Republished: 08/15/2014 (Original Date: 07/09/2013)
James Riswick, Edmunds Contributor
The 2014 BMW i3 is a compact electric car that is unlike anything BMW has ever produced. At the same time, it is also one of the most advanced and interesting cars on the road. Powered purely by electricity, constructed of exotic materials and unencumbered by the inherent limitations of being derived from a traditional gas-powered vehicle, the i3 feels like a harbinger of future personal transportation.
What Is It?
The BMW i3 is a compact, four-door hatchback that runs purely on electric power. It differs from most other electric vehicles on the market in that it's a clean-sheet design that was conceived as a dedicated EV from the get-go. The Chevrolet Spark EV, Ford Focus Electric, Fiat 500e and BMW's previous Mini E and Active E are electrified versions of existing products.
The i3, on the other hand, arose from a blank slate. As a result, the four-person cabin is large and airy, the backseat folds flat for extra cargo capacity and its myriad powertrain components (including the batteries) are accommodated with minimal compromise.
Yet, the packaging isn't the most radical or distinctive element of the BMW i3. It's the materials used to construct it. The mechanical undercarriage and battery housing are constructed of lightweight aluminum, while the upper body cell is carbon fiber — the same ultra-lightweight and ultra-stiff stuff that racecars, Ferraris and other really expensive things are made out of.
Not only is its application ground-breaking in such a relatively inexpensive vehicle, it keeps the i3's weight down by hundreds of pounds compared to other electric cars. The result? Smaller batteries, less consumption of energy and a surprisingly quick 0-60-mph time of just 6.6 seconds.
How Does It Drive?
You might expect such a tall, podlike vehicle to roll and tip about like a toy boat in a bathtub. Yet, with its heavy batteries spread out down low and its light carbon-fiber body structure up high, the i3 has a very low center of gravity. That, in conjunction with rear-wheel drive, a wide 62-inch track, a nearly 50/50 weight distribution and BMW's usual suspension wizardry, allows the i3 to change direction with poise, balance and ample driver confidence. The steering is also notably quick to react to inputs, with a relatively light effort and commendable feedback.
As a commuter car, though, it's likely that the i3 will spend a vast majority of its life puttering around suburbia, negotiating an urban jungle or stuck in the seemingly unending morass of highway gridlock. And for that kind of driving, the i3 is exceptional.
A big reason for that is the aggressive regenerative braking, a trait that we grew to love in our long-term Mini E, which was a test bed vehicle for the i3. Essentially, if your foot isn't on the throttle pedal, the car will engage regenerative braking to capture otherwise lost energy and send it to the batteries. It's so pronounced in the i3 that you rarely need to apply the brakes when in traffic.
Of course, this regenerative braking is still rather tame in the grand scheme of things, and the driver must still do it the old-fashioned way when stronger braking is needed. Thankfully, the i3's brake pedal has a far more natural feel to it than most other electric and hybrid vehicles. Emergency braking distances are also exceptional, as we measured a stop from 60 mph in just 109 feet.
Although our test car's optional 20-inch wheels look like any other oversized wheel from the side (19s are standard), if you look at them from behind or up front, you'll notice how narrow they are. This unusual, tall-and-skinny design is to reduce rolling resistance and therefore improve energy efficiency, while at the same time maintaining a suitable tire contact patch for handling and braking consistent with BMW expectations. If there is a downside, it's that these narrow tires are more susceptible to highway grooves, in which case the i3 can feel a bit darty.
What Is Its Electric Range?
On our electric vehicle evaluation test route, the i3 went 95.8 miles before its battery was depleted. This represents the upper range of what you can expect to see when driving the i3 in suburbia and is slightly lower than what other electric vehicles like the Ford Focus Electric (99.8 miles) and Fiat 500e (109.5) achieved on the same evaluation route.
When it comes to recharging, the i3's battery pack took 4 hours to recharge using a 240-volt home charger and did so efficiently. This is similar to the Fiat and Ford, but we do not have data on the latest Nissan Leaf.
What if I Need To Go Farther Than 95.8 Miles?
For an extra $3,850, the BMW i3 Range Extender model sandwiches a 650cc motorcycle engine among the various electric components under the trunk floor. Unlike with plug-in hybrids, this engine is used only to generate electricity and given its 2.4-gallon gas tank, can only do so for about 90 miles. Because of the engine's added weight, the Range Extender's all-EV range is reduced to an EPA-estimated 72 miles with a total estimated range of 150 (it should also be a bit slower). By comparison, a Chevrolet Volt can go about 380 miles between its batteries and gas engine with a 9.3-gallon tank.
For this reason, the range extender doesn't morph the i3 into a true plug-in hybrid with cross-country functionality, like the Volt. It's better to think of it as a means to keep the party moving should you decide to make a spontaneous side trip, reside slightly outside the normal i3 electric range or suffer a power blackout while charging.
What Is the Cabin Like?
The i3's clamshell side doors might as well be the gates of a time portal that transports you into the future. It's certainly like no other cabin we've been in before. Interesting curves and contours abound, creating an overall appearance that is so unusual you'd swear it was from a concept car or something driven by Will Smith in a sci-fi action film.
As with the rest of the car, though, it's the cabin's materials that make it truly special. Our test car was fitted with the "Giga World" trim package, which brings with it an interesting mixture of eco-friendly materials. The seats and doors are trimmed in a breathable "Carum Spice Grey Wool Cloth" and "Cassia Natural Leather" tanned with eco-friendly olive leaf. Putty-colored leather accents the responsibly forested, "open pore" eucalyptus wood trim that cascades across the dash. The unusual black material on the far-out portions of the dash and doors is a plant fiber called Kenaf.
The overall ambience is indicative of a Scandinavian modern decor catalog. You can also get the base "Mega World" and all-leather "Tera World" (we don't understand the names either), but they don't quite match the Giga's ultra-cool vibe.
How Much Room Is There?
The cabin's uniqueness isn't just a matter of aesthetics, though. You sit at an almost SUV-like height with the grand, bubble-like windshield placed far forward and above the broad, intriguingly contoured dash panel. Visibility is abundant and can be improved with the optional rearview camera, parking sensors and automated parking system.
The driver seat doesn't adjust to the same absurd degree as the manually adjustable seats in other BMWs, but there's still an abundance of legroom for even tall drivers (Abe Lincoln, complete with hat, would have enough headroom) and the steering wheel telescopes out so far from the dash that almost anyone can achieve a generous arm bend.
Impressively, though, even with an Abe-like driver, there is plenty of space in the two-person, high-mounted backseat. Climbing back there is relatively easy, but the clamshell doors require the front doors to open in order to access the back ones. This not only adds a step, but it can be difficult in tight parking spaces. Nevertheless, the i3 is a legitimate four-person vehicle you can use to take friends out to dinner without apology.
How Much Stuff Can I Fit Inside?
With no need for a central transmission tunnel, the space between the driver and passenger footwells is open, leaving space for a purse or whatever else you see fit. The center console is home to a single large cupholder, another located under the flip-up armrest in a small bin, and the ubiquitous BMW iDrive controller and vehicle dynamics toggle button (for going between the Comfort and Eco Pro driving modes). There are also large door bins, making the i3 one of the better BMWs in terms of cabin storage.
For larger items, the 11.8-cubic-foot trunk is still rather high as a result of the space needed for the electric motor and range-extending engine. Nevertheless, it lacks the sort of odd crevasses, humps and boxes that usually make electric vehicle trunks difficult to use. Similarly, the backseat folds flat to create a total of 36.9 cubic feet, which is a bit smaller than what you'd get in a compact hatchback. As a small bonus, there is a tiny, 2.8-cubic-foot cubby under the hood that can hold a small duffel bag.
Will I Need To Be From the Future To Figure This Car Out?
Although everything about the BMW i3 screams "Car of Tomorrow," you don't have to be from the future yourself to figure it out. The shifter is a pod that sprouts forth from the steering column and features a large knob you twist forward for Drive and rearward for Reverse, with buttons for Park and Stop-Start. It's weird, but intuitive.
Controls for the climate control system are sensibly designed and placed, while the iDrive electronics control is the same one you'd find in any other BMW. The controller isn't quite as ergonomically placed as in those cars, and the dash-mounted volume knob and eight preset buttons are located farther away from it than usual. In general, there's a familiarity here that should make any current BMW owner feel, if not exactly at home, at least in a remodeled version of it.
The iDrive screen juts forth on an arm of sorts from the passenger side dash. A small 6.5-inch display is standard along with a basic "Business" navigation system, while a wider display and upgraded "Professional" navigation system is included with the $2,500 Technology + Driving Assistant package. Despite its not being shrouded, we found the screen to be impressively impervious to glare. The same could be said of the display screen that acts as the gauges, although the ample space above and below its letterbox-like image makes it look like a widescreen TV with the wrong aspect ratio selected.
What Safety Features Are Included?
Every 2014 BMW i3 comes standard with antilock brakes, stability and traction control, front seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. Also standard are BMW Remote Services and BMW Assist eCall, which include automatic collision notification, an emergency request button, stolen vehicle recovery, remote door unlock and a smartphone control app. The optional Parking Assistant package includes front parking sensors and a rearview camera.
What Does It Cost?
The most basic, "Mega World" 2014 BMW i3 costs $42,300 with destination. That includes rear parking sensors, automatic lights and wipers, the "Business" navigation system, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, a USB/iPod interface, single-zone automatic climate control and a mixture of the aforementioned wool cloth and "SensaTec" premium vinyl upholstery.
An extra $1,700 gets you the Giga World, including its upgraded materials, plus "Comfort Access" keyless entry, different wheels, a universal garage door opener and satellite radio. The Tera World only adds to that full leather upholstery in a unique "Dalbergia" brown hue.
Options include adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability in traffic, heated seats, an onboard DC fast charger, a Harman Kardon sound system and 20-inch wheels in place of the standard 19s. Consider the BMW i Station a must-purchase, as the difference in charge times between using it and a household plug is estimated to be at least 16 hours.
All of this applies to the BMW i3 Range Extender model, albeit with a price increase of $3,850.
All of these prices are also before the $7,500 federal tax rebate, along with any rebates your particular state may offer. You also need to consider the lower cost of electricity versus gasoline (especially if you live in a home with solar panels). In other words, the i3 isn't as expensive as it initially seems.
What Other Vehicles Should I Consider? Chevrolet Volt: The Volt is a great alternative if you envision needing more range than both the standard and Range Extender i3 can provide. Its larger engine and gas tank make that possible. Yet if your commute is within about 40 miles, the Volt is essentially an electric car — and a good one at that. Comfortable and responsive, it, too, is one of the better battery-powered cars to drive.
Ford Focus Electric: This would be the car we'd otherwise most likely recommend in this electric vehicle price range. Like the regular Focus, the electrified version is blessed with nimble handling, a well-constructed cabin and good looks. It goes a similar distance on a charge as the i3 and takes a similar amount of time to recharge, but it's considerably slower and its batteries create an awkwardly shaped trunk.
Nissan Leaf:This fully electric hatchback is one of the more refined EV packages on the road. It delivers roughly 87 miles of range along with a comfortable and feature-packed cabin. It also starts at less than $30K.
Why Should You Consider This Car?
Quite simply, the 2014 BMW i3 is the most advanced electric vehicle in its price range. Although competitors cost between $6,000 and $13,000 less, none come close to matching its performance, driving experience, interior usability, cabin quality and unique style. If an electric car works for your lifestyle, the i3 should be at the top of your consideration list.
Why Should You Think Twice About This Car?
If you have a long commute and don't live in a place where you can install a home charging unit, forget about the BMW i3 completely. Otherwise, the i3's price and four-person-only capacity could give you pause, along with the potentially high cost to replace its unique tires and repair potential damage to the carbon-fiber body.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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