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 a 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 peak 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, and we shouldn’t rush to judgment on BMW i3 design. Over time, maybe it 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.
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 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.
The i3 is powered by a 22 kilowatt-hour 450-pound-lithium ion battery pack, mounted flat in the i3’s aluminum drive module. According to BMW, the usable capacity is nearly 19 kilowatt-hours. Given the car's lightweight carbon fiber structure, the i3 is likely to push efficiency to 4 miles per kilowatt-hour or more—the higher end of EV capability. This adds up to a realistic driving range of about 80 miles on a full charge.
The real-world range of 80 miles is verified by the first owners of the i3, who expressed disappointment that BMW did not deliver a true 100-mile EV as suggested by the company prior to market introduction. Another shortcoming is the lack of a detailed state-of-charge dashboard meter. Instead, the dash merely shows four bars that diminish over time.
The EPA gave the i3 an official range rating of 81 miles. In terms of efficiency, it assigned these values: 138 MPGe city, 111 hwy, and 124 for combined mileage. Those numbers are for the pure EV version.That makes the pure EV version of the i3 the most energy-efficient car on the road by a fairly comfortable margin. The i3 with range-extender is rated at 117 MPGe combined, and 39 MPG using "gasoline only."
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 fall below 50 miles on especially cold days.
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 on-board battery pack capability isn’t enough to assuage range anxiety—particularly those in cold climates—BMW sells the i3 with an optional two-cylinder, 650cc gasoline range extender.
In the United States, the range-extender 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 .
With a tiny gasoline tank providing fuel, BMW intends the range-extender to be used occasionally, turning a single charge plus a 1.9 gallon tank of gasoline into an additional 60 to 80 miles of range beyond the 80 or so miles that the battery pack provides.
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 on-board power to safely get stranded i3 owners to the nearest charging station.
The range-extending engine, again, only holds 1.9 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.
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 retrained 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 generates 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 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?
More than a year after the i3’s official release, U.S. agencies still haven’t released safety ratings for the i3—but in November 2013, the i3 scored four out of a possible five stars in a EuroNCAP safety test. The small EV failed to earn the top rating after scoring 57 percent in the pedestrian safety test due to a "poor" front edge to the hood evaluation, as well as disappointing results recorded at the base of the windshield and along the "stiff" windshield pillars. EuroNCAP noted that the i3 met test requirements by offering electronic stability control as standard equipment, but that it lacked seat belt reminders in the rear of the car.
These results are not terrible, but have raised some concerns. Yet, critically, the i3 scored maximum points with good protection of all body regions.
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 2015, BMW raised the starting price of the i3 by $1,075 to $43,350 before incentives. (The MSRP consists of a base price of $42,400, plus a mandatory destination fee of $950.) This increase also applies to the range extended REx, which now starts at $47,200. Several premium features for the 2015 i3 have now become standard: including heated seats, onboard DC fast-charging and satellite radio.
The advertised lease price of the i3, which can be a moving target, starts at $239 per month for the pure EV and $279 for the REx, but deals as low as $99 per month have been reported at various times since the car’s release. In early January 2015, lease deals in Northern California were available for $3,995 as a "drive-off" price, with a monthly fee of $159 for the pure EV, or $179 for the Rex version.
The i3 is eligible for the same $7,500 federal tax credit as other plug-in cars on sale in the U.S. today. Add local incentives and residents in California will be able to pick up a brand new i3 for as little as $33,000, while those in Colorado—where state legislation offers plug-in car drivers up to $6,000 in tax credits—will be able to buy an i3 for $28,775.
The official pricing of the all-electric i3 puts it toward the high-end of the electric vehicle market, making it the most expensive all-electric four-seat car on the market today. The i3 version with the range-extended engine pushes the price to $45,300 (plus destination). In other words, the cost of easing range anxiety is $3,950.
BMW executives say they expect about half of buyers to opt for the Rex version.
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.
There are several trim levels for the i3, including the base Mega World—and the mid-level Giga World—adding larger wheels, a partial leather interior, a sunroof, and tacking on $1,700 to the purchase price. The top of the line Tera World, for $2,700 over base, adds full leather, unique 19-inch wheels and "anthracite floor mats." The parking package costs $1,000, while the Technology & Driver Assistant option adds $2,500 more to the total. Additional convenience and entertainment options can easily send the price of the i3 above $50,000.
Sorry talk radio fans: no AM radio in any of the packages.
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 Cadillac ELR, also considerably pricier than the i3 and a four-seater, is a larger sports-oriented luxury vehicle—also not really in the same category as the urban small i3. Even though it costs more, it feels cheaper in terms of quality and design.
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 very 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 22 kWh pack. This translates to an official EPA-rated range of 87 miles. 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.