An interesting, effervescent bet. This is what the i3 represents and we’re not saying it because this is an electric vehicle coming from a carmaker with a sporty aroma like BMW, the story goes deeper than that.
Aside from the various particularities of the car, which we’ll go through in a minute, you have to understand this is a vehicle that was conceived to fit car sharing programs and other social platforms of this kind.
Such programs require a vehicle to be easy to use above all else - the driver must be able to get in and instantly comprehend the car, he needs mobility, not motoring passion. Still, as we tour our test car, we find several roundels, so we’re very curious to see how this whole identity matter turns out.
It was 2007 when the automaker first started experimenting with electric propulsion as part of this program, but this is 2014 and now it is time for the marketing department to start sweating. BMW may have told us that “M is the most powerful letter in the world”, but now they want to teach us about the powers of the “i”.
Heck, BMW even came up with its own geopolitics, splitting the world in “i countries” and "non-i countries". At the moment, only the i3 and the i8 hybrid sportscar populate such realms, but there will be a whole range of i vehicles in the future. For now, we shall focus on the BMW i3 in front of us.
From the distance, the i3 sports the typical silhouette of a city car with minivan (that’s MPV
for Europeans) accents. As you get closer though, the design details makes this a bespoke presence, albeit with an opinion-splitting appearance.
We’ll skip the styling details such as the faux kidney grilles up front or the lack of a B-pillar, moving straight to the innovative structure of the car.
Think of the BMW i3 as a marriage of lightweight materials. While the mechanical bits underneath are held together by an aluminum structure, the passenger cell above is made from carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP
). BMW has built a dedicated carbon fiber plant at Moses Lake, Washington, while the aluminum bits come from the Dingolfing site in Germany, the final assembly takes place at BMW's wind-powered Leipzig plant, also in Germany. That's right, well-to-wheels emissions were also a priority here.
The resulting sandwich comes in a frame that measures inches 157.4 inches (3,999 mm) in length, 70 inches (1,775 mm) in width and stands 62.1 inches (1,577 mm) tall. In other words, the typical compact segment (C segment in Europe) dimensions.
While the front door opens normally, the rear one has a coach construction. The resulting wide, pillarless aperture gives proper access to the cabin and leaves you with a futuristic impression before you've even entered the i3.
There's just one issue here - if a rear passenger wants to enter or exit the car, the corresponding front door, which also serves as a central pillar, has to be opened first. A front seat occupant can open the door without having to get out of the seat, but he or she must unbuckle first, as their seatbelt is anchored on the rear door.
While the i3's exterior may not suit everybody's taste, the interior is definitely a pleaser for all.
Words like "spacious" or "well lit" come to mind as soon as you enter. The "well lit" part, as well as the futuristic appearance of the cabin in enhanced by the two individual power-operated sunroof elements up front, a trick we’ve last seen on the Citroen DS5
, coincidentally the hybrid version.
The cabin has a bit of minivan air to it, with most of this being a consequence of the rather high driving position. This is especially true for front seat occupants, who are treated with a dashboard that extends a long way to the generous windscreen.
In the back, two adults sit in comfort, just don't ask about the third one. The i3 was conceived as a four-seater, so if you must take four of your friends out, you'd better see who is lap-compatible with whom.
Anyway, if people start touching the cabin materials, they'll enjoy what we call a bespoke experience. The i3 is a bit of a hipster when it comes to this, mixing the leather on the seats with a vegetable fiber used mainly on the door cards, as well as with a special kind of wood. While the vegetable fiber yells "I am green!", its appearance and feel have brought mixed opinions in our office. Nonetheless, we all agreed on how the open-pores finish of the wood makes one feel refined while maintaining an air of youth at the same time. Brilliant.
Speaking of the seats, the front ones are of particular interest here. They're truly comfortable while keeping a slim frame. We wish we'd see these in many other mainstream BMW models. We could say the same about the floating nature of the two displays present on the dashboard.
The 6.5-inch screen in front of the driver somehow reminds us of the infotainment screen on Aston Martins
, while the central 8.8-inch unit fits the car like a glove.
While we're at it, we'll also mention the key fob. With its flatter aspect, this breaks away from the traditional BMW layout. We even like it more than a Rolls-Royce
key, which sometimes is the same as what you get on a 1-series
Right behind us, sits a luggage compartment measuring 9.2 cubic feet (260 liters), a value which we found as sufficient during our drive. As you can imagine, we spent a lot of time inside the city. The i3 was conceived for boulevard and even narrow street play and yes, it gets a ten out of ten there.
You can regard the i3 as a one-pedal car. No, the brake pedal is not missing, but you'll only have to use it in emergency situations.
For the rest of the time, you can simply rely on the regenerative braking to bring the car to a halt.
The deceleration is not the violent one the MINI e trial vehicles showed, but it's considerably more than what you get on the Prius, for instance. We quickly got used to this and it even became fun. Whoever uses the pedal on the right loses the bet. The stakes? You name it.
And no, the i3 does not have a creep function. Tesla did the same with the Model S at first and subsequently introduced it at the buyers' request.
Then there's the turning circle. At 32.3 feet (9.86 m) this is the same as that of a Fiat 500 and you can feel the benefits.
You'll be just as zippy in the rest of the time and that's thanks to the instant electric torque. Being an EV
, the BMW i3 just can't wait for you to touch the happy pedal. It's all up to you. Either you caress the throttle and have a supple and super-efficient urban journey, or you step on the thing and ride the electric zing.
Unlike other electric vehicles, such as the Tesla Model S for instance, the oomph seems modulated, even at kickdown. With figures like 0 to 60 km/h (37 mph) in 3.7 s, you can keep up with hot hatches, so yes, the thing is quick at legal speeds.
Let's take a moment to consider the power to weight ratio here. Tucked between the rear wheels, the hybrid synchronous electric motor delivers 170 hp and 184 lb-ft (250 Nm), working with a single-speed transmission, as is the case with most EVs. The powerplant has to carry 2,635 lbs (1,195kg) around, so you end up with a nice hp per ton ratio and an official 0 to 62 mph sprint time of 7.2 seconds. That all sounds like you'll be in for an electric hot hatch ride, but the experience is different. This BMW feels more like a responsive machine that is always paying attention not to throw all the power around and compromise the driving range.
But the i3 has the soundtrack of a hot hatch. In the ways that electric hot hatches sound. Confused? Don't be. You'll be accompanied by a little... let's call it electric burble, whether you're accelerating or decelerating. The voice of the engine isn't bothering, despite the fact it can be heard a little louder if you sit in the back or increase the speed. In fact, you can ignore it altogether, but we didn't because we enjoyed it.
Our journey through the city was covered swiftly, aided by the good visibility, which can be enhanced with front and rear parking sensors as well as surround-view cameras.
Occasionally, a road inconsistency came in our way - you may feel the little ones, but go over medium and larger bumps and you'll notice the suppleness of the ride. For instance, the suspension doesn't hurry on the rebound, so it's comfortable. However, it's not lazy either, which means the car never enters that unpleasant sort of post-pothole oscillation.
The i3 talks to the road via a set of atypical wheels. These come in a size of 19 inches, shod in 155 /70 R19 rubber. As an option, you can have 20-inch wheels. At city speeds, the contact patches of these tires can offer you everything you need. The only exception comes when it starts raining, as some extra braking grip would've been appreciated.
We spent a good part of our i3 drive in the wet, which gave us all sorts of opportunities. For instance, we noticed the asymmetrical wipers are efficient but a bit noisy. Once again, this is an area that engineers revisited for efficiency.
The arms of the wipers have holes drilled into them, in pure rallying weight-reducing fashion.
Just like BMW M models
lack the Eco Pro driving mode, the i3 has given up on "Sport", so besides "Comfort" and "Eco Pro", you have something called "Eco Pro Plus".
There was quite an internal debate when the car was conceived, with engineers coming to the conclusion that the car should default in "Comfort". You will feel the difference between this and "Eco Pro" in the throttle and electrical steering mapping areas. The latter isn't too talkative, but you can place the front wheels on the road with accuracy.
Oh and there's another important difference. As any Eco Pro user will tell you, this mode puts a leash on the climate control and you can feel that here too. For example, the windscreen steamed up while we were in "Eco Pro", revealing how the system defrosts the driver's side of the glass more than that of the passenger. By the way, here's a little trick - you can turn the sunshades to help defrost the windshield better. As you can imagine, "Eco Pro Plus" reduces the climate control system to absolute silence. It also brings the top speed from 93 mph (150 km/h) to 56 mph (90 km/h).