seen on a car this century. Hell, they're like nothing put on a car since before I was born. Pizza cutters come to mind here, and even with the larger 19-by-5.5-inch rears you can get with some of the more upscale trims and options, you’re going to look like you’re rolling along on beer coasters.
What this means is that at the limit you’re going to get some skittishness. Nanny systems engage to keep things composed, but you’ll still notice when you’re pushing too hard. This isn’t a complaint, though. Some drama is welcome here, as most cars today seem to keep the driver only peripherally involved in the act of driving. With the low center of gravity, rear-wheel drive (RWD), and balanced chassis of the i3, I had more fun behind the wheel of this little EV than most conventional cars can even offer.
That said, the i3's low weight means you’ll be pushed around a bit at highway speeds, by both wind and buffeting from passing tractor trailers. That will be alarming if you’re used to cruising around in a tank of an SUV, but nothing new if you’ve spent any time in compacts or riding motorcycles. My main concern would be how that light weight and those skinny tires would affect performance in the snow. I grew up in Western New York, driving all manner of vehicles through snowstorms that would make an Inuit wince. I’d love to see how the i3 would perform in those conditions, but I could see how some would find it uncomfortable.
The biggest difference in the way the i3 drives—beyond the gobs of torque just waiting to be abused—is in the way the power is delivered. Extreme engine braking means the i3 slows to a stop simply by releasing the accelerator. In order to “coast,” small amounts of pressure need to be maintained on the pedal, otherwise the i3 will come to a full stop. This is such a foreign concept to most drivers that BMW included a visual guide on the dash to help you understand what amount of pedal input was necessary to coast along, neither gaining nor losing speed. The system is so efficient that other than in emergency situations, I rarely used the brake pedal, as the i3 would come to a full stop even while pointing downward on many of the steep hills in the Bay Area. This is great for energy saving, but the engine braking can be so abrupt that I can see it surprising drivers following behind, who would suddenly see the i3 come rushing toward them without the added benefit of brake lights blazing. Be warned. The good news is that the i3 avoids the usual electric/hybrid bugaboo of grabby brakes thanks to fully hydraulic units.
And while you most likely won’t take the i3 on any cross-country trips, its 75-mile electric-only range is plenty for city use. Sadly, that range is just as optimistic here as it is for the rest of the electric crowd, even when in Eco Pro+ mode. Decide to have any fun with all that torque and you can watch that range drain like a bathtub. The range-extender option here adds a 2-cylinder, 647-cubic-centimeter engine stolen from BMW’s C600 scooter, used solely to provide additional power to the electric motor when the batteries deplete. To be clear, it never powers the rear wheels. As such it’ll add around 300 extra pounds to the i3 and another 75 miles to the range. If you have the BMW charging station ($1,080) installed at your home, you can get around 30 miles of range for every hour of charging, and if you’re lucky enough to find a DC fast-charge station in your city, BMW claims 80% charge in just 30 minutes. That sounds wonderful, but I had none of that in my home. The i3 was delivered to me with around 30% charge, and with a full-charge time of 20 hours from a conventional 120-volt socket, I spent a good portion of my 4 days with the i3 plugged in. Still, when the generator kicked on to keep the i3 scooting, it was barely noticeable. Step outside, however, and the coarse drone of that tiny twin was evident—kudos to BMW for proper sound insulation in the cabin.
Form and Function
The i3 offers a ton of room inside, even enough for rear passengers if you don’t put the front seats all the way back. The flat floor and expanse of legroom give the interior a cavernous feel, and not in a bad way. There’s plenty of storage, and the ultra-thin seats mean you’re not losing precious inches to excessive padding. They look sleek and elegant and reportedly weigh just half as much as those in other BMWs, even with the redesigned side airbags included. Electric controls were eliminated for weight considerations, which is to be applauded, but some higher-quality manual controls would be welcome. The same could be said of the door handles, which felt unacceptably flimsy.
Suicide doors can be comfortably operated only by front-seat occupants, meaning your rear passengers are stuck inside until you let them out, but otherwise entry and exit are easy here. There are no blind spots to contend with, either, something I forgot was possible in car design. And because the batteries are stored under the floor, the trunk is an actual trunk with 11.8 cubic feet of storage, expandable to 36.9 with the rear bench folded flat.
While the general interior design is a fresh approach without being disruptively revolutionary, there are places that need some attention. The awkward and clunky start/stop & transmission stalk/knob is poorly placed, ugly, and difficult to operate—some functions even require you to reach through the steering wheel. This isn’t something that can be tweaked—it simply needs a full redesign. It’s a fully electric vehicle—let’s just go with push-button operation.
Much has been written about the aesthetics of the i3, so I won’t waste too many words here. It’s a "love it or hate it" situation, and after my short time with the i3, I can definitely say I sleep in the “love it” camp. Its function as an around-town vehicle is nearly flawless, with only your particular charging situation getting in the way. That said, the home charger would be a necessity for daily use, so it’s disappointing that it’s a separate—and rather pricy—option, rather than an included feature.
With this little EV being born in tech, it’s surprising that more isn’t included. The Mega World example I had was rather stripped with regard to added features, but throw some money at it and you can add all the nanny systems, parking aids, and infotainment you can handle. A Parking Assistant Package ($1,000) will add Parking Assistant and Distance Control as well as a rear-view camera, while a Technology + Driving Assistant Package ($2,500) will add navigation with real-time traffic, the Active Driving assistant, and BMW online services. The iDrive system is one of my favorites for ease of use and speed, and the Harman Kardon stereos I’ve seen in other BMWs have been quite pleasant on the ears.
Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) have tested the i3, but with its aluminum chassis and carbon shell, BMW claims the passenger compartment will remain intact in crashes up to 40 mph.
Braking from 60 mph is said to be accomplished in less than 110 feet. This is an impressive figure, but with the low weight of the i3, I’d expect better. Perhaps some wider tires could cure this? Otherwise, the i3 comes with the usual outfit of 6 standard airbags as well as traction and stability control. We’ll wait for official word, but everything here points to safety.
Cost effectiveness is the real battleground for the i3. It’ll save you tens of thousands over a Tesla, but has a third of the range. The EPA estimates a fuel-cost savings of $8,250 over 5 years of ownership compared to the average new vehicle, but look at the i3’s competition. And that’s also ignoring the substantial entrance fee here versus the average new car for a vehicle that can get you only a little over 100 miles even with the range extender. Of course, this isn’t a car designed for road trips, either. At a base price of just over $40K, the i3 offers a lot of fun, plenty of innovation, and the right amount of utility to make it worth the money. Start adding options, some of the them unfortunately necessary, and that argument starts making less sense.
A CarGurus contributor since 2008, Michael started his career writing about cars with the SCCA - winning awards during his time as editor of Top End magazine. Since then, his journalistic travels have taken him from NY to Boston to CA, completing a cross-country tour on a restored vintage Suzuki. While his preference is for fine German automobiles - and the extra leg room they so often afford - his first automobile memories center around impromptu Mustang vs. Corvette races down the local highway, in the backseat of his father's latest acquisition.
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