The all-electric BMW i3 is a marvel of lightweight aerodynamic design and electric efficiency. But, in order to succeed in the marketplace, cars have to appeal on a visual and emotional level. Opinion is divided on whether or not the i3 achieves the level of appeal granted to most Bimmers. Hannah Elliot, Forbes staff writer, said, “It’s not exactly ugly but it doesn’t exactly offer the taut, sporty appeal of an M3 or a Z4, either.”
Historically, designers have had a hard time finding an attractive design for a small electric city car—as evidenced by the design of cars like the Spark EV and Scion iQ EV. Prior to the i3’s release, perhaps the most successful small EV design was the electric version of the Fiat 500, especially when decked out in a striking color combination. Like the 500e, the i3 may be a love it or hate it proposition, but enough car buyers seem to appreciate (or at least tolerate) its quirky mélange of next-generation materials and textures to far surpass the 500e’s popularity.
The i3 is short. But it's a bit taller than many other cars, and very wide for a car this length. The high seating position has been equated to that of a mini SUV. The car's dimensions are 157.4 inches long, 69.9 inches wide, and 62.1 inches high. So it's unusual from any angle, and it has so many unique details. Striking features include large U-shaped LED daylights, smoothly integrated rear lights, and a broken belt line with the rear door window lower than the front one. The BMW i3 can’t be mistaken for any other car on the road.
To BMW loyalists, the biggest difference is probably in the dashboard. Or the lack of it. In any other BMW car, there’s a large instrument cluster, with two easy-to-read round dials. What you get in the i3 is a smallish screen, barely larger than a smartphone. There’s a 10.2-inch screen for the navigation system, but the one in front of the driver is about 6 inches wide and only 1.5 inches high. The upper part of the dashboard and the door panels are made of kenaf fibers, and it looks like something halfway between charcoal and mouse fur. Depending on whom you ask, it’s either weird or cool, but everybody will agree that it’s a break from the past. The material is soft and warm to the touch.
Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Over time, maybe it will develop into a cult hit. Or it might take a generation or two for BMW to get the design of an all-electric city car to have all the appeal of the company’s more attractive gas-powered sedans.
The 2017 i3 offers a new set of 19-inch wheels, advanced real-time traffic information, and a Deka World interior theme.
Our early experiences behind the wheel of i3 were not totally novel because the i3 shares its drivetrain with BMW’s earlier test platform for electric cars, the ActiveE. The heavy Maglev-like ActiveE offered a vivid drive—but the i3 is lighter and more aerodynamic, and the aluminum chassis (with carbon fiber passenger cell) was purpose-built for the car. So it feels much faster.
BMW says the i3’s 125-kilowatt electric motor driving the rear wheels produces 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. That’s good for 7.2 seconds to 60 mph. Like the Tesla Model S, it takes off with an uncanny burst of quiet power. There are massive amounts of dialed-in regenerative braking, as there was in the ActiveE and MiniE, but the i3 feels far more stable and controlled. It’s one-pedal driving at its best. Lift off the accelerator, and it rapidly sheds speed and comes to rest, as the charge indicator shows you’re feeding the battery pack.
There’s no “creep,” so you don’t need to have your foot on the brakes to stay in place. The BMW i3 does offer a "glide" feature, intended to allow the car to coast (without regen braking), which can be effective on long down-sloped stretches of highway. Unfortunately, the glide feature—activated by finding a sweet spot on the accelerator pedal—can be difficult to achieve.
All in all, the i3 feels part of the “ultimate driving machine” stable, with balanced responsive steering, taut ride, and very tight turning radius. This is one exciting city commuter car, even as the light weight and thin low-resistance tires put passengers in direct contact with bumps and uneven road surfaces, and doesn't always inspire confidence among larger vehicles on the highway.
For 2017, the BMW i3 electric car is offered with an all-electric range of 114 miles—a big jump from the previous model’s 81 miles. The new longer-range i3, which is available now, catapults the model to second place in EV range among vehicles priced below $50,000. The top position is held by the more affordable 200-mile Chevrolet Bolt. The new 2017 BMW i3 carries a 33 kilowatt-hour battery onboard. The EPA estimates driving range in city driving at 124 miles and highway driving at 102 miles.
The bigger battery—found in two of the three trim levels—costs more. So if you have your heart set on the i3, but want to shave about $1,200 off the price, you can opt for a trim level carried over from the previous version of the car. It’s labeled as the 60 Ah version, referring the smaller amp-hour capability of the battery. It's fed by a 22-kilowatt-hour battery that provides enough power for an estimated 81 miles of range.
BMW said it designed the i3 so that very cold and hot weather wouldn’t have an extreme impact on its range. The battery pack is kept close to an optimum temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit, thanks to an active liquid thermal management system. BMW said the battery pack can either be cooled using the car’s air conditioner or warmed using the car’s heat-exchange heating system. Nevertheless, numerous i3 owners have complained about a loss in range during the winter months, with some reporting that it can significantly drop on especially cold days. This is a strong argument to opt for the 114-mile variant.
Some of this range loss can be prevented by preconditioning the car before use. Like other cars with active thermal management, BMW said the battery pack can be pre-warmed before a trip to ensure maximum performance, range and battery life.
For drivers who think the onboard battery pack capability isn’t enough to assuage range anxiety—particularly in cold climates—BMW sells the i3 with an optional two-cylinder, 650cc gasoline range extender.
In the United States, the range-extender (or REx) turns on when the state of charge drops below 6 percent. Unlike the European version, the operator cannot manually turn on the engine to maintain a higher level of charge. In Europe, once the state of charge drops below 75 percent, the range extender can be turned on manually. Learn more about how the range-extender works and how it affects the driving experience.
For 2017, BMW increased the size of the small gasoline tank in the REx. It now carries 2.4 gallons (instead of 1.9 gallons ), thus enabling a combined driving range of 180 miles.
For trips beyond the range of the i3, BMW announced that it will make gasoline cars available to i3 owners as part of its BMW i3 mobility package. For situations when a customer runs out of charge and has no range-extending engine, BMW says Mobile Service vehicles will be able to assist stranded cars, carrying enough onboard power to safely get stranded i3 owners to the nearest charging station.
The range-extending engine, again, only holds 2.4 gallons of gas, so it's going to need regular fill-ups if you use it a lot. For long highway trips, you'll need to stop to refuel every hour or so. Also, consider that 2017 models provide no-cost DC fast-charging for two years via ChargeNow DC Fast chargers at EVgo stations across the US.
The i3 makes use of the Combo SAE J1772 connector, allowing it to charge from one the many Level 2 AC home charging station. See our guide for buying your first station.
The SAE combo cord also makes the i3 accessible to 50-kilowatt DC Quick charge stations that are capable of refilling the car’s battery pack to 80 percent full in around 20 to 30 minutes. Quick charging can be a convenient bonus—particularly for longer trips—but with 90 percent or more of EV charging taking place at home, it shouldn’t be make-or-break for most EV buyers.
The good news is that BMW engineers equipped the i3 with an onboard charging system that nominally can handle 7.7 kilowatts. That high Level 2 rate can be difficult to supply via household power, but even at around 6.6 kilowatts, it means an hour’s worth of charging adds about 20 to 25 miles of driving. It doubles the added range in an hour from EVs outfitted with an anemic 3.3-kW charger.
Oliver Walter, project manager BMW i, in an interview with PluginCars.com, said, “The BMW i3 is about the exterior size of a BMW 1-series, but has the interior roominess of a 3-series, and the quality of materials and luxury features of a 5-series.”
Precise measurements are not quite so clear on that matter. The trunk of a 3-series is 13 cubic feet. With a full load of passengers, the four-seat i3 offers a modest 9.18 cubic feet of cargo space. Yet, when the rear seats of the hatch are folded down, an additional 29 cubic feet of space become available. The car certainly has a lot more room inside than you would expect from a quick curbside view.
The quality of the interior, with its restrained quasi-Scandinavian feel, premium materials, and Teutonic attention to detail, puts the electric competition to shame. The interior of the i3, with its sculpted wood dashboard and floating navigation monitor, is gorgeous. There have been some complaints that reflections from the dashboard material generate a lot of glare on the windshield.
A questionable design decision that affects passenger comfort is the use of rear-hinged “coach” doors. If getting into the back by yourself, first you open the front door; then the back door; then you need to stretch way forward to close the front door—a process requiring even stronger yoga skills in reverse. Sure, it’s not that often that you’re sitting in the back for long without the driver getting in, but it does happen.
Here’s something else: those back windows do not open at all. No roll down and no venting hinge. Also, front passengers cannot be buckled into a seat belt if another passenger wants to get in the back. The seat belts are harnessed to the small back door—try to get in while the driver is buckled, and you give him or her a squeeze. Make the mistake of closing the front door first, and the back door awkwardly squishes into the front door.
The carbon fiber body of the i3 is as strong as steel, but it’s 50 percent lighter. The goal of shifting to carbon fiber is improved efficiency—and increased EV range. But is it safe?
In 2017, the i3 did not quite manage to get the IIHH's "top safety pick." It fell short and received the "Acceptable" designation because of the test measuring the effectiveness of head restraints and seats. IIHS reported that these types of injuries are rarely fatal, but still have consequences. The BMW electric car also received merely a passing score of "Acceptable" for its headlights. Yet, the car's autonomous emergency braking system earned the "Advanced" rating.
BMW i3 uses a wide range of high-tech and network services to enhance safety. With Driving Assistant Plus, and optional feature, the BMW i3 provides collision warning—and can automatically maintain speed and distance in city traffic up to about 25 miles per hour. The optional Park Assistant makes parking more convenient.
For 2017, the BMW i3 (94 Ah) with 114 miles of range starts at $44,595. That's about $1,200 more than the 60-Ah model, which only offers 81 miles of estimated range. If you add the gasoline extender on top of the big battery, the price bumps up to $48,445 before options and destination charges.
Premium features (such as heated seats, onboard DC fast-charging and satellite radio) are standard. But the price climbs with each trim package, from the base Mega World to Giga World and Tera World.
The i3 is eligible for the same $7,500 federal tax credit as other plug-in cars on sale in the US today. Add local incentives and residents in California will be able to pick up a brand new i3 for a net price in the mid- to high-$30,000.
An added bonus a California i3 buyer might be unfettered solo driving in the carpool lane—assuming that he or she opts for the all-electric version. California currently offers an unlimited number of white stickers HOV stickers for pure-EVs. Some early buyers of the REx were also issued one of a limited number of green PHEV stickers, but that program has since run out and there isn’t any indication that more green stickers will be issued in the future.
Comparisons of Similar Cars
The smooth, swift and silent drive characteristics of all EVs give them a quasi-luxury feel. But the i3 is the first dedicated electric car from a full-scale well-established luxury brand. Of course, the Tesla Model S is a luxury automobile, but its sticker price—which can approach or exceed six figures—puts it in a different cost category than the i3.
The closest true competitor to the i3 is the Mercedes B-Class Electric Drive. Both are premium electric vehicles from German manufacturers, and they have a somewhat similar range and price. They are also both hatchbacks, although the Benz seats five and is larger than the BMW.
When you look at an i3, it’s clear that BMW did everything they could to reduce weight and increase efficiency. With the B-Class, there isn’t any evidence to suggest that weight savings were considered. In fact, the electric B-Class weighs about 250 pounds more than a European B-Class Diesel, which means the B-Class Electric Drive tips the scales at about 3,900 pounds.
Mercedes offers a full line of options and interior trim packages for the B-Class EV, the same as any car it sells. The B-Class EV has a 28 kilowatt-hour battery pack—compared to the i3’s 33 kWh pack. This translates to an official EPA-rated range of 87 miles for the Benz. The Mercedes also comes with a modest range-extending feature of its own: With the flip of a button, the Mercedes B-Class EV's pack extends to 31.5 kilowatt-hours. This feature can’t be used regularly without eventually deteriorating the car’s battery life, but it can add 10 miles or more to a full charge. Of course, that's in a different league than the i3 REx's range-extending gas engine, which adds about 75 miles and can be refueled at any gas station.
Start your purchase of the BMW i3 by visiting a local dealership or clicking on the “Build Your Own” button on the BMWUSA.com website. When the i3 first hit the market, early adopters were faced with a wait time of up to six months after ordering. Now that inventories have been built up, the i3 can be driven off the lot at many BMW dealerships around the country.