It's obvious from the first glance that the BMW i3 is no ordinary car. Its unusual shape is the result of not needing to design the car around a traditional gasoline engine, a step BMW took even further by building this electric city car's body shell out of carbon fiber, which is exceptionally light and very strong. The interior is every bit as unconventional as the exterior, shunning BMW's traditional (and often homogenous) interior design with exotic materials and funky shapes.
That said, the i3 is still very much a BMW. It's exceptionally quick, and despite front tires that are as skinny as dinner plates, the i3 is an excellent handler — credit the low center of gravity (thanks to that nice, heavy battery pack under the floor), perfect 50-50 weight distribution, and, of course, rear-wheel drive. The BMW i3 is innovative and environmentally friendly, and it's also a lot of fun.
Current BMW i3
BMW sells the i3 in three models: 60 Ah, Base and Range Extender. The 60 Ah (which stands for amp-hour and refers to the capacity of the battery) provides 81 miles of EPA-rated range, and also includes faux leather and cloth upholstery, navigation, automatic climate control and other creature comforts. The Base model — which is actually one rung up the price ladder from the 60 Ah — gets a 33-kWh battery that extends the range to 114 miles. To compensate for the cost of the bigger battery, the interior is downgraded to cloth upholstery (with the 60 Ah's nicer trim available as an option), but it does add keyless entry and ignition.
The Range Extender model is trimmed identically to the Base, but along with the 170-horsepower electric motor, it has a tiny two-cylinder gasoline engine that can generate electricity to extend the i3's range. The Range Extender adds 265 pounds of weight, which shortens the electric-only range to 97 miles, but the 2.4-gallon gas tank can extend that by an additional 83 miles, for a total range of 180 miles. Unlike the Chevrolet Volt, the i3 Range Extender isn't designed to run full speed on gasoline power; rather it's a get-you-to-the-charging-station measure should you venture past the i3's battery-only range.
Performance for both versions of the car is quick. We've timed the battery-only i3 to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds, with the Range Extender just half a second behind that. Brake feel is good, but drivers may end up not using that pedal very often. Lifting off the pedal engages the regenerative brake, which uses the electric motor as a generator that charges the battery and creates resistance that slows the car. The i3's regenerative brake works so well that the car can be driven in most instances with just one pedal. The i3's small size and quick steering make it exceptionally maneuverable in the city, but it also tends to dart side to side on the highway.
The handling characteristics of the i3 are excellent despite the skinny front tires' tendency to follow grooves in the pavement. The ride is comfortable and very, very quiet, though you will notice some wind and road noise at speed since there's no engine to mask the sound. The one exception to the quiet rule is when the Range Extender's gas engine is running.
As small as it is, the BMW i3 has quite a lot of room inside. Its front seats are comfortable, and the back seat is more generous than you might expect, though the rear-hinged half-doors (which can only be opened in concert with the front doors) don't make it easy to get in and out gracefully. Cargo space is limited, as befits a car intended as a grocery-getter rather than a long-distance traveler. The i3's futuristic cabin design may not be to everyone's tastes, but we like the cool shapes and abundant storage spaces. As with other BMWs, there's a learning curve to the iDrive infotainment system (as well as the steering-column-mounted shifter stalk). But once mastered, everything is surprisingly intuitive.
Used BMW i3 Models
The BMW i3 first went on sale for the 2014 model year. For 2015, BMW added heated front seats, satellite radio and, most importantly, DC fast-charging capability. The i3 was carried over unchanged for 2016. For 2017, BMW introduced a new (optional) larger-capacity battery, extending the i3's range by 33 miles to 114. (Range-extender models saw a 30-mile increase with a larger fuel tank.) To compensate for the cost, i3s with the big battery had cloth upholstery; the imitation leather and cloth interior from other i3s became optional. A sunroof also joined the options list.