BMW goes all-in on an electric vehicle future with the 2014 i3. The Bavarian automaker has designed the i-Series -- which also includes the high-performance i8 -- behind a philosophy of sustainable mobility. In the case of the i3, that means a dedicated electric city car. At just 157 inches long -- about 1.5 feet shorter than the Nissan Leaf -- the i3 should have few problems finding good parking near the downtown museum. And with four-passenger seating, you'll be able to bring the art critics in your social circle with you.
Being a BMW, the i3 shouldn't lack for performance. We drove one at a BMW test facility and came away impressed with its instant and fluid acceleration, refined ride at highway speeds and the unmistakable pedigree in its handling ability. It turns, twists and surges pretty much exactly as you'd expect from a small BMW. Extensive use of aluminum and carbon fiber for chassis and cabin structures means the i3 weighs in at around 2,700 pounds. That's a good bit leaner than the Leaf or even the Toyota Prius.
A powerful 125-kilowatt electric motor mounts over the rear axle and drives the rear wheels with the equivalent of 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. BMW says the i3 will dash from zero to 62 mph in 7.2 seconds and reach a top speed of 93 mph. The i3 will deliver anywhere from 80-100 miles of range on a single charge, with additional range enabled by sticking to the efficiency-minded Eco Pro and Eco Pro+ drive modes.
The i3 will also be offered with a second drivetrain, this one with a small two-cylinder engine that joins the electric motor as a generator. The auxiliary engine does not provide any propulsion, but instead jumps in to maintain the battery's state of charge when the juice starts dwindling. BMW says the Range Extender option roughly doubles the i3's range.
In its most basic configuration, the i3 should recharge in six hours, while a 50kW "fast charge," similar to the supercharger configuration used by Tesla promises a full charge in 30 minutes. Using a 220-volt outlet, the i3 can charge in three hours.
Inside the cabin, a "freestanding" steering column houses key controls including the instrument cluster and gearshift lever, and eliminates a center console. Instead, three displays -- a 6.5-inch instrument cluster, 8.8-inch central display and a third screen dedicated to audio and climate controls -- form the bulk of the driver interface. A navigation system comes standard.
The i3 cabin also dispenses with a center tunnel bisecting the floor and uses full-width seat benches front and rear for passenger-friendly ingress and egress. Continuing the eco theme, the upholstery and panels are made from sustainable materials; up to one-quarter of the interior plastics come from recycled sources.
Outside, the i3 doesn't look quite like any BMW before it and will feature 19-inch alloy wheels (20-inch optional), adaptive LED headlights and LED taillights. Three trim levels (BMW quaintly calls them "worlds") -- Mega, Giga and Tera -- will offer a range of options including distinct wheel designs, a sunroof and leather upholstery. Two additional packages will bundle advanced navigation features, smartphone-connected services, safety tech including forward collision warning and collision mitigation, a rearview camera and parallel parking assist.
How the i3's ride quality and ability on real roads stacks up to other electric vehicles like the Ford Focus Electric and Nissan Leaf remains to be seen, but its BMW heritage and promising performance should make it a distinctive choice.
The 2014 BMW i3 goes on sale next spring in North America starting at $41,350 before any applicable tax credits. Expect to pay about $4,000 more for the Range Extender option. Check back for a full review of the all-new i3, including specs, driving impressions and buying advice as it becomes available.