2014 BMW i3 Up Close, Photo Gallery

I keep forgetting the BMW i3 is a real car.

It's not that my brain can't distinguish between concept and production models, but I was thrown for a loop when I learned this electric car will be on sale in the U.S. in early 2014. After all, we've been hearing about it for more than two years now.

This realization hit home as I stared at the little runabout in front of the practice range at the 2013 BMW Championship golf tournament in Lake Forest, Ill., last week.

It was an opportunity for BMW to show off not only the i3 but also the new 4 Series and redesigned X5 SUV.

The i3 was the stunner in the group for many reasons, and I just couldn't help but think BMW has an electric hit on its hands.

The i3 can be had as an all-electric vehicle like a Nissan Leaf or owners can opt for one with a two-cylinder range-extender generator similar to the Chevrolet Volt. Unlike the Volt, the i3's two-cylinder "engine" never drives the wheels.

Whichever version you opt for, the i3 is an evolutionary step ahead of both the Leaf and Volt at a digestible price.

We've covered the basics of the car before, but the electric range will be between 80 and 100 miles, with the range extender bumping that to 160-180 miles.

But it is really how the i3 looks and feels that distinguishes it from its green specs.

Materials in this show car — typically a rougher version of what goes on sale to the public — were exceptional for a small BMW product. The use of environmentally friendly products can't be ignored, from the high-end look of the eucalyptus wood on the top of the dash to the somewhat cheaper sheen of the kenaf plant fiber on the doors.

Then there's the carbon fiber; it's shown in its somewhat raw state on the door sills with the fibrous weave there for all to see.

BMW claims it is the first mainstream production vehicle with a carbon fiber structure. The lightweight material is strong but expensive to make. However, BMW is producing it at its own plant, which likely saves some money.

Because of the carbon fiber structure, this small car skips the B-pillars, which allows for rear-hinged rear doors for easy backseat access. Once back there I was a bit surprised at how much room there was with the front seat adjusted to fit me as a driver. The somewhat tall greenhouse allowed for significant headroom, too.

The cargo area isn't big, which is no surprise since the electric motor and optional range-extender generator reside underneath the cargo floor.

To me, though, the selling point comes from the driver's seat. From there you get a commanding view of what's ahead of you — that generally won't be pro golfer Ernie Els on the driving range as it was when I tested it. The unique steering wheel is well-executed, and there's a chunky gear selector that shouts "Hey, I'm not an ordinary car," yet it isn't dainty like the Leaf's or Prius' shifters. There are two large display screens and eucalyptus panels in a slick slope along the dash; the sunroof has two separate shades: one for the driver, one for the passenger.

The starting price is $41,350 before a destination fee that should be close to $940, but that's also before a $7,500 federal tax credit and any state tax credits. That means the i3 is considerably more than a Leaf, which now starts at $29,650, but closer to the Volt's $34,995 sticker; both prices include destination charges. With the success of Tesla's Model S sedan and its $71,070 starting price — many are sold at well over $100,000 — a small premium for a unique electric like the i3 should not hinder its success.

The unique looks, bevy of environmentally friendly parts and even its eco-friendly production should make it a hit amongst the green crowd.

Click on any image for a larger version. Cars.com photos by Evan Sears.

2014 BMW i3: First Look
BMW Prices Electric i3
More Alternative Fuel Vehicle News

More From Cars.com