The 2014 BMW i3 shares many design elements and even materials with its larger sibling,. 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, and are all in the 3,300- to 3,700-pound range and the 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.
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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.)
While I could deal with having no air conditioner in Northern California's mild climate, the constant ire and road rage that doing 56 mph in a 55-mph zone drew from my fellow commuters was more than I could bear for extended testing.
Optional range extender
For many city drivers, 74 miles of electric motoring range (or nearly 100 miles in Eco Pro+ mode) is more than enough. Others will want to regularly take longer trips (or are battling with range anxiety). For these longer haulers, BMW makes the i3 available with an optional gasoline range extender, which adds $3,850, £3,150 or AU$6,000 to the price.
The range extender is a two-cylinder gasoline engine that fires up when the battery pack's charge drops below 5 percent to generate enough electricity to keep the i3 rolling. BMW and the EPA estimate that the range extender extends the compact's range by about 75 miles.
Interestingly, the range extender makes no physical connection with the drive wheels; it only generates electricity and even then only enough to maintain about a 5 percent charge for the battery pack. It cannot recharge the battery on its own; you'll eventually need to plug in to recharge.
The transition from pure electric power to range extender mode is a seamless one. The vehicle continues to operate exactly as it did before the gasoline engine kicks in; from the driver's seat you'll only feel a slight vibration or hear a subtle hum of the ICE. At highway speeds, you can't tell any difference at all.
Outside of the vehicle the gasoline engine is significantly louder, however, emitting an annoying buzz that sounds a lot like a cheap gasoline generator or air compressor. The noise isn't a deal breaker and the extra range was appreciated when I needed to drive from San Francisco to San Jose and back during one day of my testing, but this is just one more reason to charge the i3 regularly and do most of your motoring under plug power.
Standard navigation with iDrive
Floating above the center of the i3's sculpted dashboard is the 6.5-inch display for the BMW Navigation Business system. Controlled by the physical BMW iDrive rotary controller on the center console, this is not one of my favorite infotainment systems. However, other CNET editors seem to truly enjoy this control scheme, so I'm convinced that it's a love-it-or-hate-it situation.
The i3's tech loadout includes standard 3D navigation software that features routing algorithms that take the electric power train and the available range into account when finding a path from where I am to where I want to be. The interface is snappy and the list of audio sources includes all of the usual suspects (Bluetooth, USB, iPod and satellite radio) and some new favorites (HD Radio is standard). One audio source that I did not find was a CD player; I didn't exactly miss it, but some drivers will.
Like any electric car worth considering, the i3 is also a connected car, featuring BMW's connected services. Drivers can access remote features -- such as door unlock, stolen vehicle location and more -- as well as monitoring and controlling the charging behavior of their i3 with the aid of a smartphone app.
Our example's driver aid and assistance tech started and ended with the optional Parking Assist Package. For $1,000, this line item adds a rear camera with dynamic guidelines and front and rear park distance alerts and guides. Another option, the $2,500 Technology + Driving Assistant Package, adds full-speed ranged adaptive cruise control and upgrades the Navigation system to a larger-screened setup that includes real-time traffic. Aside from an optional Harman Kardon premium audio system, there don't appear to be any more tech choices.
The 2014 BMW i3 starts at $42,400 in the US, but our range extender model stickered at $45,200. From there, drivers have a choice between three trim levels. The base "Mega World" features a cloth interior. Our "Giga World" package adds leather and wool trim, larger wheels, keyless entry and satellite radio for $1,700 more. The top-trim "Tera World" package steps up to a full leather interior for $2,700.
Our example also features even larger 20-inch wheels ($1,300), heated front seats ($700), anti-theft ($350) and a $950 destination charge. All in, our 2014 BMW i3 with Range Extender silently rolls off of the lot for $51,200. (UK and Australian prices for these extras were not readily available.)
Even discounting the additional cost for the range extender, the i3 is about $10-15K more than its closest competitor. For thrifty drivers who are considering an EV as a way to reduce their transportation costs, this will be a huge sticking point.
Still, it's an odd and enjoyable little eco-car and the materials used in its construction along with the stunning design of the cabin almost justify the high price. This is, when you really think about it, the only true "premium" car in this segment. Driving any EV is a bit like driving the future, but the i3 is one of the only cars in this space that looks like the future.