The 2014 BMW i3 shares many design elements and even materials with its larger sibling, the BMW i8. However, the compact's portlier profile betrays its very different mission. The i8 is an exotic hybrid sports car. The i3 is a weirdly styled city car, a small people mover with space for four, and an efficient little cargo carrier. Both cars make a definite statement with their glossy iPod-like designs, but the i3's statement is a much more down-to-earth and practical declaration.
At the end of my week with BMW's little EV, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I liked the car, but I couldn't help but notice how many times the word "weird" appeared in my driving notes. The i3 is about as odd to drive as it is to look at, but it turns out that this is a good thing.
Materials and construction
Like its larger sibling, the i3 makes heavy use of lightweight materials. In this case, we're talking about plastics and carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP); the latter is used in the construction of the passenger shell and can be seen exposed around the vehicle's cabin. By using this strong, stiff material as its base, BMW keeps the i3's weight to 2,799 pounds. (Our range extender model tips the scale at 3,064 pounds thanks to its small gasoline engine, but we'll come back to that.)
For comparison, the Kia Soul EV, Ford Focus Electric and Nissan Leaf are all in the 3,300- to 3,700-pound range and the Fiat 500e tips the scales at 2,980 pounds. This means that the Bimmer is one of the lightest vehicles in its class; only the much smaller, two-seater Smart ForTwo EV weighs less at 2,138 pounds.
Exotic materials and lightweight construction are also a big part of the reason that, at a starting price of $42,400 in the US, £25,680 in the UK and AU$63,900 in Australia, the BMW i3 is also one of the most expensive cars in its class. From the driver's seat, the i3 looks like it's worth the cost. With a multitiered dashboard composed of wood, leather and exposed CFRP and a cabin that makes use of wool, leather and metal in its construction, the i3 doesn't just look like a premium car on the inside; it's almost a work of automotive art.
The dashboard sits low and there's plenty of glass to let in light, giving the i3's interior an airy feel and giving the driver a fairly unobstructed view of the road ahead and around.
The i3 is a four-door with conventional front doors that mate with rear hinged coach doors that open to give access to the cabin. The seats are just as colorful as the rest of the cabin and feature optional heated surfaces. What's interesting about these buckets is that the seatbacks are about half as thin as those in a conventional BMW, which frees up knee space for rear-seat passengers. A flat floor and a high roofline also help to make room for two adults on the second row.
Electric drive and charging
Just behind the second row and below the i3's rear storage area is this car's main draw: a 125kW electric motor mated to a single-speed transmission sending power to the rear wheels. In regular car terms, that works out to 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. The car's low mass combined with the instant-on nature of electric torque makes this one quickly accelerating little compact. BMW has also done a remarkable job of delivering almost perfectly silent acceleration, with none of the mechanical gear whine that you'll sometimes hear from electric power trains.
The motor draws its juice from a 22kWh battery pack that, according to the EPA's estimates, will motivate the i3 for about 74 miles between recharges. A full recharge will take about 5 hours on a Level 2 public charger or about 3.5 hours using BMW's i Charging Station (240V/7.4kW). The BMW i3 also includes a wall charger for occasional or emergency charging, but at 110V it'll take well over 12 hours to recharge by this method.
The i3's acceleration is remarkable, but so is its deceleration. This EV has one of the most aggressive regenerative braking systems that I've ever tested and simply does not coast like a gasoline car does. The moment I removed my foot from the go-pedal, the car started aggressively slowing down in an attempt to recapture as much kinetic energy as possible. It's a very weird way to drive, but also very easy to get used to. I could, after I'd gotten used to the on-or-off accelerator, drive the i3 in traffic with just one pedal, only resting on the brake when I wanted to come to a complete stop.
Another bit of weirdness involves the BMW i3's steering. I found the front end to be very responsive to steering input, but almost too much. The nose of the i3 was very darty and twitchy in response to the smallest inputs. On one hand, responsiveness was good when I wanted to quickly change directions. On the other hand, I had to pay particular attention to keeping the compact car between the lane markers at the highway speeds. One wrong twitch at 70 mph and the i3 would juke in response.
I think the particular steering character is partially due to BMW dialing in a lot of steering response for its ultimate eco-driving machine and partially due to the heavy regen creating the effect of constant trail braking and shifting a lot of the car's dynamic balance to the nose. Whatever the cause, this too was something that I quickly grew accustomed to and eventually learned to like about the zippy little EV.
To help drivers go above and beyond the EPA's estimated range, BMW has given the i3 a trio of electronic driving modes that can be selected to change the character of the vehicle. Comfort is the default setting and is still very economical. Eco Pro adjusts the behavior of the climate control system and remaps the throttle response to squeeze a few more miles out of the battery. Eco Pro+ is the most aggressive setting, completely deactivating the climate control system and setting a soft speed limiter of of 56 mph. (Going faster than about 50 mph creates a lot of aerodynamic drag, which is the enemy of electric range.)