By Aaron Bragman on November 27, 2013
Electric vehicles have been around for several years now, which means that we're starting to see more automakers jump into the segment, like BMW. Its 2014 i3 is a subcompact four-seat EV from an automaker better known for its luxury sport sedans than its environmental friendliness. Work on the Mini E and the 1 Series-based ActiveE has bought BMW a significant amount of EV experience, which combined with a radical new manufacturing method to birth this little city car. The i3 is designed from the ground up as an electric car, instead of a modified version of a traditional gas car like the Fiat 500e, Chevrolet Spark EV, Ford Focus Electric or even the Nissan Leaf.
What makes the i3 different from every other car on the market is under the skin — it's almost entirely made out of plastic. This is no ordinary plastic, mind you — it's carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic. It's basically the same stuff used to make Formula One cars and stealth bombers. What's remarkable about the i3 is that it's the first mass-market car made out of carbon fiber. There's no metal in the car's body - all the bumpers, doors and skins are plastic as well. The only major metal parts are the drive unit and suspension components. The result is a four-seat, four-door city car that weighs only about 2,700 pounds — or nearly 500 pounds less than a BMW 1 Series.
The front doors open normally, but the two rear doors are hinged at the back, so the front doors must be opened before the rears. The strength of the carbon fiber structure means a B-pillar isn't necessary, allowing the entire side of the car to be opened up for easy access to the rear. The overall look is definitely fresh and highly futuristic, but whether it can be considered attractive or not will be up to the buyer.
This purpose-built EV uses a 22-kilowatt-hours lithium-ion battery pack, which resides in an aluminum frame under the rear seat and just ahead of the electric drive unit that powers the rear wheels. That drive unit can be had with or without a gasoline range extender, a 650-cubic-centimeter two-cylinder engine from BMW's motorcycle division that can provide electrical power once the batteries have been depleted. Driven responsibly, the i3 should deliver 80 to 100 miles of total range, extendable by another 80 miles when the optional range extender generator is employed. With just a 2.4-gallon fuel capacity, the extender is only meant to provide a little buffer in case you find yourself unable to recharge before your destination is reached. Recharging to 100 percent takes about three hours on 240-volt power or about 20 minutes to get to 80 percent charge on a 480-volt DC fast charger (if you can find one). The limited fuel capacity of the range-extended version means that the i3 is really only intended for commuting and city use; refilling the tiny 2.4-gallon gas tank every 75 miles or so would become nerve-wracking in any kind of extended driving.
What's most definitely not nerve-wracking is the i3's performance — this is quite possibly the most entertaining EV I have driven, knocking off my benchmark Fiat 500e in the "fun-to-drive" category. BMW worked hard to maintain a 50-50 weight distribution. That, combined with the low center of gravity from the placement of the battery pack, means that the i3 actually handles quite well for a car its size. Turn-in was crisp and responsive, and even spirited driving down Los Angeles' famed Mulholland Drive was a breeze despite the tall, skinny tires. Body roll was minimal and ride quality wasn't choppy in the least, an impressive feat in a car with such a short wheelbase. Rough pavement can upset the i3, however, knocking it about in the lane and eliciting some surprising dashboard shake over the bigger potholes. Perhaps the smaller 19-inch wheels would provide more stability.
Acceleration isn't just brisk, it's legitimately quick — the electric motor makes 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, propelling the little i3 from zero-to-60 mph in just 7.2 seconds. All of that torque comes on just off the line, however, and will push you back in your seat with surprising force. Lift off the accelerator and the i3's aggressive regenerative braking takes over; if you want to coast, you actually have to leave the accelerator pressed slightly. It's an unusual set-up, but one to which most drivers will quickly become accustomed.
Three modes of operation are available: Comfort, Eco Pro and Eco Pro+, each with a more aggressive way of managing the car's throttle, power regeneration and energy-sapping accessories to maximize range. Comfort mode is the standard operating condition - the two EcoPro modes increase range at the expense of things like air conditioning operation. Much of it is managed with the help of the i3's onboard Range Assistant, which not only deduces the most efficient route to a set destination, but can even evaluate topographical map data to include hills into its calculations.
Up front, the i3 is surprisingly spacious. BMW maintains that the car offers the interior room of the 3 Series with the exterior footprint of the 1 Series, and that's not hard to believe. A tall roofline and low beltline provide excellent outward visibility to the front and sides, but visibility rearward is a little compromised. The available sunroof helps create an airy feeling. Rear-seat passengers are generally also comfortable, provided front-seat passengers move their seats up to provide a little more legroom. Cross-town jaunts for four passengers would not be an unpleasant experience.
The interior design is just plain concept-car cool. Two floating LCD displays rest on the dash. The one in front of the driver displays speedometer, range, charge and other driving necessities, while the larger center stack screen displays everything from audio to navigation. The system is controlled by the latest iDrive knob-and-button system located in the space between the front seats — no console extends from the dash downward, allowing for plenty of legroom thanks to the flat floor. This is also designed for urban environments; the driver can easily slide over and out the passenger door, helpful when parking on a busy city street. Cargo area is decent for a car this size, and the 50/50 folding rear seats help to maximize utility.
But as good as the interior design looks, the abundance of "green" and recycled materials puts a damper on the i3's premium feel. The trim level I tested was the Tera, highest of three "world" names that BMW is using to describe the trims (the other two are Mega and Giga). It included full leather seats (available only in brown, as the tanning process for the leather uses olive leaf extract instead of harsher chemicals), a nice premium fabric on the doors made from recycled plastic bottles, and material woven from the fibers of the kenaf plant for much of the dashboard and door trim. Along with some trim parts that have the grained look of a Styrofoam cooler, the kenaf fiber material makes the interior look unfinished, almost as if the car was still in prototype form. It's also rough and unpleasant to the touch, almost like the fiberboard backing under upholstery. Green it may be, but it feels completely out of place in a nearly $45,000 car.
The starting price for the i3 is $42,275, including the destination fee of $925, considerably more than competitors like the Nissan Leaf, Fiat 500e or Chevrolet Spark EV, but not that much more than the Chevrolet Volt. Opting for the range-extended model will add another $3,850 to the price. A fully loaded i3 could easily top $50,000. As with other EVs, the i3 should qualify for a $7,500 federal income tax credit, plus various regional incentives in states with strong EV directives like California. BMW is hoping that urban, environmentally conscious driving enthusiasts will embrace the i3. Given that the i3 is actually fun to drive and comes with that status-building blue badge on the hood, success in markets like Southern California seems all but guaranteed.
Detroit Bureau Chief Aaron Bragman grew up in the Detroit area, comes from an automotive family and is based in Ann Arbor, Mich. Email Aaron