Editor’s note: This review was written in November 2015 about the 2015 BMW i3. Little of substance has changed with this year’s model. To see what’s new for 2016, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Cars don’t get much more bizarre than the 2015 BMW i3, an electric hatchback with surprising room and comfort but a whole lot of head-scratchers.
The first product from BMW’s “i” electric sub-brand, the i3 launched for the 2014 model year. Changes for 2015 amount to a few more standard features (compare the two model years here), none of which keep the i3 from being a rolling science project.
The car’s electric motor and battery have an EPA-estimated range of 81 miles. One version has a gasoline engine generator that kicks in when the battery runs out to bring the total EPA-estimated range to 150 miles. Compare the two variants here. We tested the version with gas backup, which BMW calls the i3 with Range Extender.
Exterior & Styling
The i3’s styling isn’t from left field, it’s from outside the ballpark — possibly the planet. A mash-up of bulging bumpers, Ferris-wheel rims and more black gloss than a kitchen remodel, the styling is sure to polarize. BMW’s twin-kidney grille is a functionless blue-and-silver façade. The taillights hover within an extension of rear-window glass, wedged between oversized quarter panels. Enormous 19- or 20-inch wheels have comically skinny tires.
The i3’s subcompact size makes its features seem even more outlandish. Its footprint is comparable to a four-door Mini Cooper, as is its curb weight, at about 2,800 pounds without the range extender. The extender — a 34-horsepower, 0.6-liter two-cylinder engine — adds 265 pounds.
How It Drives
Typical of an electric car, the i3 darts from a standstill, but its peppiness goes beyond that. This BMW is quick, with seamless torque — 184 pounds-feet — to scoot to highway speeds. BMW says it takes 7.8 seconds to get to 60 mph with the range extender and 7 seconds flat without it — about as quick as a 320i sedan.
Two driving modes, Eco Pro and Eco Pro Plus, introduce ascending levels of accelerator lag among other configurable restrictions — namely, no climate control in Eco Pro Plus and a speed limit the i3 won’t pass unless you floor it. BMW says Eco Pro mode adds 12 percent to the drivetrain’s remaining range, and Eco Pro Plus adds another 12 percent atop that. Our test car’s remaining range did indeed climb with each mode, suggesting the i3 could exceed its EPA-estimated 81-mile electric range by quite a bit. BMW says the EPA calculated the range in the i3’s base Comfort mode. (There are no Sport modes.)
BMW clearly tuned the suspension on the soft side, but it didn’t sacrifice control to get there. The i3 quells expansion joints with remarkable composure, staying settled even on rapid elevation changes and off-camber bumps. One editor found broken pavement more disruptive, but overall ride quality is impressive for a car whose wheelbase — just 101 inches, about 5 inches short of a 2 Series — ought to work against such composure.
Highway speeds reveal weaknesses, though, as the steering settles into a soupy numbness to stay straight ahead. Crosswinds require lots of tentative, twitchy corrections. Steering feedback improves heading into corners, but the i3’s narrow P155/60R20 (front) and P175/55R20 (rear) Bridgestone Ecopia tires — skinny in order to minimize rolling resistance, BMW says — skate off course on hard turns. Despite its rear-wheel-drive layout, the i3 feels as front-heavy as any front-drive car. Get into a sweeping corner, and the nose pushes early and often.
Lift off the gas, and the i3’s aggressive regenerative brakes slow the car all the way to a stop without any braking on your own. You can’t adjust their aggressiveness, which could be a deal-breaker for some. Should you need to stop sooner, the i3 suffers slow, spongy panic stops with plenty of antilock-braking chatter as those skinny tires lose traction. Our friends at “MotorWeek” needed 127 feet to halt from 60 mph in a 2015 i3. That’s 15 feet longer than they needed in a 2014 3 Series.
In 30 minutes the i3 can reach 100 percent battery on a commercial DC quick-charger, BMW says. Many plug-ins top out around 80 percent on DC chargers no matter how long they’re plugged in. Attach a Level 2 (240-volt) charger to the i3’s 22-kilowatt-hour battery, and getting a full charge will take about three hours; that’s about as quick a charge as you can get at Level 2. In a pinch, slow charging from a traditional household outlet is also possible, but it usually adds only 5 miles of range each hour, as was our experience.
Unlike the Chevrolet Volt, whose range extender adds exponential vehicle range, the i3’s extender is more of an emergency provision. It fires up — noisily — to charge the depleted battery only as much as necessary to keep the car going; it doesn’t directly drive the wheels. Once it’s running, the extender sips fuel at the equivalent of an EPA-estimated 39 mpg. But it draws off a tank that’s just 1.9 gallons, so unless you want to stop for gas every 75 miles, the i3 isn’t really a road-trip option. (It would cost you, too: The engine prefers premium gas and requires at least midgrade.) The setup’s extra weight drops the i3’s all-electric range from 81 to 72 miles.
The styling circus continues inside, where the i3’s shapes and materials are in some sort of automotive alternate universe. The dashboard amounts to a few planks of “responsibly forested” eucalyptus wood amid chunks of leather-wrapped moldings. Two screens perch on the steering column and a horizontal dashboard outcropping, respectively; the latter gives the illusion of a floating display. A bulky stump on the steering column accommodates the gear selector, which you click forward or backward to electronically put the car into Drive, Reverse or Neutral. Park is a push button.
BMW says a quarter of the interior plastic and thermoplastic parts are recycled and that the forward reaches of the dash and doors have a textured, lightweight material made from kenaf fibers, a tropical plant related to cotton. Whatever. It looks like a houseful of cats had a shedding contest.
Automatic climate control and heated front seats are standard. The upholstery is a mix of vinyl and cloth in the i3’s base Mega World Package. Giga World and Tera World packages add the wood and leather dash, with leather-and-cloth seats on the Giga and full leather on the Tera. I’ve seen sillier names for trim packages before, but the i3’s takes the cake for sheer geekiness. Or bytes the cake, as it were.
With no conventional driveline, the interior is free of the center tunnel that takes up floor space in most cars. BMW cleared out not just the footwells but also pared down the center console itself. It opens up an abundance of foot and knee room, and if you park in a narrow spot, you can scoot across to exit out the passenger-side door.
The seats themselves are too flat for much lateral support. The two-passenger backseat has rear-hinged doors, like an extended-cab pickup. Rear headroom and legroom is better than the i3’s exterior size would suggest, but the seating position might leave taller adults’ knees elevated.
Ergonomics & Electronics
The dashboard’s center screen measures 6.5 inches; navigation and BMW’s iDrive controller are standard. Optional on any trim is a larger, wide-screen navigation system with an iDrive touch-pad. The larger screen is more helpful than the touchpad, which I rarely used.
Bluetooth phone connectivity, satellite radio, a USB port and HD radio are standard. Harman Kardon premium audio is an $800 option, but Bluetooth audio streaming isn’t included until you opt for a $2,500 Technology and Driving Assistant Package. That’s absurd; many economy cars have standard Bluetooth audio.
All of them have AM radio, which the i3 omits. BMW says it’s because the electric motor interferes with AM radio signals, so the reception would be rotten anyhow. Bah.
Cargo & Storage
BMW says the rear-mounted range extender has no effect on cargo space, which is 15.1 cubic feet behind the rear seats. The backseat folds in a 50/50 split, at the pull of convenient straps in the backrest or the cargo area, to expand maximum space to 36.9 cubic feet. That maximum spec is modest on paper, but it was enough to fit a travel grill and 42-inch television, plus some pillows to keep the one from breaking the other.
The i3’s hood has a small compartment for the portable 1.4-kilowatt household charger. There’s enough extra space for a small overnight bag.
The i3 hasn’t been crash-tested. A forward collision warning system with automatic braking is optional, but the system works only at speeds below 35 mph. Audible rear parking assist is standard; a backup camera and front parking assist are optional.
Value in Its Class
The i3’s top rivals, the Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive and Audi A3 e-Tron, look like mainstream cars from their respective brands. Indeed, they are versions of gas-powered models. The i3 barely looks like a real car, let alone a BMW. No doubt about it: This hatch stands out.
Still, electric cars have struggled in the face of low gas prices in 2015, which makes for an uphill battle that only the best will win. The i3 has too many warts to rise to the top, and its high price — ranging, after a maximum $7,500 federal tax credit, from about $36,000 to the high $40,000s — could alienate a lot of shoppers.
Despite this, BMW has respectable sales. From January to August 2015, i3 sales totaled about half of the Leaf’s numbers and three-quarters of the Volt’s, despite both those cars having considerably more mass appeal. Some will find a certain charm in the i3’s myriad quirks, and the optional range extender adds much-needed viability. BMW may have found a niche among status-conscious environmental shoppers. Still, it’s too much of an odd duck (and a pricey mallard, at that) to appeal beyond that.
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