BMW's Bottom Line: $3,850 for the i3 Range Extender

By · October 11, 2013

BMW i3

The BMW i3 will come with a built-in range extender--for approximately $4,000 more. (BMW photo)

The BMW i3, the company’s first electric car, is rolling out in the second quarter of 2014, and we’re still fielding new information about the car—especially relating to how much it will cost. The basic bottom line, we now know, is $41,350, plus a $925 destination fee. It’s definitely a premium EV.

But this week BMW price-tagged its higher-priced model, featuring the small 34-horsepower two-cylinder gas engine that (though not connected to the wheels) can still virtually double the range to approximately 200 miles. It kicks in when the battery declines to a set level of charge. That version, code-named REx, will start at $45,300 (plus destination), so $3,950 for easing the range anxiety.

You Won't Need it Often, BMW Says

BMW doesn’t think its range extender customers will use the gas engine every day (and Chevy Volt owners certainly don’t) but reserve it for out-of-town excursions. According to Dave Buchko, a BMW spokesman, the extender “could, in theory, be used daily, but that would only happen in the case of a driver who routinely drives more than 80 miles every day without a means of charging. And our experience has shown us that they are not that many out there.”

Hmm. That makes the range extender look more like a luxury item than a necessity. But my first impulse would still be to click the order box. The little engine that could (just six tenths of a liter) doubles range, and despite what carmakers say—incessantly—about the average drive being just 30 miles, I want the option of taking the occasional longer trip. That’s what makes the Volt (or Prius Plug-In) so appealing.

Price May Not be a Barrier

And yet, the i3 is already seriously expensive. If you’re lucky enough to live in California, you’re still going to be paying more than $30,000 for a base version, and that’s 10 grand more than for a LEAF. Yes, it’s a “premium” car, and BMW execs will be appalled to see it compared to the LEAF. Nissan isn’t equipping its cars with carbon fiber body structures, or cutting-edge Euro interiors.

BMW i3

The BMW i3's interior will change with trim levels. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Another factor is that the extender unit weighs 330 pounds, so it will compromise (if only a little) the regular battery range. A small tank holds only 2.4 gallons of gas, so it's going to need regular fill-ups if you use it a lot.

Guessing at the Split

BMW doesn’t know what percentage of its i3s will be range-extender-equipped. “We aren’t making any predictions about how many people will take the REx version,” said Buchko. “The market will decide. We know from our experience with MINI E and ActiveE that most people won’t need it, but we also recognize that we will get many first-time EV buyers, and they may want the peace of mind.”

Agreed, Dave, but even old EV hands need to visit grandma in the next state occasionally, and that’s where the range extender comes in. I’d still be leaning toward getting it, and I bet a lot of i3 buyers will agree. If you can afford over $40,000 for a car in the first place, it’s unlikely you’ll be nickel and diming another $3,800 for that “peace of mind.”

Jack Nerad, executive market analyst with Kelley Blue Book, largely agrees with me. "I think to most people it will be well worth the money," he said. "Range is an issue, bigger here in North America than it is in Europe. Further, people typically buy cars to serve a wide variety of needs, not just a single need, like commuting. The typical consumer who pays over $40,000 for an i3 will likely find occasions when additional range is desired, if not necessary."

Paying for Trims

Incidentally, there will also be several trim levels for the i3, including the base Mega World and the mid-level Giga World (adding larger wheels, a partial leather interior, sunroof and satellite radio). The top of the line Tera World adds full leather, unique 19-inch wheels and "anthracite floor mats." Sounds like Giga World will be the sweet spot. The full price list for all of this is coming later this fall.

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