The 2015 BMW i3 electric car may carry a few BMW rondels, but it could almost have come from a different brand entirely. The small hatchback is nothing less than the most energy-efficient car sold in the U.S. this year. Not only does it represent a big bet by BMW, it's really something of a revolution for the whole auto industry. Until now, lightweight body structures made of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic have been reserved for high-dollar exotic supercars--and not seen in subcompact hatchbacks.
While some BMW loyalists may find it tough to swallow, and the marketers may have a hard time squaring it with the rest of the lineup, it's important to note that the BMW i3 isn't primarily aimed at North America. Now in its second year on the market, this funky city car is meant to provide quiet all-electric transport for those living in congested urban centers. And it works: The BMW i3 is absolutely the most calming, soothing vehicle we've driven in truly chaotic rush-hour traffic.
The i3 works fine on highways and open roads, of course, although its roadholding won't please buyers used to the driving character of a BMW M product. But it isn't supposed to appeal to those folks. The electric i3's genius--providing a calm, soothing, capable experience through crowded urban areas--is intended for packed city cores and the crowded neighborhoods of Amsterdam, Jakarta, or Tokyo. In the U.S., it'll sell in and around traditional big cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco, as well as more affluent areas surrounding cities like Atlanta, Dallas, and Los Angeles. Still, the i3 remains a far cry from what U.S. buyers associate with BMW--at least right now.
The departure from the BMW norm is strongly visual. If you didn't see its twin-kidney (simulated) grilles and the blue-and-white roundel badge, you might never associate it with the rest of the lineup. The styling of the BMW i3 launches a new design language for its "i" plug-in cars. They'll all have a mock twin-kidney grille outlined in blue, along with glossy black hoods, roofs, and tailgates or trunklids. The i3 has a broad stance, with its large, 19-inch wheels pushed out to the corners, and an upright posture that makes it look bigger than it is.
The front and side are distinctive, but the rear is a cluttered intersection of straight lines, curves, and multiple materials--by far the car's least attractive angle. Inside, a calm, modern, almost minimalist cabin feels expansive in the front, but remains cramped in the rear. BMW says the i3 has as much interior volume as its 3-Series sedan, but it's organized differently--and we suspect most i3s will be occupied by only one or two people most of the time.
The i3 plug-in electric car is truly a new way of looking at BMW's "ultimate driving machine" ideal. Instead of driver involvement, the design team focused on providing a calming environment for travel. They've created an interior that evokes spacious, open loft living; and a car that shows you not only roads but walking routes, bus and train schedules, and multiple transport modes.
Beyond those groundbreaking BMW basics, there's an optional 650cc two-cylinder range-extending engine, producing 34 horsepower (25 kilowatts) and 40 lb-ft of torque. It doesn't power the wheels, but simply acts as a generator to recharge the battery, boosting the car's range from the 82 miles of the battery-only version to perhaps 150 miles or so between fill-ups. That's thanks to a tiny gas tank holding less than 2 gallons, purposely made tiny to comply with complex California regulations on zero-emission vehicles.
Make no mistake: The BMW i3 is a good car. It's just good at very different things than any past BMW. And whether those things prove to be of interest to a broad enough U.S. audience to make it a volume car is the big question.
The i3 is comfortable to ride in, with excellent front seats and bright, crisp graphic displays. Aside from some wind noise at speed, the cabin is quiet and motor whine is well suppressed outside of full acceleration. The car is nippy and its small turning circle and compact dimensions make it easy to use in crowded cities. But the tall, very narrow tires have stiff sidewalls and produce a firm ride, without the grippy handling that is expected from any traditional BMW. It's perfect for zipping around town--quiet, comfortable, peppy--but it's certainly not the car you'll take to a slalom course.
A 125-kilowatt (170-horsepower) electric motor allows the i3 to accelerate swiftly and smoothly from a stop. The motor is fed by a 22-kilowatt-hour liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery pack in the floorpan. The truly distinctive feature, however, is the strong regenerative braking (up to 50 kW) that permits the i3 to be driven largely by modulating the accelerator only--touching the brake pedal is really only necessary when full stopping power is needed. The strong regen both minimizes energy use and distinguishes the electric BMW from electric cars tuned to mimic the behavior of conventional cars with automatic transmissions, complete with idle creep. It's easy to get used to, and once learned, many drivers will never want to go back.
BMW has invested heavily in advanced electronic systems both for safety and for multimodal transportation--what other car will give you bus and train schedules to help you reach the destination you dial into the navigation system? The i3 hasn't yet been tested by the NHTSA or IIHS, and given its low-volume status that may not happen at all. he car does have a unique carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) body shell--mounted on an aluminum platform that contains the running gear and front and rear crash structures--that is at this point unproven without testing, although BMW vehicles generally do receive good crash scores.
In terms of energy use, the i3 is rated as the single most efficient electric car sold in the U.S. right now. While its range is rated by the EPA at 81 miles--very similar to the 84 miles of the less expensive Nissan Leaf--it earns a rating of 124 MPGe, the highest of any electric car tested. (The Mile Per Gallon Equivalent unit, or MPGe, measures the distance that a car can cover electrically on the same amount of energy that's contained in 1 gallon of gasoline.)
Recharging to 80 percent of battery capacity takes less than 4 hours using BMW's own home charging station, with a rating up to 7.4 kilowatts--higher than any other plug-in car except the Tesla Model S. BMW i3 cars will offer a Combined Charging System (CCS) quick-charging port as well, although today there are only a handful of public charging stations using that standard.
Our driving tests so far have been limited to German-market battery-electric i3 models; no cars fitted with the optional range-extending two-cylinder engine were available at the global media launch. We'll add comments on that car as soon as we can get behind the wheel of one.
The first 2014 BMW i3 cars were delivered to selected dealerships in May 2014. The base price was $42,275 (including the mandatory $925 delivery fee), and the optional range-extending two-cylinder engine adds an additional $3,850 to that price.
Instead of trim levels, BMW has chosen to sell the i3 and i8 in futuristic-sounding "worlds." The base is the Mega World, followed by the Giga World for $1,500 extra, and the Tera World for another $1,000. Each world has its own stylistic differentiation, as well as wheel designs, upholstery choices, and interior colors. Beyond the worlds, BMW offers some option packages—one for parking assist and another for driver-assistant features and technology—as well as some standalone options, including 20-inch wheels and premium sound. A BMW-branded charging station is available as a $1,080 accessory.
After a brief 2014 model year, the i3 returns for 2015 with only a couple of changes. The DC fast-charging option, heated front seats, and satellite radio are all now standard equipment. Base prices also rose slightly, to $43,350 for the EV model and $47,200 for one with the range-extending generator. Both prices include the destination fee, which itself has risen to $950.