The BMW i3 is not a car. It is a lunar landing vehicle. It is an away-mission shuttle. It is the first starfighter. Okay, maybe it’s just a troop transport, but the i8 could sure be mistaken for a starfighter!
We have been waiting for a car like this for, well, forever.
I am rather smitten with the i3. You see, like so many of my generation, I grew up on Star Trek: TNG and Star Wars, and we have been waiting for a car like this for, well, forever. The second-gen Prius was a forerunner, but it only looked a few decades into the future rather than centuries. There is no way the i3 looks like it belongs on the road with F-150s and Civics and Camrys. The two-tone exterior (barely noticeable on this dark grey tester) isn’t just funky looking, though; it is constructed largely of carbon-fibre, and mounted atop an aluminum frame that incorporates the battery housing as a structural component that “improves the rigidity of the vehicle as a whole.”
While fifty grand isn’t cheap for a compact car, it is cheap for one built from aluminum and carbon-fibre, and where the high-tech materials end, an innovative, futuristic yet inviting interior beckons. Truly, there is nothing like this interior on the market, and even more than a year after its launch, it still feels like stepping into a concept car. Although we weren’t lucky enough to be provided one of the two light interior options, but rather the chocolatey brown leather and dark interior accents. The only relief from the dark interior was the eucalyptus-wood dash-top panel and the vivid, bright gauges and central display screen.
Even the doors are inviting, with no B-pillar and swinging out in opposing directions for one large opening, even if it offers limited access to the rear seat because of the narrow rear door. Still, with that wide opening and the front seats slid forward, installing child seats is a breeze and it’s a neat way for children to scamper up into their seats.
Adults relegated to the back seat will appreciate the completely flat floor and the contoured seatbacks prioritizing two passengers (rather than a desperate attempt to squeeze in a third position) even if the seat bottoms are quite short and legroom limited by the car’s compact size. Headroom is just dandy in both rows, and front seats, while manually adjustable, are still comfortable for the most part, although I wasn’t fond of the fixed headrest’s positioning.
Extended-range cage fight: Quick comparison: 2014 BMW i3 vs Chevrolet Volt
If ever there was a car that would have made sense for an F1-like or aircraft-style two-grip steering wheel rather than a big round helm, this is it. As it is, the steering wheel is a chunky unit that relays far more of the driving experience than you would expect for this little space oddity of a car.
Because of its bizarre looks, you might expect it to lurch and wobble around like some tipsy clown, but it never does anything but scoot around like a buttoned-down microcar. The big front windows and low dash make for excellent visibility, and the car’s steering is also small-car quick, giving it a very fun, tossable nature, and is quite maneuverable even if it doesn’t quite have the turning circle of a Peel P50. The only downside to the short wheelbase, skinny width and quick steering is that it can be a tad darty and fidgety on the highway.
But pull onto a main artery, and you’ll be glad of the i3’s real-car power. Its 125-kW (170-hp) electric motor has 184 lb-ft on offer from standstill, and can zip the 1,315-kg i3 to 100 km/h in a 7.9-second dash (7.2 if you ditch the range extender, losing 120 kg in the process). By no means a sports car, it is still better than many run-of-the-mill compacts, and definitely speedier than your typical efficiency-first EV or hybrid.
Accelerating that aggressively will eat into the i3’s stated 130–160 km electric range from the 18.8-kWh lithium-ion battery. The battery can be recharged to 80% from fully depleted in as little as 30 minutes with the optional DC fast charger ($750) if you can find a 125-amp DC fast charging station (Stage 3). Good luck with that. Realistically, the fairly common Stage 2 chargers at malls and available for home installation can top up the i3 in about 3–6 hours depending on amperage. BMW has a very clever app that I unfortunately had little occasion to use, but Greg Wilson tried it out in a test drive of the i3 earlier this year.
As mentioned, our tester came with the optional range extender, a tiny 647-cc two-cylinder gas engine that trickle charges the battery to keep you mobile even if you deplete the battery’s charge. Its gas tank is a minuscule seven litres, but it buys you about an extra 100 km of range and guarantees that you won’t be stuck at a charging station for a couple hours just to get to your destination if you miscalculate or something comes up while you are out and about.
Combined, a full battery and gas tank should be good for about 250 km, but dialing the efficiency program up to Eco Pro+ theoretically nets you an extra 20% if you drive judiciously. Pro tip: don’t switch to Eco Pro+ when cruising on the highway with high-speed traffic – it limits you to 90 km/h, and rather aggressively if I might say so myself….
The i3 isn’t without its driving quirks, of course. The shifter is an odd knob-lever thing behind the right spoke of the steering wheel, continuing BMW’s tradition of strange and frustrating shifting mechanisms.
And then there’s the accelerator. Here BMW applies a bit of clever thinking to allow essentially one-foot driving. Press down on the pedal and you get forward progress, hold it steady and you maintain a fairly constant speed. As you lift your foot off the throttle, you get increasingly stronger regenerative braking. Lift your foot off the throttle entirely at higher speeds and it feels like you’ve given a good prod to the brakes. Around town, gentle application and gradual withdrawal of throttle allows you to creep up to speeds and then mildly slow with traffic, and if you give enough space, even come to a stop without touching the brake. It certainly takes some getting used to, but I approve.
At any speed up to the higher velocities permissible on the highway, the i3 moves smartly and maneuvers sharply. As we said, the steering is quick and reassuring, and the ride is friendly over most any surface except the most broken of pavement. Under electric power, the entire vehicle is smooth and quiet, but the little two-cylinder generator is rough and noisy. It wouldn’t hurt BMW to work on the refinement as it is very noticeable and a bit unpleasant.
The infotainment system is the usual BMW fare, with some added functions in the nav to help you find charging stations and plan your travel within the available range (Driving Assistant Plus).
While it’s not as complicated or different from driving an ordinary car as piloting a helicopter, the i3 is unique, and for the most part in endearing ways. From its unforgettable looks and innovative yet inviting interior to its groundbreaking platform and construction, the i3 feels like the car of the future, embracing efficiency and sustainability from the assembly process right to your driveway and charging habits, with little to no sacrifice compared to driving an average commuter car. I was smitten with the i3 after my brief first drive last year and eager to get back behind the wheel, and I only grew more attached and enamoured after a week of its charms. While its price means it isn’t as accessible as the Nissan Leaf, Kia Soul EV or Chevrolet Volt, the i3 is still much more attainable than your average Tesla and offers a truly captivating option for those interested in electric mobility and willing to spend a little extra for the novelty and a superb driving experience.
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
Pricing: 2015 BMW i3 with Range Extender
Base Price: $49,300
Options: $7,500 (Suite Interior World: 19-inch turbine wheels, universal garage remote, back-up camera, front/rear parking sensors, navigation, satellite radio, Dalbergia brown leather – $4,250; Tech Package: Driving Assistant Plus, Harmon Kardon sound system, BMW online, Advanced Real Time Traffic Info, Concierge Services – $2,500; DC fast charger – $750)
Destination fee: $2,095
A/C Tax: $100
Price as tested: $58,995