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2014 BMW i3: First Drive

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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.

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From first glance you realize that this is a seriously avant-garde design. It looks like nothing else on the road — short and stubby, but tall and high-riding with impossibly narrow 155-series tires wrapped around almost comically big 20-inch wheels (19-inch wheels are standard). The most distinctive feature is the kick-down in the beltline for the rear doors, giving the rear passengers better visibility and helping to alleviate claustrophobia in an otherwise tight backseat.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Photo of Aaron Bragman
Detroit Bureau Chief Aaron Bragman has had over 25 years of experience in the auto industry as a journalist, analyst, purchasing agent and program manager. Bragman grew up around his father’s classic Triumph sports cars (which were all sold and gone when he turned 16, much to his frustration) and comes from a Detroit family where cars put food on tables as much as smiles on faces. Today, he’s a member of the Automotive Press Association and the Midwest Automotive Media Association. His pronouns are he/him, but his adjectives are fat/sassy. Email Aaron Bragman

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