History - BMW started their electric car evolution a few years back with the Mini-E and followed it up with the ActiveE - two vehicles that were based on production gasoline engine models. These two offerings were never sold to the public outright. Instead, they were marketed through two-year leases, requiring that the drivers return the cars to BMW and, in essence, serve as their real world test squad. Several New Jersey residents have enthusiastically embraced these electric cars, serving as electric car ambassadors for BMW and earning the name 'Electronauts' in the process.
The many real-world lessons BMW learned from this unique group of individuals were used to build and improve their first "from the ground up" all electric car - the recently released, i3. If the i3 doesn't look all that new to you its because the company has been previewing prototypes at several recent NY Auto Shows and at public showings across the area. However, all of the cars that were shown in these show and tell events were non-functioning prototypes. That has all changed because the i3 - all electric BMW is here.
First Impression - The BMW i3, in person, looks like something out of the Jetsons (or maybe Woody Allen's Sleeper) - and that's not necessarily a bad thing given its mission. The car appears to be a little bigger than the BMW 1 Series-based ActiveE it replaces and a little smaller that the bread and butter 3 Series BMWs that we all know and love. It's taller too - not a low and sleek vehicle for sure. The plastic panels that make up the exterior are well finished and the door and hood gaps are first rate - just what you would expect from any BMW.
Inside - The driver and passenger door pull open like just about every car door you have ever used. The back seats are reached through a second door but can only be opened when the front door on that side is open. And it opens toward the rear - what classic car owners call "carriage style". Others might call them suicide doors. In either case, the design works because access to the spacious back seats is simple and easy.
Our test car had the mid-level interior and once again, the fit and finish was just what you would expect from a BMW. The seats' leather and cloth color scheme compliments the car's exterior colors bright without being gaudy. As with most BMWs, the front bucket seats are comfortable without being confining. No, they are not BMW sport buckets (maybe the best sedan seats on the third rock from the sun) but are in character with this car's mission. The leather wrapped steering wheel has a hefty grip, the switches and knobs are large and well places with typical BMW "like butter" smoothness.
On The Road - Forward visibility is excellent. The i3's broad expanse of glass and narrow front pillars gives the driver a commanding view of the road. The rear view side mirrors are large and well placed and electrically adjustable. However, rearward visibility out of the passenger side is compromised by thick pillars. Not dangerous, of course but will require the new owner to carefully adjust and use the mirrors.
Seating is upright and comfortable. There's no traditional gear shift - essential your have a knob behind the steering wheel with forward, reverse, neutral and park. Acceleration from the 170 hp electric motor is surprisingly brisk. Electric motors, unlike gasoline engines, make maximum torque at zero RPM so the car's 184 lb-ft make themselves felt immediately. While our drive did not include a formal 0-60 MPH test, the i3 blended easily into busy highway traffic giving credence to the manufacturer's claim that the classic American benchmark can be reached in 7 seconds.
There were no squeaks or rattles over typical NJ winter ravaged roads. Wind and road noise were Rolls Royce-esque quiet - seriously!
And then there was braking. The BMW rep in the passenger seat said that the typical driver will probably be able to drive the i3 most of the time with just one pedal - i.e., the "gas" pedal. That's because when the driver lifts off, the car's technology kicks in and channels momentum (also known as kinetic energy) back into charging the batteries. Yes, there is a brake pedal and the brakes work just fine. However, after just a few miles behind the wheel it was clear that a driver could easily and quickly learn how to actually drive with one pedal.
By the Numbers - The i3 is everything BMW said it would be. It is a competent real-world vehicle with lots if pep and good interior room and comfort. It has an advertised range of between 80-100 miles (temperature and driving style come into play here) - par for the course for most all-electric cars these days. This distance can be improved if the 2-cylinder gasoline generator is ordered. The manufacturer says that the generator (called a range extender) will give a range of 160 to 180 miles - limited by the generator's 2 gallon gas tank. Note - this doesn't make the i3 a hybrid. The small engine only charges the battery - it does not power the wheels.
Prices and Mileage - Electronauts - BMW's e-car advocates - claim that at typical electric rates, an owner should be able to drive an electric car about 100 miles for $5.00. While that sounds like fantastic "gas mileage", the limiting number for most buyers will be the car's cost. The BMW rep said that the base i3 would be $41,350 and $45,200 for an i3 with a range extender. Of course, there are packages - interior upgrades, navigation, wheels and tires, etc., - so the price could reach $50,000. There is a $7,500 tax credit available so that should be factored in any purchase decision.
Final Thoughts - The BMW i3 is a competent all-electric vehicle. It has all of the technology that BMW has learned from its forays into e-vehicles with the MiniE and the ActiveE. Because it was built from a clean sheet of paper, it is unusually light in weight thanks to its high-tech construction from Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic. Its range between charging is, according to the electronauts on hand at this i3 test, enough to get most people most places before the batteries run out. It goes, stops and handles like a BMW. It's MSRP at over $41,000 is not insignificant and because of the vehicle's estimated low residual value, the BMW lease program isn't appealing.
Want to drive an all-electric vehicle that's fun to drive and has all of the safety and comfort of a BMW then give the i3 a test.