The BMW i3 is an environmental-radical showcase of a car with a unique persona. It’s expensive for its small size, but there is genius to this little car, in the way it calms and soothes the driver with its electric powertrain, the way it takes the stress out of city driving and puts some fun in, while being the most energy-efficient car sold in the U.S.
The hatchback styling is distinctive and daring, unlike any other car. The i3 is four years old but doesn’t seem like it, because there are so few of them on the road.
Supermodels’ names have been attached to the three BMW i3 models: Mega, Giga and Tera. But as forward-thinking as these green sisters may be, they’re already outdated; that’s how it goes in a world that moves at the speed of light. The far more affordable and prosaic Chevrolet Bolt EV came out with an unbeatable 240 miles of range.
So for 2017, the BMW i3 is available with more mileage. That available with phrase means it’s an option costing $1200. A new lithium iron battery with 33 kilowatt hours yields 114 all-electric miles, a lot more than the 81 miles from the i3 with the standard 22-kilowatt-hour battery.
The i3 can run on gas when the electricity goes flat. That’s an option too. For 2017, the gas tank on the i3 with the backup engine has been increased to 2.4 gallons from 1.9, adding two quarts’ worth of miles to the overall range. The available engine is a two-cylinder 650cc range-extending (REx) engine, making 38 horsepower and 40 pound-feet of torque. It’s clever, in its pursuit of fuel mileage. The engine doesn’t power the wheels, but rather a generator that charges the battery. Using electric and fuel, the car’s range reaches 150 miles. The engine costs another $4700 over the $1200 for the bigger battery.
With the weaker 22-kilowatt-hour battery, the i3 is rated at 124 MPGe. The 33-kW battery with greater range only scores 118 MPGe, because that battery takes more energy to charge. Mile Per Gallon Equivalent unit, or MPGe, measures how far a car can run on electricity, while using the amount of energy in a gallon of gas.
The i3 also has an available Combined Charging System, a strong 7.4 kwh (compare to Nissan Leaf’s 6.6), which uses a quick-charging 240-volt port. It can charge the 22-kilowatt battery in 3 1/2 hours, and the 33-kilowatt battery in 4 1/2 hours, compared to as much as 16 hours with a standard 110-volt outlet. Installing the 240-volt BMW station at home can be done easily by an electrician. Only one problem with the option: BMW uses its own standard, incompatible with the vast majority of public charging stations. The good news is that all charging stations being built today are “dual-standard,” with two cables, so the newer stations will accept all electric cars.
The i3 hasn’t been crash tested, but it’s built like an Indy car, with a plastic body that’s reinforced by carbon fiber and attached to an aluminum chassis. It comes with six airbags, including side airbags in the lightweight seat frames. The aluminum chassis platform holds all the electronics, and is designed to absorb impact. BMW says the cabin will remain intact in a crash at up to 40 mph. The battery is mounted to the chassis and shuts down all power in a crash.
The BMW i3 60 ah ($42,400) gets the 22kwh battery. The BMW i3 ($44,450) upgrades to the 33 kWh battery. The BMW i3 with Range Extender ($48,300) adds the two-cylinder gasoline engine. (Prices are MSRP and do not include destination charge.)
The Mega, Giga and Tera sisters have a last name: World. So the models are i3 Mega World, i3 Giga World, and i3 Tera World. Equipment in the Mega is less than mega. Leather-like upholstery made from recycled plastic, heated front seats, HD satellite radio (but not AM), automatic climate control, navigation, LED headlamps, and DC fast-charging capability using the Combined Charging Standard connector. No rearview camera.
Giga World is mostly cosmetic, with wool and fabric seats, leather and wood trim, and different 19-inch alloys. The Tera World has leather and fancier alloy wheels.
There’s a Parking Assistant package with rearview camera, parking sensors, and parking assist. The Technology Plus Driver Assistant package includes upgraded navigation with real-time traffic, radar adaptive cruise control with stop and go, city driving assist, and BMW Online. Other options include 20-inch wheels, a Harman/Kardon sound system, metallic paint and a moonroof.
The i3 attracts attention, it has presence for being so small, and it carries intrigue. But it’s not attractive. Its profile is dorky, stubby at both ends while being tall. It looks best when viewed head-on, except for the chunky door handles, and the conspicuously skinny tires chasing mileage. From the rear, the tires look like they got lost on their way to a mountain bike.
The so-called grille is blacked-out, blue at the edges, the BMW signature on its i cars. No need for a grille with no engine up there.
So many lines and shapes going in different directions, at the rear. It’s confusing. Are those tail fins?
Forward visibility is terrific except when it’s blocked by the big rearview mirror and camera, and it’s only adequate on the right and over the shoulder. The rear window is high and narrow, so there’s not much to peek through. A rearview camera is a real benefit here, but it’s not standard on the Mega.
Unlike the exterior, the innovative interior is soothing. It feels more Scandinavian than German. Simple. Tight textiles, light and dark, give whimsy and elegance. Not at all business-like, as in other BMWs.
The dashboard is like a shelf with a tablet on it, a 10.2-inch screen controlled by a knob on the center console.
The front seats are thin but bolstered well, and comfortable for hours. The base upholstery is like leather, made from recycled plastic; upgraded upholstery includes wool and real leather.
In effect the i3 is a two-seater, as the rear seat is hopelessly small and awkward to reach, despite the rear-hinged doors.
The trunk is small too. Total cargo space: as slim as it gets.
The Mega World gets that leather-like recycled-plastic upholstery. The instrument panel is what BMW calls grain foil. The Giga World ups the ambience to earthtone, with wool and olive leaf-tanned leather upholstery, leather instrument panel, and open-pore eucalyptus trim that would look lovely in a house.
Plastic bits still lurk in the corners. The Tera World is very dark.
The seat is high and upright, affording a good view. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes over a broad range. Any passenger that might be able to squeeze in the rear will also sit high, because of the battery pack underneath. It’s chin-to-knee time.
There’s almost zero mechanical noise inside the cabin, and very little road and wind noise. The only sound is a small serene hum from the electric motor (unless the gas-powered range extender is running).
BMW i3 acceleration is smooth and quick, with its 125-kilowatt motor (about 170 horsepower), making 184 pound-feet of torque. The regenerative braking is so strong the brake pedal is only needed to bring the car to a full stop, not to slow down. Other electric cars aren’t programmed so radically as the i3, even with its coasting mode between acceleration and regeneration. The i3 doesn’t coast smoothly or decelerate gently. These are sacrifices so the battery keeps it charge longer. Range is everything.
The all-electric i3 zips from zero to sixty in 7.0 seconds, while the optional range-extender engine slows it to 7.8 seconds. We’ve had an i3 up to an all-electric 83 mph, but at that speed you might get 10 minutes of battery.
The top-model’s range extender (REx) and generator package that supplements the electric motor has its limitations. Up long steep grades, and at 70 mph with the a/c on and stereo blasting, REx gets maxed out, and full power can’t be reached. The range extender doesn’t generate enough current to deliver full power.
The two-cylinder is basically a motorcycle engine, a 650cc twin making 34 horsepower and 40 pound-feet of torque. Think 1967 Triumph Bonneville. Heartbreakingly, it’s not used to power the wheels, but to power a generator that charges the battery. With its 2.4-gallon fuel tank, it increases the overall range to 150 miles, but cuts the electric range because of its weight.
A road trip with the i3 better be short. Stop for two gallons of gas every 140 miles, and pack real light.
There are modes on the console to increase range. Eco Pro and Eco Pro+ add 12 and 25 percent more miles. (Eco Pro+ gets more conservative with the heating and cooling.) If you need quick acceleration, those modes are instantly overridden. But the eco modes still allow decent power, unlike the eco modes on most cars.
The handling is nimble and crisp, with a small turning circle of 32.3 feet, to make parking very easy. It rides well enough, but it drifts in crosswinds, and rides stiff on those high-mileage skinny tires, which probably also contribute to the drifting in the wind.
The front tires start squealing way early. The rear jitters and skips in a fast choppy turn. The high seats mean more head roll.
If you live in the city and want the most noticed electric car on the street, the i3 is for you. The 2017 model with the optional motorcycle engine adds more range overall and reduces anxiety because the car can be quickly refueled.
Sam Moses contributed to this report.