Not Just Futuristic, BMW i3 Electric Car is Welcoming and Accessible

By · September 06, 2013

BMW i3

BMW is now poised to make its grand entrance to the plug-in car market. The company’s i3 plug-in city car is due to go on sale soon (and the production version of the i8 plug-in hybrid sports car will be unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show next week).

BMW’s official i3 launch in July—replete with razzle-dazzle and claims about revolutionizing transport in the world’s mega-cities—was a turn-off for me. It seemed grandiose. But sitting in the i3 for the first time yesterday at a U.K. event made me change my mind about BMW’s first mass-produced plug-in car: It isn’t just a toy for the automaker known for performance-oriented sedans. It really is a new way of thinking about cars.

Seeing Is Believing

Inside, four well-proportioned seats and careful design creates an unusually large cabin for a car of the i3’s size. Uncluttered by a center transmission tunnel or gear lever, the floor extends uninterrupted from drive to passenger side, while the simple and clear dashboard appears easy-to-read. Meanwhile, all column-mounted controls and BMW’s standard i-drive system—located between the front seats—is within easy reach of the driver.

Unlike wide-angle press shots of the i3 concept’s cabin, which created an almost sterile feeling, the production-ready i3 feels comfortable, safe and welcoming.

Access to and from both front and rear seats is easy thanks to large front doors and smaller “suicide” rear doors, which swing out to grant access for backseat passengers. Only the unusually high sill—which BMW said is part of the car’s carbon fiber-reinforced plastic LIFE module—makes entry more difficult, catching the feet of anyone unaccustomed to the i3’s high ground clearance.

Sadly, test-drives of the static display car were off the menu, but I was able to look in the i3’s rear load area and under the hood. While small when compared to cars like the Nissan LEAF, the i3’s cargo bay is large enough for a week’s worth of shopping. Meanwhile, under the hood, the area is big enough for a handbag or in a pinch, an overnight bag. It is substantially smaller than many car drivers will need, but for the target market of young couples who live and work in large cities, the boot space is likely to be more than adequate.

In real life, the i3 appears well built. Its cabin is inviting and well thought-out—not at all Spartan or Buck Rogers futuristic. It is well proportioned, and the driving position appears to be comfortable with clear visibility. Moreover, there’s room for four adult passengers in comfort.

But because BMW’s advertising machine is still focusing on casting the i3 as a futuristic and unusual car for hip urbanites, it could risk jeopardizing the success of a car that fits a very comfortable niche for anyone wanting a sporty, well-built urban car—one that can also hold its own on the freeway.

Of course, BMW, like other automakers, needs to focus on what makes the i3 really special. And that, I suspect, will be the driving experience, which plug-in fans are still waiting to experience.

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