BMW's talked for a couple of years now about how the i3 — the brand's first-ever fully electric production model — would change the perception of electric cars as blobby, dynamically uninspiring transportation modules. Judgment day for that boast is one step closer with the company's reveal today of the i3 in its final production form.
The event in New York City and on two other continents also included numerous important and intriguing new details about the 2014 i3 — in BMW showrooms in the second quarter next year — including projected performance numbers and the price for the car with its range-extending internal-combustion engine, an option BMW expects will be selected by the majority of U.S. buyers.
Checks All the Right Boxes?
If rear-wheel drive is one of your chief criteria for a true performance car, the 2014 BMW i3's got you covered; it's a trait no other series-production electric-drive car except the pricey Tesla Model S (and the soon-to-be-released electric version of the smart city car) currently can claim.
Like Tesla's electric sedan, the BMW i3 also comes at the world with a unique (make that highly unique) architecture designed strictly for this purpose. Tesla makes you pay dearly for an electric car that's not "converted" from a conventional production model and some might say BMW does, too.
Nonetheless, the i3's starting price of $42,275 (including $925 destination) is more than $25,000 less than the Tesla's base price, and the i3 fronts what may be one of the industry's most sophisticated structures at any price: a carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) unibody, or passenger compartment, attached to what is an all-aluminum rear module that incorporates the battery pack, drive motor and rear five-link independent suspension. The MacPherson strut front suspension and front chassis structure also is almost entirely aluminum.
All this brings the 2014 i3 to a curb weight of about 2,700 pounds, fairly feathery for a full-range electric vehicle and something of an accomplishment when one considers the 22-kWh battery pack alone accounts for 450 pounds. The company forthrightly said the twin-cylinder range-extender gasoline engine (it acts strictly as a generator and is not connected to the drive wheels) will add 330 pounds, meaning an i3 equipped with the range extender will be slightly more than 3,000 pounds — about 200 pounds more than a Honda Civic sedan.
BMW says the i3 nearly replicates the obligatory 50/50 weight distribution so ballyhooed for its conventional cars, although we figure the mass of the drivetrain being oriented close to the back wheels likely means the car could be somewhat rear-biased with its weight, leaving potential for 911-like acceleration and corner-exiting behavior — within reason, of course.
The four-door i3's turning radius of 32.3 feet is tight and tidy, about 10 percent trimmer than a Civic, so maneuvering ability should amplify the car's comparatively light weight.
Now, though, is the appearance of the 2014 i3 a box that you'd check in the affirmative? Maybe not if sleekness and muscularity are styling aspects you expect to carry over from BMW's fossil-fuel model range. The i3 looks pretty much like the concept car that gave the first hints of the company's intentions in this segment, so you can check the box if you favor modern, space-efficient design.
But the tall roof, oddball cut to the rear windows and pillarless profile with rear-hinged suicide doors — not to mention that blunt, crossoverlike rear hatch — all add up to something more a cross between Toyota Prius and Honda Element than BMW's 6 Series Gran Coupe. BMW's clearly aiming to make the 2014 i3 totally distinctive from any BMW that's come before; there's method to the madness, then, but whether it works for someone who wants this car to instantly say "BMW" remains to be seen.
Ok, but What About The Performance?
First, performance by the old-school metrics: the i3's electric motor develops 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. Not outrageous figures, but with the basic electric-only version's just 2,700 pounds to shove, the company claims the car will whirr to 60 miles per hour in about 7.2 seconds. Not a scorching number, but not much more than a second off the 5.9-second. 0-60 run we measured for today's base 328i with its highly entertaining, 240-hp turbocharged four-cylinder and a six-speed manual.
Top speed, not typically an electric-car strong suit, is 93 mph. It's electronically limited, so there's the possibility of aftermarket fiddlers finding a way to get more Vmax, or perhaps even BMW itself as part of an eventual performance package. The company also promises the i3 will have unique throttle characteristics thanks to special "tuning" of the regenerative braking and a new coasting function that provides a potentially interesting "neutral" throttle position to explore.
The new-age metrics, meanwhile, are perhaps as good as you'll find short of the Tesla.
Range for the 2014 i3 is 80 to 100 miles, BMW said, although switching into the Eco Pro or Eco Pro+ driving modes offers the potential for upgrades of 12 percent more cumulative range in each mode. Charging at 220 volts is about three hours and is the only charging time for which BMW was specific, although it says an optional DC fast-charging capability can slam the batteries with 80 percent charge in just 20 minutes and 100 percent charge in a half-hour. Good luck finding those heavy-handed DC charges, though, and when you do, the guy with the Tesla's probably going to claim squatters rights.
Critically, the 34-hp two-cylinder gasoline generator essentially doubles the driving range with its 2.4 gallons of gasoline — while adding almost $4,000 to the base 2014 i3's price. An intriguing equation; although BMW's said it expects the majority of American buyers to want the range-extender, its cost and weight penalties are significant. Then again, the range-extender feature is the difference between an i3 with a finite range before it has to stop for a charge and an i3 that could be driven uninterrupted for virtually any distance, which to our minds makes for an entirely different car.
The Expected BMW Innovations
If all the nifty basic mechanicals aren't enough to spin your personal electric meter, you'll also find a raft of new-age innovations standard or available for the 2014 i3 when it goes on sale here next year in three trim levels BMW is calling "worlds:" Mega World (no, really), Giga World and Tera World.
That includes what we see as a new step toward fully autonomous driving: the i3's Technology and Driving Assist option package brings, among other things, Traffic Jam Assist that leverages the active cruise control to bring the car to a complete stop in traffic and accelerate again up to the preset speed. That's old hat — but the system adds automatic steering to keep the car in your lane. Particularly since the same capability is used for completely automated parallel parking.
And inside, the i3's new carbon-fiber body structure and rear-placed drive components mean there's not much in the way of an intrusive, traditional dashboard and nothing in the way of a central tunnel, so the floor's golf-cart flat (maybe an undesirable analogy, that one), allowing you to slide from the driver seat out through the passenger door — a la Don Draper in his Caddy — if you so desire.
And there is, of course, a hard drive full of electronic features and playthings, many standard equipment, but count on plentiful options — that surely will make the i3 one of the most technology-rich vehicles for all of 2014.
That's just the way BMW wants it. It'll be up to the buying public to decide if all this techno-hardware and the BMW badge merit considering the 2014 i3 alongside conventional vehicles, perhaps even some in BMW's own showroom, or simply adds the i3 to the list of makers of low-volume electric-car curiosities.