The quirky-looking BMW i3 hatchback is BMW’s first foray into the electric car market. With a price tag that rivals upper-end 3 Series sedans, the BMW i3 can go 80-100 miles on a single charge and is the first mass-produced vehicle to use a body made of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic, which is significantly lighter than aluminum and steel.
Size-wise, the BMW i3 is a few inches shorter and slightly narrower than the Mini Countryman, and sits about an inch taller. It’s significantly shorter in length than the Nissan Leaf, by nearly 18 inches. The i3 retains some classic BMW styling cues, including a squashed outline of the twin-kidney grille (though a grille is not needed on an electric car), swept-back headlamps and large, multi-spoke wheels bearing the blue and white roundel. But other than a few details, the BMW i3 looks like nothing else in the BMW lineup. With its diminutive front end and boxy body, one could say the i3 still looks like a BMW the way a snake still looks like a snake after it’s swallowed a goat.
The BMW i3 can charge in three hours with the use of a 220-volt Level 2 charger. An optional DC combo fast charger is optional, and can fully charge the vehicle in as little as 30 minutes.
Although the standard BMW i3 is a purely electric vehicle, an optional range extender is available in the form of a 650cc gasoline motor, which essentially converts the i3 into a type of plug-in hybrid. The engine starts and maintains the battery’s power level, but doesn’t power the wheels directly. The gas engine is called a range extender because it allows owners to continue driving after the battery is drained.
Not to be mistaken for a wimpy econo-box, the i3 uses signature BMW engineering elements such as rear-wheel drive and near 50-50 weight distribution. The BMW i3 is powered by a hybrid synchronous electric motor that makes 170 horsepower and a maximum of 184 pound-feet of torque. Power is sent to the rear wheels via a single-speed transmission. BMW estimates it can go from 0 to 30 mph in 3.5 seconds and 0 to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds. Top speed is electronically limited at 93 mph. The i3’s lightweight construction makes for a lean curb weight of just 2,635 pounds for the all-electric version, besting the Leaf by more than 730 pounds. The i3’s optional range extender adds another 264 pounds.
Like other hybrid and electric vehicles, the i3 uses regenerative braking. The i3’s system is speed sensitive, recapturing the most energy at lower speeds and letting the car coast at higher freeway speeds. The accelerator also acts as a brake when the driver lifts off the pedal. We seldom needed to use the brakes to slow down. Although it may be efficient, this one-pedal driving style feels very different from driving a traditional car and takes some getting used to.
Trim levels sound more like sci-fi flicks than refined German driving machines: Mega World, Giga World, and Tera World. Certain interior materials are natural and sustainable, including dashboard trim made from eucalyptus wood, instrument panel and door trim surrounds that contain plant fibers, and leather upholstery tanned with olive-leaf extract. Every i3 comes with BMW’s Connected Drive, which allows drivers to access charging and other vehicle information via their iPhone.
Competitors to the BMW i3 don’t match up exactly when it comes to price and features. Tiny cars like the Chevrolet Spark EV, Fiat 500e and Nissan Leaf are thousands of dollars cheaper, and the Ford Focus EV and Honda Fit EV offer more space for less money. But none have the cachet of the BMW brand, nor the space-age materials and haute couture interior design. The BMW i3 is the most expensive of these, though federal and state tax credits can help offset its price.
Size-wise, the BMW i3 is a few inches shorter and slightly narrower than the Mini Countryman, and sits about an inch taller. It's significantly shorter than the Nissan Leaf, by nearly 18 inches. It retains some classic BMW styling cues like a rather squashed version of the twin kidney grille, swept-back headlamps and large, multi-spoke wheels bearing the blue and white roundel.
A diminutive twin-kidney grille is framed by small, slanty headlamps that sweep back over aggressively flared fenders into a boxy, somewhat bloated-looking body. The lower front bumper is large and substantial, with cutouts on either side for the small, round fog lights. The hood, roof and tailgate on all i3 models are black, contrasting sharply with the available blue, silver, gray and orange body colors.
Thermoplastic bumpers are not only light, but flexible. They're so springy, one can make a dent with the moderate push of a hand. When pressure is released, the bumper bounces right back to its original shape. The give and rebound helps to avoid damage at low speeds.
From the side, the i3 looks big and roomy. The beltline follows a unique path, cutting across the front door high and straight, then dipping down lower across the narrow back window, then swooping back up again into the rear quarter panel. A slightly curved roofline and tiny roof spoiler give a little touch of sportiness to the i3's otherwise bloated shape. Standard wheels are 19-inch forged aluminum; different designs denote different trim levels.
In back, LED tail lamps flank the large, flat hatch. Beneath the black liftgate, the recessed rear bumper is painted in body color.
Though the car looks cute and quirky on the outside, the inside of the 2014 BMW i3 presents a very forward-thinking, sophisticated dwell-style design. Though it's beautiful in a futuristic, minimalist, artsy way, we're not sure it matches the exterior design, nor the spirit of, a short-distance commuter. It's quite a contrast between the hatchback's fun, almost silly exterior shape.
Certain interior materials are natural and sustainable, including dashboard trim made from eucalyptus trees on Mega World and Tera World trims. The deeply grained wood dash makes us feel like we're lounging in our living room in front of an expensive coffee table. The accent trim on the doors and dash are made of hemp and are highly textured, adding a bit of interest to areas that in most cars are covered with hard plastics.
The center stack is clean and minimalist. A floating-style display screen sits front and center, surrounded by open space. In a separate bank beneath are controls for audio and temperature, as well as two climate control vents.
Because the i3 was designed from the get-go to be an electric car, there is no transmission tunnel that runs the length of the car. This eliminates the hump normally found inside traditional gas and hybrid cars that divides the right side of the car from the left. Because of this, designers were able to place the center console low and nearly flush with the front seat. That makes for an easier escape out the other side when driver or passenger is pinned in too close to the car next door.
Storage space up front is adequate for short drives. Two cupholders sit front-to-back in the center console. Doors have wide pockets for phones and other gear, but the armrest above prevents storage of taller items.
Outward visibility is good, thanks to the i3's large windshield and high seating position. There are some tricky blind spots in the rear corners, however, due to the large C- and D-pillars.
Our leather-trimmed interior felt plastic-y, not buttery soft. On the bright side, coffee-drinking commuters might find this texture more stain resistant and easier to wipe down. Seats are lightweight and thin to save weight, and are comfortable on shorter drives, but we wonder how backs and rear-ends would fare on longer drives. But with a maximum range of 180 miles per charge, most people won't be in their cars for more than a few hours anyhow.
Rear seats are adequate, and can accommodate average-sized adults without too much squishing. Suicide-style rear doors make getting in and out easier. Rear seats are split 50-50 and fold flat. Cargo space is slim with all seats in place, but with the rear seats folded flat, the i3 offers a decent 11.8 cubic feet.
Driving a BMW i3 is not like driving a regular gasoline-powered car, or even a hybrid. Because of its aggressive regenerative braking, it's possible to drive the car almost completely with one pedal. To slow down, one only needs to lift off the accelerator, no need to apply the brake. Though this is great for efficiency, we found the car jerky, either on or off, with not much in between. When we mentioned this to BMW drivetrain engineers upon our return, they chided us for not knowing how to drive the car. You must modulate the throttle, one advised. Not an easy task on a one-hour test drive. But perhaps with ownership, drivers could learn to gently finesse the pedal to coax out a smoother ride. On the other hand, we are reminded of a time when complaining about the performance of a car's heater invited automotive engineers to suggest the driver put on a coat.
Like all cars powered by an electric motor, the i3 has instant torque, which means great pickup off the line. The chassis is stiff and suspension is firm, yet compliant. Electrically assisted steering is responsive but comfortable, like a less twitchy version of a Mini Cooper. A tight turning radius makes it great for maneuvering through parking lots and for flipping U-turns.
Yes, the i3 is a city car, but it's also a BMW, a brand that prides itself on performance. So we threw the little electric car around some twisty corners through the Hollywood hills. Sadly, we found it lacks the chops of its other BMW siblings and got squirrely when pushed hard through the corners, even on its wider sport tires (which are still narrow compared to those found on other BMWs). Lack of side bolstering on the front seats also means we sloshed around from turn to turn. No track days for the BMW i3; it's best left to the daily commute.
The BMW i3 is mostly quiet in the cabin. We did get some slight wind noise at higher speeds, and there was some road noise from our optional 20-inch wheels and tires. Also, you can hear the electric motor working when accelerating. But most drivers won't notice much when driving around town.
According to BMW, the standard BMW i3 can go 80-100 miles on a single charge. We drove 40-mile route on a combination of flat and mountainous terrain, and returned the car with 26 miles of estimated charge left. That adds up to only 66 miles of range, had we continued at our current pace. Because we were pushing the car hard in certain areas and driving through various elevations, the reduced mileage is somewhat expected. Still, we would have liked to keep the car through its entire charge cycle to get a final reading.
Though it may not fit the profile of the typical BMW, the 2014 BMW i3 is a unique, efficient and forward-thinking city car that will command attention.
NewCarTestDrive.com senior correspondent Laura Burstein filed this report after driving the BMW i3 in Los Angeles.