By Matt Degen
The 2014 BMW i3 is a new breed of car for the German luxury automaker. In addition to being its first mass-produced electric vehicle, the i3 is the first product of BMW's new i sub-brand of eco-conscious cars. The i3 also carves its own path among the growing niche of electric vehicles. Its small and unusual body is made of lightweight carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic, and for those concerned about running out of battery power, a tiny gasoline engine is available that acts as a generator to double the i3's 80- to 100-mile range. The i3's roughly $42,000 starting price is thousands more than a Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt, but that money buys sportier driving manners, premium interior amenities and BMW badge appeal.
If you want an electric car with premium features that is more fun to drive than a Nissan Leaf but you aren't ready to drop $70,000 on a Tesla Model S, the BMW i3 adeptly straddles the middle ground between the two. That it's fun to drive is icing on the eco cake.
The i3's design isn't for everyone, and neither is its small size. For those wishing to go farther between their respective recharges/fill-ups at the electrical outlet/gasoline pump, the larger Chevrolet Volt delivers up to 380 miles of total range while costing over $7,000 less.
The 2014 BMW i3 is an all-new car. As the first of BMW's i sub-brand, it also paves the way for other vehicles from the luxury German automaker that emphasize efficiency.
Driving Impressions The i3 is built for efficiency, but remains a BMW. Thus it's endowed with the performance DNA for which this brand is known. Like other EVs, initial acceleration is strong...thanks to the bountiful torque that's characteristic of electric motors. The i3 packs 184 lb-ft of it that easily propels the car's sub-3,000-pound body up to speed on freeway on-ramps. It's not BMW M quick, but 0-60 mph arrives in just over 7 seconds. Moreover, the i3 stands out from other electric vehicles in cornering. The car's rear-wheel-drive setup and sporty suspension enable it to actually be fun on twisty roads. But this BMW's biggest difference is in the way it stops. The 2014 i3 has an aggressive regenerative-braking system that captures kinetic energy and refunds it to the battery. With practice you can cut down how often you use the brake pedal or even forgo it entirely. This "single-pedal driving concept" seems foreign at first, but we caught on quickly.
Even when off, the BMW i3's wide-screen displays are a sight to behold. One sits directly behind the steering wheel to relay speed and other information. But the real jewel is the other that floats over the center dash. It boasts one of the best navigation and rearview camera displays we've seen.
RANGE-EXTENDER GASOLINE ENGINE
If you're even remotely concerned about the electric-only range of the i3, the $3,850 extra for the range-extending gasoline engine will be worth it. This 2-cylinder engine roughly doubles the i3's 80-100-mile electric-only range and automatically enters duty when needed to generate electricity to charge the battery.
The BMW i3's interior is at once futuristic yet minimalistic. Like its exterior (see below), some elements work better than others. The responsibly forested eucalyptus dash and pair of wide-screen displays reward the senses. Yet some of the other earth-friendly dash materials resemble attic insulation. Like the front seats, the two rear ones are roomier and more comfortable than you may expect, though beware of the i3's high step-in. Rear passengers will have to contend with a large black pillar to their left or right, but the peculiar vertical shape of the windows creates a good view out. To accommodate extra cargo, the rear seats split and fold.Exterior
We'll just come out and say it: The BMW i3's exterior is polarizing. In one sense, it is as unconventional as its powertrain. Glance at the overall design of this BMW's side windows, and you may see the shape of a bottle on its side, with the spout just over the i3's rear wheels. And like the front wheels, the rear set is pushed to the very edge of the car's carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic body. Even the doors are strange yet functional. The rear set open outward to make entering and exiting easier for rear passengers. At just 157.4 inches long, the 2014 i3 is shorter than a Honda Fit.
The 2014 BMW i3 is available in three trims, which BMW dubs "worlds." The base version is Mega, the mid-level is Giga, and the top line is Tera. The base Mega comes well-equipped with navigation system, LED headlights, 19-inch wheels, Sensatec leather-like upholstery, and BMW's ConnectedDrive that syncs to your smartphone to enable the use of apps. The Giga model has a leather-and-wool interior, universal garage-door opener, sunroof, satellite radio and i Comfort Access System with keyless entry. Top-line Tera models come with full leather upholstery, special 19-inch wheels and anthracite floor mats.
In addition to the range-extending gasoline engine, the i3 offers other hardware and software to make your commute safer and more comfortable. Among the offerings are a 12-speaker/360-watt harman/kardon audio system and the Navigation Professional System with range assistant, real-time traffic info and Traffic Jam Assist. Other options include forward collision warning and pedestrian detection, automatic parking system, and a collision-mitigation feature that can automatically apply the brakes in emergency situations. The i3 can also be had with SAE DC Combo Fast Charging capability, which allows you to charge the battery up to 80 percent in 20 minutes.
The BMW i3 uses an electric motor powered by a lithium-ion battery back. Range-extended models have a supplemental 650-cc gasoline engine that acts solely as a generator (it doesn't power the wheels directly) and has a fuel capacity of 2.4 gallons. The BMW i3's electric-only range is stated at 80 to 100 miles, and extended-range models are said to achieve about double that. Hyper-milers can eke more distance by switching to the ECO PRO mode, which is meant to increase distance by 12 percent, or ECO PRO+, which adds another 12 percent. The i3 electric vehicle uses a single-speed transmission and is rear-wheel drive. The i3 recharges in about three hours on a 220-volt charging station like the i Charging Station available from BMW or, at worst, 20-plus hours on a standard 110-volt outlet.
Hybrid-synchronous electric motor
22-kWh lithium-ion battery
184 lb-ft of torque
Range with full charge: 80-100 miles
Range with full charge plus gasoline-powered Range Extender: NA
The Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) of the 2014 BMW i3 starts at $42,275. The base price for an i3 with Range Extender is $46,125. The BMW i3 is also eligible for incentives, such as a $7,500 federal tax credit. At these prices, the i3 resides in a middle ground among electric vehicles. It is over $12,000 more than a Nissan Leaf, but nearly $30,000 less than a Tesla Model S. Somewhat closer in pricing is the Chevrolet Volt, which has a starting price just under $35,000. Before buying an i3, be sure to check the Kelley Blue Book Fair Purchase Price to see what others in your area are paying. Because the i3 is a brand-new vehicle, our number crunchers are still calculating its predicted resale value.