On the road with the BMW i3The BMW i3: a savvy step into the future, or just not a BMW? CNET's Brian Cooley checks the tech on this new electric car.
Welcome to a new BMW. This is the first of the "i" cars -- the i3, what they call a Mega City Vehicle. A clean sheet, all electric, that if it weren't for the badge on the nose, you probably wouldn't know it's a BMW at all. This will either go down as a seminal visionary change in the company's direction or just a little bit too much for the brand to bear. History will write that story, but in the meantime, we're here to see what it's all about today. All right, now, nobody accuses the i3 as being the prettiest BMW, especially from the back. It's kind of sporty from the front and I'll let you decide what you think about the side. But the structure is interesting. This car is TARDIS-like. It's bigger inside than on the outside. Check it out. You've got a very spacious conventional front door, but then, you've got what they call, nowadays, a coach door because no one likes the term suicide doors anymore. Notice when you look in there, you got a flat floor. That's because there's no need for a drive shaft or exhaust pipes to run up and down the car. I mean, all those videos I've done showing you the new thing in seat design, well, here it is. Look at this guy. This is a thin shell seat design. It's not this big ole block that's like 5 or 6 inches thick of padding and leather and frame. It's really a couple inches of thickness plus some curvature. It's part of the way that you make more room in a small car and, say it with me, save weight. When you get the weight down, everything sorts itself out -- the car handles better, accelerates better, does that with a less heavy smaller battery in many cases. It's just win, win, win. Now, this guy, as you can see all around me, is made up of what looks like carbon fiber but not quite. This is carbon fiber-reinforced plastic. It's kind of a middle ground that gives you more of a real world price base. Carbon fiber is very expensive and very slow to work with, but this is a hybrid of that and a much more pliable, usable plastic that is a middle ground. It's gonna make this car more real-world priced and faster to manufacture while still getting really light and really tough. Okay. Now, motive power is interesting story here, Tale of Two Cities if you will. We're seeing right here the inverter and the electric motor that all i3s will have. 173 horsepower, 184-foot pounds of torque, 2,700-pound curb weight, small numbers on all counts, but the torque to weight ratio is 22 percent better than a 320i and just 10 percent shy of a 328i. With this configuration, you've got 80 to 100 miles of typical range on a full charge, maybe up to 118 if you really drive it Eco in a steady state. But look at this hole over here. That's there for a reason. You can option this car as a range extender. They would put a 650-cc basically BMW motorcycle engine here, running a generator to add another, let's say, 70 miles or so of electric range to the battery. Now, that may sound like a Chevy Volt killer, but not exactly. A Chevy Volt can use its range-extender generator to run continuously. As long as you have gas, it's running on electric. This one is more of an additional big boost of range, but it does not keep you running continuously. Now, the battery in this car is actually kind of uninteresting and that is interesting. If you look at that thing, you see it's a very simple, rectangular, flat square package. That's because they started this car with a clean-sheet design all around it. They didn't need to mold a battery to fit an existing car platform that has a place for a drive shaft and things like that. That makes this very simple, potentially modular in the future. I don't know if that's on their plans or not, and it's also lithium-ion technology, not lithium polymer which you typically use to make batteries of irregular shapes. You get that 80 to 100ish miles on your i3 with a three-hour charge from nearly flat. That's pretty short by industry standards these days. Now, beyond charging, what I find interesting is BMW's got this kind of I theology about the whole ecosystem of getting around. Here's one called ParkNow. This program is gonna allow you to use their resources to find a place to park like for your daily work parking and also have your charging waiting for you there as well. DriveNow, they're already doing this in San Francisco by our office where BMW electric cars are in a car share program. And then, there's this Alternative Mobility Program where when you need to go on a long drive, they will loan you out a gas-engine BMW that has no range issues. And what they also like to see is all of these programs combining in a way that also interfaces with mass transit and even bicycle usage. That's really a European thing. Americans just don't do that. Okay, first thing I notice when I get into the i3 is how spacious this guy is. I'm a tall guy. I've got no problem with headroom. It doesn't feel terribly narrow. Legroom is great. You get this guy going by rocking this unusual drive control here. Kick forward for drive and then back for neutral and reverse. Press the top for park. So, I kick that there. Now, we're in drive mode, off we go. Plenty of torque of course. I've got ways to adjust the motor of the powertrain down here with Comfort, Eco, Pro, and Eco Pro Plus. You notice it doesn't go up to Sport. It goes down into different levels of Eco. BMW argues that this car doesn't need a Sport mode because it's so light and because electric is so torquey, it's sporty by its nature. Why is that instrument panel just a slit? You see that little module stick up there? That is your instrument panel. There are no gauges in this car understandably, but it's all bezel. It does bother me for some reason. When the other big LCD, the iDrive panel to the right, it's gorgeous. It floats in midair. It's, what, about a 10, 10.5-inch ultra-wide screen. Beyond that, it's standard iDrive stuff which is good. We do have here something new. We have the touchpad controller for iDrive. I believe they call this iDrive 4.2. It'll let me do navigation by scrolling on the top of the thing or writing characters. Let's face it, Audi had that a little while ago, but BMW's got it on a new bigger controller now. It's perhaps the quietest electric car I've driven yet. They all tend to be pretty quiet, but some of them have a certain amount of electric gear whine, you know, the reduction gear. This one seems to have ISO that out the best so far. Optional self-driving tech on the i3 will handle steering, braking, and acceleration at up to 25 miles an hour, braking but not steering at up to about 40, and adaptive cruise control on the freeway. And the self-parking tech in this car will move the ball forward as well, handling not just steering but also the accelerator and the brake. So, torquey, quiet, pointable, not radically different from a Leaf or a Focus EV, which I also like, but I'm starting to think that, with electric vehicles, we're just dealing with a kind of car that has less distinctive personality in its driving manners. But here's the real shocker, the only one I've discovered in this vehicle is they have deleted coast. As soon as you get off the accelerator, this car goes into heavy rigid. It's as if I'm crammed on the brakes, but I'm never touching them. Now, the i3 arrives Q2 of 2014. Pricing will be about 42 grand before credits and rebates and then about another 4 grand if you wanna get the range-extender option to add that roughly 70 miles on top of the 100 or so it does in its all-electric configuration. What's interesting about this car is I would have written it off at arm's length as a compliance car, a play made just to meet Federal CAFE and California zero emission standards, so they can keep selling their other cars. But there's too much ambition going on in this guy to just pawn it off that way. This is a big deal for this company. Whether it's a successful big deal remains to be seen.