Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2015 BMW i3

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In our First Drive and Quick Spin of the 2014 BMW i3 electric car and our follow-up Comparison Test of the BMW i3 and Chevrolet Volt, we noted how the i3’s lightweight carbon-fibre construction and aluminum platform contributed to its class-leading acceleration and surprisingly nimble driving manners – but we were less impressed with the i3’s unusual exterior and interior styling, its impractical rear-hinged rear doors, and the aggressive braking effect of its regenerative charging system once the right foot is released from the gas pedal.

I decided to see for myself how far the i3 would go on electric power alone before the range extender kicked in.

And while we noted that the i3 has a longer electric driving range than many electric cars, it is still only a quarter of a conventional car’s range. BMW quotes an 'everyday’ electric range of between 130 and 160 km in standard Comfort mode while the EPA quotes a more realistic average range of 130 km. The i3’s electric range can be extended slightly by using the driver-selectable Eco Pro and Eco Pro+ modes which restrict top speed and air conditioning use.

For those worried about being left stranded with a dead battery, BMW makes available an optional ($4,000) range-extender 647 cc two-cylinder gas engine with 38 horsepower that can extend the i3’s total driving range up to a claimed 300 kilometres. The EPA says the i3’s total range is closer to 240 km.

Unlike the range extender engine in the Chevrolet Volt, the i3’s small 647-cc engine is not intended to be an alternative power source for the battery; rather, it is designed as a backup should the i3 driver not be able to charge the battery before the charge runs out. The i3’s gas engine doesn’t drive the wheels or power the electric motor or completely recharge the battery: it merely creates a minimum charge in the lithium-ion battery to keep the I3 going for up to 100 kilometres or so. However, a BMW rep told me that if you were to drive uphill for an extended period using the range extender, it would not be able to maintain enough charge to keep going.

Given the amount of money (reportedly $2.9 billion) and new technology that went into the development BMW’s electric car program, I suspect the BMW intended the i3 to be a pure electric vehicle, but included the range extender option to satisfy consumers unfamiliar with electric car operation who may have range anxiety. This was a good decision because currently about 50 percent of i3 buyers choose the range extender option.

I decided to see for myself how far the i3 would go on electric power alone before the range extender kicked in. My test was conducted in mostly sunny, dry weather between 20 and 25 degrees – probably the ideal conditions for an electric car. I didn’t need to turn on the air conditioner or the heater that week, saving valuable electrical energy as we drove. But if this test was conducted in the middle of a very cold Canadian winter, you could probably knock 25 perent off the range distance.

Our test vehicle wasn’t fully charged when I picked it up, so when I got home I hooked it up to the standard 110-volt outlet in my garage. The i3 comes standard with a charge cord for use with household current. It’s located in the small storage compartment under the hood.

After an overnight charge of about 12 hours to 100 percent charge, the i3’s instrument display indicated an estimated electric-only driving range of only 117 km, well below the advertised 130 – 160 km range. Over the next couple of days I drove it until the battery charge was completely depleted and the range extender engine started up. According to the trip odometer I had travelled only 113 km at that point – even though the i3’s instrument display showed an estimated 6 km of electric range left.

With the battery charge depleted and the range extender/gas engine running, I drove 13 km to a public Level 2 charging station. Along the way, the engine ran intermittently to keep the battery charged at a minimal level. It would start automatically when accelerating or travelling on the freeway but stop automatically when I drove slowly or paused at a traffic light. The engine is not noisy with the windows rolled up while driving, but if you’re stopped with the windows down, it sounds like a muffled lawnmower engine – not very BMW-like! The gas engine can start anytime: the first morning, it started while the battery charge was only half depleted because of a “maintenance cycle” and the engine ran for 10 minutes.

While driving to the public charger with the range extender engine chugging away, the estimated electric range remained at zero km. That’s because the range-extender is designed to maintain enough charge to keep the i3 going for up to another 100 km or so, not to fully recharge the battery.

After arriving at a local shopping centre which had two complimentary Level 2 charging outlets, I plugged in and went for lunch. Using my BMW iRemote app, I checked on the state of charge from the comfort of my lunch table. It turned out to be a long lunch: it took 4 hours and 23 minutes to bring the i3’s battery charge up to 100 percent. After 2 hours and 50 minutes, the battery was 75 percent charged, but it took another 1 hour and 33 minutes to reach 100 percent.

Interestingly, using a 240-volt charger to charge the battery to 100 percent capacity resulted in an estimated range of 145 km while using a standard 110-volt household outlet for about 12 hours brought the maximum estimated range to only 119 km.

BMW says the i3 can be recharged from 0 to 100 percent in three hours with a BMW Level 2 AC Fast Charger (using a 7.2 kW charger) installed at your home. This installation can be arranged through your BMW dealer. As well, the i3 is available with an optional ($750) socket for a DC Fast Charger (using a 24 kW DC charger) enabling the i3 to reach 80 percent state of charge in just 30 minutes. But as yet, there are no public DC Fast Chargers with the new SAE Combo standard available in Canada. Still, it might be wise to order this option because there probably will be more DC Fast Chargers in the future and it will likely boost the i3’s residual value a few years down the road.

When charging the i3 at home, the BMW iRemote app also allows you to pre-set charging times for night-time charging when electricity rates (in some provinces) are cheaper. Using the app, you can check on the status of the charge from wherever you are, and even pre-heat the cabin before you arrive at the car.

Though the i3’s electric driving range is much less than the range of a conventional vehicle, if your daily commute is less than 100 km a day and you’re able to plug the i3 into a 240-volt home charger each night, you won’t need to worry about running out of power or using the range extender. BMW’s own surveys show that the average daily roundtrip commute is just 47 km, in which case the i3 could be driven for two or three days between full charges. This is not possible for condo owners who don’t have a private parking space or access to a 110-volt outlet or a 240-volt charger, but BMW is developing a ParkNow LongTerm parking system for electric cars, whereby you can rent a parking space with a charger near where you live – but this is still a long way off.

To help drivers find public chargers and maximize driving range, the i3’s navigation system includes specific routes for electric vehicles and a list of nearby charging stations. An optional Range Assistant constantly updates you with available range estimates and guides you to the closest charging station.

Note that while most charging stations are free, many require a RFID credit card (the tap kind) to activate the charger, and some require you to pay for parking in the spot next to the charger.

Personally, I would pay the extra $4,000 for the range extender simply because unexpected things can happen that make it impossible to reach a charger on time. These can include a major traffic jam, a winter storm, or the unavailability of a nearby charging station. On one occasion I drove to three different charging stations looking for a boost: the first was occupied by another electric car, the second was obstructed by a large illegally parked truck, and the third was at a parking lot that charged $3.50/hour for parking in the electric vehicle parking spot.

If you don’t have another car and you need to take a longer trip, BMW Canada has a service for its electric car customers called Premium Mobility Services where they will provide a conventional vehicle while your i3 stays at home.

So what is the i3 like to drive? With an 18.8 kWh lithium-ion battery pack mounted under the cabin floor providing energy to a 125 kW electric motor driving the rear wheels and a base curb weight of only 1,195 kg (about 300 kg less than a Nissan Leaf) the i3 can sprint from 0 to 100 km/h time in just 7.2 seconds, considerably quicker than the Nissan Leaf at 11.2 seconds and the Chevy Volt with 10.0 seconds. When equipped with the extra weight of the two-cylinder range extender engine, the i3’s 0 to 100 km/h time is 7.9 seconds. Thanks to 184 lb-ft of torque at 0 rpm, the i3 launches from a dead stop with no hesitation and accelerates rapidly in a deceptively smooth, linear fashion. Steep hills don’t deter it at all: it just powers up grades with seemingly no effort. With the windows open, you will hear a slight whine from the electric motor under acceleration, but otherwise the motor is quiet. At freeway speeds, the i3 just cruises effortlessly and quietly.

To save energy and increase range, driver-selectable Eco Pro mode limits the i3’s top speed to 130 km/h while EcoPro + limits top speed to 90 km/h and reduces the air conditioning. However, the benefits seem marginal: according to the dash display in my car, an estimated electric range of 108 km in Comfort mode became 110 km after switching to EcoPro mode, and 112 km after switching to EcoPro + mode.

To see what happens when exceeding the Eco Pro+ speed limitation, I tried accelerating past 90 km/h. There are no warning buzzers, flashing lights, or throttle kickback: the throttle just won’t respond and the i3 won’t go any faster.

The biggest difference between the i3 and a conventional car is what happens while coasting and braking. The i3’s regenerative braking system slows the i3 markedly when the gas pedal is released. On a level surface, it feels like you’ve left the handbrake on which forces you to keep your foot on the gas pedal until nearly stopped. This is disconcerting at first, but after a few days I found that I could adapt my driving style so that I didn’t need to press the brake pedal until I was nearly stopped. Instead of braking while approaching a stop sign, I just released my foot slowly from the accelerator pedal. It reminded me of those electric bumper cars at the fairgrounds!

Because of the energy recuperated by regeneration under coasting and braking, the i3’s estimated range can actually increase while travelling downhill. For example, on a 10-kilometre drive from an elevation of about 800 feet to sea level, my i3’s estimated range increased by 10 kilometres. But on a 15-kilometre drive that was mostly uphill, my i3’s estimated range decreased by 27 kilometres.

With its tall bodystyle, 140-mm ground clearance, and skinny low-rolling resistance tires, the i3 looks like it would be poor handler, but that’s deceiving. With the bulk of its weight mounted low in the platform and a fully independent strut front suspension and multi-link rear suspension , the i3 is surprisingly flat and controlled in aggressive cornering, while soaking up bumps with a solid, secure feeling. The i3’s electric rack-and-pinion steering offers quick turn-in response that adds to the i3’s sporty driving dynamics. Some might find it too quick, but everyone will like the i3’s tight 9.86 m turning circle.

The i3’s unusual tall and narrow tires are designed for improved aerodynamics and low rolling resistance but still grip the road with a comforting tenacity. The standard 19-inch tires on the base i3 BEV model are all-seasons: 155/70R19-inch in the front and rear. But with the optional range extender and in Lodge and Suite trims, the rear tires are a different size: 175/60R19-inch. The optional 20-inch summer tires are also different front and rear: 155/60R20-inch front and 175/55R20-inch rear. Winter tires are another story: apparently there are 19-inch Blizzak winter tires available in this size, but not 20-inch winter tires. However, I was unable to confirm this. Here is a link to a useful blog about i3 tire sizes: Note: there is no spare tire in the i3, just a tire inflation kit in the trunk.

Our i3 tester had the optional vehicle and pedestrian collision warning and avoidance which is designed to automatically brake if a collision with another car or pedestrian is imminent and the driver doesn’t take action. Though it sounds like science fiction, these automatic braking systems will work assuming weather conditions don’t obscure the sensors or cameras, in which case they will deactivate.

The driving position in the i3 is similar to a compact SUV – higher than in a car but lower than a pickup. The step-in height is higher than a car with a lip to step over, but it’s not difficult to get in. The driver’s seat is upright with a commanding view ahead and good visibility to the rear when shoulder-checking because of the stepped rear side window. The driver’s seat is height adjustable, but it moves backwards as it rises requiring the driver to slide it forwards a bit. Because of the upright seating position, I found the angle of my foot and ankle in relation to the gas pedal caused some ankle pain after a few days, but it subsided after a week.

Front and rear passengers have adequate headroom and legroom but the rear seats are a bit low relative to the floor which creates a ‘knees-up’ seating position. The two rear seats are accessed by rear-hinged rear doors. These can only be opened after the front doors are opened and must be closed before the front doors are closed. This means that rear passengers have to get in first and cannot get out until the front door(s) have been opened. When getting out, rear passengers fold the front seatback forwards using a lever on the seatback and then open the rear doors, but only after the front passenger/driver has gotten out. This can be inconvenient in poor weather, or for that matter, in any weather. I see a BMW redesign of these doors in the next generation i3.

Three different interior trims are available in the 2015 i3: Loft, Lodge and Suite. Our test car had the Suite interior with stitched dark brown leather seats, armrests and dash covering, a fibrous dash and door material that’s made of bamboo, eucalyptus wood veneer trim across the dash, and an aluminum-trimmed steering wheel. Despite the eclectic mix of cabin materials, the interior has a modern European ambience that makes you feel like you’re in a modern, cutting edge space, even if you can’t quite get used to it. A rectangular screen propped up behind the steering wheel displays speed, electric range, range-extender range, and real-time charging and power readout while a larger rectangular screen suspended in the centre dash area displays audio, telephone, navigation and driver information including a real-time graph of electrical energy used in last 15 minutes, real-time power flow, driving style analysis, and range. The driver can select features on the screen easily by turning and pushing the round i-Drive controller and menu buttons on the centre console.

A unique column-mounted shift lever swivels to engage gears, but Park is activated by pushing a button on the top, while a Stop/Start button is located on the front of the stubby shift column.

Though the i3 offers the versatility of a hatchback with split folding rear seatbacks, its 260-litre trunk is relatively small because of the high cargo floor under which resides the electric motor and battery. Still, by folding the rear seatbacks down, you can triple cargo space to 1,100 litres.

Standard equipment on the base 2015 BMW i3 ($45,300) includes the Loft interior with two-tone Carum grey spice leatherette and Carum grey cloth with blue piping, front seat heaters, multi-function steering wheel, automatic climate control, Navigation Business, cruise control with automatic braking, Remote Services app for smartphone, emergency calling, 19-inch tires and alloy wheels, LED headlights, 240-volt Fast Charging, and a cable for 110-volt household charging.

The Lodge interior package ($3,600) includes two-tone Carum grey spice leather and wool combination with eucalyptus wood trim, Navigation Professional, rearview camera, PDC, Park Assistant, Comfort Access (keyless entry/start), SiriusXM satellite radio, garage door opener, Smoker’s Package, and 19-inch Turbine alloy wheels.

The Suite package ($4,600) includes everything in the Lodge package but has monotone Dalbergia brown leather seats and trim instead of a two-tone leather and cloth combination.

Stand-alone options available in all three trims include the range extender ($4,000), 20-inch tires and alloy wheels ($1,300), DC Fast Charging ($750), and a Technology Package ($2,500) with Driving Assistant Plus, Connected Drive Services, internet access, BMW apps, Convenience Telephony, and Harman Kardon sound system.

Most of the i3’s available exterior colours are rather conservative shades of silver and grey, but our test car was decked out in bright “Solar Orange with Frozen BMW i Grey Accent” along with the optional 20-inch “i Double Spoke light alloy wheels, Style 430” ($1,300) . Inside, our car was equipped with the optional Suite interior that includes Dalbergia brown leather that’s naturally tanned using olive leaves for sustainability, and naturally-finished eucalyptus wood veneer that’s grown in a sustainable forest in Germany. Also included in the Suite are swiveling LED headlights, Navigation System Professional with a 10.25-inch centre screen with 1280 X 480 resolution, and Park Assistant Package with front and rear parking sensors and automatic parallel parking feature ($4,600).

As the top-of-the-line model, the i3 Suite also includes standard automatic climate control, front seat heaters, multi-function steering wheel with satin trim, SiriusXM satellite radio with one year subscription, a folding centre armrest, an additional front cupholder, and somewhat surprisingly, a cigarette lighter and ashtray insert in the rear cupholder. You also get keyless entry and pushbutton start, garage door opener, BMW Assist with emergency call, and remote unlocking and climate control activated by a BMW i Remote smartphone app.

Our test car didn’t have the optional Technology Package ($2,500) which includes Driving Assistant Plus, a tool for calculating maximum range and locating charging stations; BMW Online with internet access when the vehicle is stopped; Advanced Real-time Traffic Information; advanced smartphone connectivity, Concierge services, and 10-speaker Harmon Kardon sound system.

There are no changes to the 2015 i3 other than a $350 price increase for both base i3 Loft all-electric (BEV) model (MSRP $45,300), and the i3 REX with the Range Extender two-cylinder engine (MSRP $49,300). As well, the price of the optional i3 Lounge package jumps by $100 to $3,600 while the top Suite package rises by $100 to $4,600.

Three Canadian provinces offer rebates to purchasers of clean energy vehicles: the i3 and i3 REX qualify for an $8,500 rebate in Ontario, an $8,000 rebate in Quebec and a $5,000 rebate in British Columbia. As well, Ontario offers up to $1,000 off home charger installations and Quebec provides home charger installation rebates of $1,000 or 50% of eligible expenses, whichever is less.

Note that of BMW’s 45 dealers in Canada, only seven are authorized to sell and service BMW’s electric vehicles.

The 2015 BMW i3 is assembled in Leipzig, Germany in a plant that is powered entirely by wind turbines.

4 years/80,000 km; 4 years/80,000 km powertrain; 12 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/unlimited distance roadside assistance; 8 years/160,000 km hybrid components

Chevrolet Volt
Nissan Leaf

Model Tested 2015 BMW i3 w/Range Extender
Base Price $44,950
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $2,095
Price as Tested $53,390
Optional Equipment
$10,650 (Range Extender 2-cylinder engine ($4,000); 20-inch “i Double Spoke light alloy wheels, Style 430” ($1,300); Suite interior package with Dalbergia brown leather, LED headlights, Navigation System Professional, and Park Assistant Package ($4,600); DC Fast Charger ($750). Admin Fee: $595 BC Rebate: -$5,000