BMW i3

Style

The BMW i3 can’t be mistaken for any other car on the road. At about 157 inches, the BMW i3 is nearly six inches shorter than a Chevrolet Bolt and a foot-and-a-half shorter than the Nissan LEAF. At the same time, it’s tall, narrow, and upright—providing a relatively high perch and good visibility of the road.

The oddball profile of the i3 is enhanced with skinny wheels, short overhangs, and a short hood. If that isn’t enough, consider that the body lacks a B pillar separating the front and back doors. Instead, they both swing out like barn doors to create a wide opening.

Other striking features include large U-shaped LED daylights, smoothly integrated rear lights, and a broken beltline with the rear door window lower than the front one. The latest model adds a silver strip on the roofline and tweaks the bumpers. The more powerful i3S version lowers the suspension, widens the track, and adds 20-inch wheels.

Yes, the i3 has traditional BMW dual kidney grilles, but they’re small and blocked off. An air damn below lets air flow for cooling the range-extending engine.

The i3 is unusual from any angle, but the strangest view is from the back. The combination of high flush taillights and a bumper adorned with trim pieces on the edges gives an impression of one vehicle sticking out from another.

When you first take a seat, you’ll likely flinch when you see the long and deep shelf between the dashboard and the large, slanted windshield. It helps create the interior’s airy and open vibe but feels like wasted space.

An odd choice of materials enhances the irreverent style. The upper part of the dashboard and the door panels are made of kenaf fibers, which 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.

A bulky column-mounted gear shifter—which you grab with a handshake-like grip—looks strange at first but is surprisingly intuitive. In other BMW cars, 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 infotainment screen for the navigation system, but the one in front of the driver is about 6 inches wide and only 1.5 inches high.

Performance

BMW i3

The compact, lightweight i3 is a blast to drive—although it’s not what you might expect from the makers of “the ultimate driving machine.” One-hundred, seventy horsepower doesn’t sound like much, but given the small size and low weight of the i3, it’s one exciting commuter car to maneuver through town.

The whisper-quiet and vibration-free electric motor combine with responsive steering, taut road manners, and a tight turning radius. Top Gear, not historically a fan of EVs, says that “nipping around in traffic” in the i3 is “slightly startling.” In other words, it’s quick and agile. And it’s also easy to park, even in tight spaces.

BMW claims 184 pound-feet of torque from the i3’s 125-kilowatt electric motor and one-speed direct-drive transmission, which drive the rear wheels. That’s good for reaching 60 mph in 7.2 seconds. (The version with a range-extending engine takes 8 seconds.) All i3 models take off with an uncanny burst of quiet power.

Some reviewers say the i3 has numb steering and feels isolated from the road. That likely comes from combustion fans not yet familiar with the smoothness of an electric drive. Those transitioning from ICE will also need to get used to the massive amounts of dialed-in regenerative braking. The car comes quickly to a stop when you lift off from the accelerator—with no need to step on the brake pedal. It’s one-pedal driving at its best.

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 challenging to achieve.

We’re surprised by the professional critiques of numb-ness because our gripe is the opposite: the thin low-resistance tires puts passengers in direct contact with bumps and uneven road surfaces. Moreover, they don’t inspire confidence when driving next to long-haul trucks on the highway.

If you want to maximize the i3’s performance, consider the sportier S version of the i3. It boosts output to 181 horsepower and 199 pound-feet torque while adding Dynamic Traction Control to enhance agility. Or go high-tech with add-on features that bring adaptive cruise control and a parking assistant (only for the non-S variant) that parallel parks with the push of a button.

Efficiency/Range

The BMW i3 offers a driving range of 153 miles on a single charge. The boost in range from previous model-years comes courtesy of a new 42-kilowatt-hour battery pack.

Even with the expanded range, the i3’s distance of 153 miles falls short of competitors like the 238-mile Chevrolet Bolt and 226-mile Nissan LEAF Plus. Nonetheless, 153 miles is way more than what’s needed for typical daily commutes—especially in a small car like the i3.

Got range anxiety? Then choose the range-extender version of the i3, which comes with a 2.4-gallon, two-liter engine. With this version, when the battery gets to about five percentage state of charge, the engine comes on to carry you another 47 miles until you can charge again. The efficiency of the i3 running on gasoline is officially rated at 31 mpg. That’s not fantastic, but you’re likely to use internal combustion only on rare occasions as an emergency backup.

In the early days of EVs, circa 2010, extending range with a gas engine was a relatively popular idea. But as the size of batteries has steadily increased, long-range plug-in cars also equipped with an engine—like the Chevy Volt (with a V)— were phased out. If battery sizes continue to expand at the current rate, the next generation of i3 could offer close to 200 miles of range, making the range-extending gas engine even less necessary.

Some i3 owners complain about a loss in range during the winter months, with reports that it can significantly drop on unusually cold days. That’s despite BMW using a battery-management strategy that should reduce the impact of very hot or cold weather. Like other electric cars with active thermal management, BMW said the battery pack could be pre-warmed before a trip to ensure maximum performance, range, and battery life.

Charging

The i3’s onboard charger is rated at 7.7 kilowatts, which is about average for today’s EVs. So you can add about 25 miles of driving range for each hour plugged into a 240-volt station. A full charge via a 240-volt source takes about 5.5 hours.

The i3 comes standard with a Quick Charge port using the SAE CCS combo-cord standard. As a result, i3 drivers will have access to 50-kilowatt DC charging stations that can fill the car’s battery pack at public charging stations to 80 percent in about 30 minutes. Quick charging can be a convenient bonus—particularly for longer trips. If you know that your desired road-trip routes have 50-kW chargers, it could be an argument for saving the extra expense of the range-extender option. Of course, keep in mind that 90 percent or more of EV charging takes place at home.

One thing that bugs us is the location of the charging port above the rear passenger-side wheel. It means that you often have to back into a space to allow the charging cord to reach the port.

BMW i3

Passenger/Cargo Room

The quality of the interior, with its restrained quasi-Scandinavian feel, premium materials, and Teutonic attention to detail, puts most of the small EV competition to shame. The dashboard of the four-passenger i3 uses a sculpted wood dashboard and a floating navigation monitor. It's gorgeous. However, there have been 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 rolling it down and opening a hinge for ventilation. 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 rear seats are not any more comfortable when you’re on the road. Adult-sized people will feel cramped. Luggage space behind the rear seats is relatively generous at 15.1 cubic feet, expanding to 36.9 cubes when those seats are folded. They also split 50/50.

All i3 models come with BMW’s infotainment interface. Apple CarPlay is standard, but Android Auto is not available. Other standard i3 equipment includes heated front seats. Recent interior upgrades include Wi-Fi with connections for up to 10 devices and wireless charging.

BMW i3

Safety

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—not because of the carbon fiber. It lost points due to Ineffective head restraints and seats. IIHS reported that these issues rarely lead to fatal injuries, 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 features, the BMW i3 provides collision warning, automated emergency braking, and adaptive cruise control that can automatically maintain speed and distance in city traffic up to about 25 miles per hour. The optional Park Assistant makes parking more convenient.

Price

The base price of the i3 starts at $45,445, making it one the most expensive small EVs—especially considering its relatively shorter range. What you’re getting for the extra dollars are luxury appointments, faster performance, and the BMW cachet. Opting for the i3s version bumps the price to $48,645.

The range-extender versions of the i3 start at $49,295. If you want to combine the range extender with the i3s’s enhanced speed, the price climbs to $52,495.

The price also climbs with higher trim packages, from the base Deka World to Mega, Giga, and Tera Worlds. Each step brings nicer seat materials. For example, the Tera trim uses “Tera Dark Truffle Vernasca Leather.” Choose every enhancement to bring the price to about $60,000.

Premium features (such as heated seats, onboard DC fast-charging, and satellite radio) are standard. You also get 19-inch alloy wheels, heated/power-folding side mirrors, self-dimming mirrors, parking sensors front and rear, rain-sensing wipers, heated front seats, a 6.5-inch infotainment display, and navigation.

The list of options includes the range-extending gasoline engine, 16-speaker Harman Kardon surround-sound system, and the Navigation Professional System with range assistant and real-time traffic information. Other choices are Active Driving Assistant (which includes lane-keeping, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and evasive-steering assistance). You can also add a power moonroof.

In 2019, the standard navigation system got a software upgrade. LED headlights with cornering lamps and automatic high-beams became optional, as is a Wi-Fi hotspot and a wireless smartphone charging tray.

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—if you choose the base version—for a net price in the mid- to high-$30,000. A bonus for California-based i3 buyers is unfettered solo driving in the carpool lane. As of this writing, California offers an HOV sticker for the all-electric i3, but not the extended-range version.

BMW i3 specifications

Availability: Now
Base MSRP: $45400
Est. tax credit: $7500
Technology: Electric Vehicle
Body type: Sedan
Seats: 4
EPA Range: 153 miles pure electric
Battery size: 42 kWh
Charging rate: 7.7 kW

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