BMW i3 declassified: Why the Bavarian Motor Works' little EV has big potential

BMW is one of the most respected brands in the world of performance and luxury cars. With new players and innovations shaking up the industry, it needed a shot in the arm. Thus was born Project i.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
11 min read

When young, nimble companies displace established, stalwart ones, it forces everyone to keep on their toes. Disruption has pushed the consumer tech world to insane levels of churn, but even the humble automobile is not immune. Tesla is the poster child for vehicular disruption, a new brand launching a new luxury automobile that, within a few months, was outselling popular models from Lexus, Porsche, and even BMW. Others are coming, with their own alternative cars and motorcycles, all intent on knocking the now-familiar brands from their comfortable perches.

BMW i3 declassified (pictures)

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Keenly aware of its position in the crosshairs, the Bavarian Motor Works decided to disrupt itself. Thus was born Project i and the i3, the first fruit plucked from that young tree. It's BMW's first full-production, full-electric vehicle, following in the treadmarks established by the Active e and Mini e prototypes that came before. It is a city car, short and narrow yet tall, a boxlike shape that affords a surprising amount of interior room within diminutive dimensions. Its 18.8kWh battery park, mounted in the floor for a lower center of gravity, offers a maximum of 118-mile range, powering a rear-mounted 168 hp engine. It's surprisingly quick, surprisingly fun to drive, and has more and better high-tech appointments than any other EV on the road -- even Tesla's Model S.

However, priced at $45,300 when it hits US dealers in early 2014, it's not for everybody. It's made of premium materials throughout, starting with a chassis that's largely woven of carbon fiber reinforced plastic, or CFRP. The i3 is the first production car made of the stuff, and while it isn't quite as strong or as light as proper carbon fiber (which requires a huge amount of manual labor to mold and bake), CFRP is still far stronger and lighter than steel, resulting in a fully electric car that weighs just 2,600 pounds -- less than most gasoline-powered cars sold in the US today.

The interior, meanwhile, is riddled with techy bits, including smartphone connectivity and an advanced nav system that can help you find a charger when you're running out of juice. It also offers the sorts of premium driving aids that you'd expect on a premium car, like adaptive cruise control and even a traffic jam assist that enables the car to drive itself at low speeds. It's a machine that feels remarkably free of compromises, a striking contrast to many other contemporary EVs, which make do with limited features and functionality to keep costs down.

A 40-year effort

The i3 is just the first step of BMW i. The company had fiddled with EVs in the past, most notably with the 1602 Electric concept that made an appearance at the opening ceremonies of the 1972 Munich Olympics. That car was a modified version of the company's 1602 coupe, loaded up with simple lead acid batteries to deliver an underwhelming maximum range of 19 miles. It was hardly a vision for the future, as BMW never had any intention of putting it into production.

BMW Project Manager Manuel Sattig

Fast-forward 35 years, to 2007, and BMW is ready to get serious. Manuel Sattig is project manager of Project i.

"The idea behind it was to make the company fit for the future, to see how mobility will change for the future," he said. "For that, a small project called Project i was created. The first name we had for the i3 was the Mega City Vehicle. Most of the individual mobility is going to happen in urbanized areas."

The Mega City Vehicle, or MCV, debuted at the 2012 London Olympics, 40 years after the 1602, and though it would evolve somewhat over the next 12 months, its concept would remain the same. Importantly, this was not just to be a funky little electric car. The i3 was to be the harbinger of a new brand full of fresh ideas that would ultimately percolate through the entire company. "i is still a BMW," Sattig told me, "but it's looking at other forms of mobility and of course sustainability at the core. Both eventually support the entire BMW brand."

That starts with small things for now, like the i3's remarkably thin seats. To save space and weight in the car, the goal was to create something dramatically thinner and lighter than the plush and comfy but bulky and heavy leather-wrapped thrones found in most BMWs. Daniel Starke, head of interior design at BMW i, walked me through the thinking. "We knew we wanted thin seats, because when you open the door you know you didn't want a big chunk of leather....That is better when you sit in the car, more room for your knees. It is better when you get in and out of the car, and they look really cool."

That they do, but they're still very comfortable and, perhaps more importantly, very light. Designers for BMW's other models, themselves on the quest of reducing weight to increase fuel economy, now want these seats in their cars. Starke calls this the "pull effect," with the products in the Project i running ahead and dragging the rest of the company's offerings along.

An interior like a loft apartment

The thin seats help to create an open, roomy feel inside the BMW i3, which is just a foot longer than a Mini. This airy feel is unlike other BMW models on the road, known for their generally sombre, driver-focused cockpits.

Christian Knoll, an interior designer at BMW i, likens the i3's interior to a loft apartment. "The whole car is a change in corporate culture. Moving away from this driver-oriented cockpit to a living room, which is open to all passengers, where the driver is not in a monopoly information position. It is quite radical."

"We wanted to keep the stress out," Starke said. "When you're moving through a mega city it's quite stressful, and we wanted to give that person, a driver, the feeling that he is at home. We wanted to create a roomy and quiet atmosphere."

The architecture of the i3, with a flat floor and an electric motor tucked between the rear wheels, makes that possible. "We had this empty room, because all the technical bits are out of the way," he said. "That gave us a big opportunity to take out the double-DIN that's normally in the center stack, we chucked that under the rear seat."

This means there's no bulky center console, just a lot of room for legs and cubbies for gadgets.

Even though that center stack was mostly deleted, its functionality was not. Despite the futuristic look and feel of the car, all of the controls for interacting with the stereo system, navigation, and things like headlights and turn signals, are very traditional. Familiar, even. Knoll, the interior designer, calls this "clever simplicity."

"We know from market research that some people are worried if they have to learn a lot of new things when they drive an electric car. Our aim was to make it as easy and comfortable as possible and also to provide maximum transparency about what the car can do and also what the user can do in order to go beyond these limits."

So, the i3 features a virtually unmodified version of BMW's (now aptly titled) iDrive control system for navigating through system menus. Any BMW owner will feel right at home. Knoll says that you already have to teach EV buyers many new things, like how to charge the car and manage range.

"This already costs attention. If you change too much about what people already know about the vehicle it can be most advanced but not acceptable."

The familiar, then, is as important as the unfamiliar.

Still, the i3 designers opted to make one radical change in the controls of the car: shifting gears. In a traditional, manual car, the shifter is a center-mounted stick that is physically connected to the gearbox. Move the stick and, assuming you depressed the clutch and gave the synchros time to do their thing, the transmission engages the next gear. Automatic transmissions handle the complexities of shifting themselves, but that concept of tilting a stick into D or R continued.

Multiple gears are needed to enable a car to move effectively at low or high speeds, because an internal combustion engine is only truly effective within a narrow range of speeds. Electric motors, with far fewer moving parts, can spin far faster and, crucially, deliver full power at any RPM. Finally, since they can spin just as well in either direction, they don't require a discrete reverse gear. In other words, the idea of shifting is properly obsolete in most EVs.

So, the team decided to exorcise the stick shifter, getting extra motivation by putting a flat, continuous bench seat up front in the early concepts. The idea was that you could slide from the driver's side to the passenger's side, or put a third person in the middle. That concept would ultimately be deleted, as individual adjustments for driver and passenger became difficult, but still the team worked hard on numerous ways to replace the ubiquitous shifter.

"We thought about buttons, but we found that to be really unsexy. It's not an essential feeling....It was too abstract; that's not emotional," Knoll said.

Of the "very many" concepts Knoll said the team evaluated, he settled on a sort of twist-grip that's mounted to the right of the steering wheel. You simply angle it in the direction you want to go. "The semantics tell you cleanly what you need to do: twist forward to drive, twist backward to reverse."

Gas and brake pedals on the floor work like normal, two holdouts from the early days of driving that Knoll and team decided to leave alone -- for now.

New drivers to the i3 will probably be a bit befuddled by this shifting arrangement at first, as indeed I was, but after the first few drive selections it becomes second nature. That said, with the whopping number of other buttons used to control the car's key functionality, another few marked P, R, and D would likely not have had much of an impact on the car's sensuality.

Driving impressions

Tilt the shifter into D and, with a gentle press of the gas pedal, the i3 smoothly accelerates down the road. Like other EVs, the power and throttle response are immediately apparent, but it's far easier to be smooth here than in most. The i3 feels like it's being pulled along by an invisible magnet.

It rolls on impossibly skinny tires that would look perfectly at home on a horse-drawn carriage, 19 inches in diameter but just 6 inches in width. That's 4 inches taller than those found on a Toyota Prius, yet 1.5 inches narrower.

"The tires are specially made for i3," said Michael Lenz, who handles driving dynamics for BMW i. "They have small rolling resistance and, with the rim design, better aerodynamics."

They also help the car to achieve a tight turning radius of 32.3 feet -- a huge help on the narrow and congested streets of Amsterdam, where I tested the car.

Their skinny width necessarily limits grip but not so much that the i3 isn't fun to drive. In fact, it handles remarkably well. The battery packs are mounted low, that 168 hp motor provides its drive to the rear wheels, and I had a blast zipping around in the thing. Unfortunately, though, the nondefeatable traction control will serve as something of an intolerant governor, shutting down power at the slightest hint of wheelspin. I asked Lenz why they didn't add a Sport mode that would allow you to have a little more fun.

"We don't have this," he said. "It should not be a sports mobile. It should be an economic city mobile, but I think in the Comfort mode it is really sporty."

Josh Miller/CNET

More models to come

If you're looking for something properly sporty, you'll need to wait for the next car from the group. "i8 is something completely different," said Lenz.

It debuted in 2009 at the Frankfurt auto show as Vehicle Efficient Dynamics concept; it's actually a plug-in hybrid, relying on a three-cylinder turbodiesel engine in the rear paired with an electric motor in the front. The pair of powerplants enable the car to be all-wheel drive and quite fast (accelerating to 60 mph in less than 7 seconds) while delivering nearly 100 mpg.

BMW i Project Manager Sattig said the Vehicle Efficient Dynamics concept was meant to envision a "true sportscar of the future....Reactions were so drastic that it was clear we had to produce the car." And so they did, with an anticipated launch in 2014. It's a very different machine than the i3, says Daniel Starke: "As it is a sports car, it is much more focused on the driver. You sit much lower in the car with the batteries next to you. It's a different layout, but also a purpose-built layout with carbon fiber."

BMW i3 swarms Frankfurt auto show (pictures)

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It's radically different-looking, too, yet is clearly from the same family. Starke says it is a language of optimization. "We want to show the car is clean, efficient, aerodynamic. All the shut lines, all the creases that you see, they're there for a reason, just to make the car as efficient as possible."

Doing the math

It's efficiency that could make these cars fit into more budgets than their prices imply. In Europe, the BMW i3 costs about €9,000 ($12,000) more than the 65 mpg 118d hatchback, one of the most efficient cars BMW sells. BMW says that an average European driver would spend €1,350 on fuel costs annually for the 118d, compared with €564 on electricity for the i3. Insurance costs are 15 percent lower on the i3, too, because it's actually easier to repair in the event of a crash. ("The carbon fiber is more expensive," Manuel Sattig told me, "but the time and the energy you need is much less.") There are virtually no service costs, either, beyond the tires that cost about $30 each. And while this may not save you any money, the i3 is also far better for the environment, emitting 1,111kg of CO2 into the atmosphere compared to 2,376 on the 118d. That assumes a standard mix of electricity production sources, including coal.

And then, of course, there's the federal $7,500 tax rebate on EVs in the US, plus local incentives in many states, but whether car buyers are ready to sit down and do the math on the long-run economics of the i3 remains to be seen, especially given the car's range of roughly 118 miles. (The EPA has not formally rated the i3's range as of this writing.) According to BMW's findings that's more than enough for the vast majority of drivers in urban environments. And, when those drivers feel like going road tripping, BMW is introducing a rental program featuring conventional, gas-powered cars. Still, range anxiety is yet another mental hurdle for a potential buyer to overcome.

"The introduction of a new mobility is a challenge," said BMW CFO Freidrich Eichner. "This is why we offer a lot of support to our customers."

Making things somewhat easier is an optional range extender, an onboard gasoline-powered generator that buyers can have slotted in right next to the electric motor, more or less doubling the car's range. But, that'll set buyers back a further $3,950 while adding more weight and the sort of unpleasant internal combustion racket that EV buyers delight in escaping.

While driving an EV is in many ways a more pure experience than rowing through the gears and managing the fickle nature of an internal combustion engine, it's clear that buying one is still something of a complicated process. Should you do the math and the numbers work out in your favor, rejoice, as the i3 is a pretty marvelous little car.

If, on the other hand, you're committed to more-traditional means of propulsion, rest easy knowing that the sort of fresh thinking and innovation that Project i is bringing to the table will gradually percolate through the rest of the company's models. Don't be surprised if it shakes things up outside of Bavaria, too.