What It Is
BMW's take on how to build an electric city car.
The interior is airy and premium, and the whole experience feels like nothing else out there.
Lousy ride control, un-BMW-like driving dynamics, cramped back seat and uncomfortable front seats.
Even with so much going for it, BMW's first attempt at urban mobility comes up short.
Reality has finally set in: Electric cars aren't going anywhere. Global warming exists, whether or not you believe Al Gore's ManBearPig mantra, and regulations against internal combustion engines are getting tougher to meet. Perhaps more than any time in the last 100 years, the car is evolving, and BMW is quickly joining the fray instead of sitting on the sidelines and buying EV "clean air" credits from Tesla.
Even considering BMW's welcoming of new technologies with open arms, with the way U.S. laws have been finagled, the company wouldn't have had a choice but to build an electric car.
Out of the growing need for cleaner vehicles in the midst of greater urban congestion, the BMW i3 was born. This little egg-shaped car is the first so-called Mega City Vehicle from BMW, and it looks almost nothing like anything that's come before it. In fact, it's built like nothing before it, implementing a plastic body and carbon fiber reinforced plastic structure that, along with aluminum, is ultra-strong and ultra-light. BMW didn't even want to put its badge on the car during the car's planning stage—that's how different it is. Now, BMW is placing a mega-sized target on its Mega City Vehicle to deliver both as a smart, savvy EV and a proper Ultimate Driving Machine. BMW invited us along to drive through Los Angeles to see if it could deliver on that kind of promise—a lofty promise if you ask us.
WalkaroundBedecked in metallic Solar Orange paint and black accents, it was hard to not think of the BMW i3 as the automotive embodiment of a pumpkin upon first sight. But as much as it doesn't look like a BMW—from its closed-off kidney "grille" to its narrow, upright body, to its rear suicide doors—it somehow works. In fact, the whole car looks futuristic and comes across as a truly modern design in a sea of warmed-over hatchbacks that are quickly permeating the premium green segment.
And yes, it will come in other colors when it goes on sale in the U.S. early next year. But none of them have been shown on our shores yet, and none of them will be anything too exciting like, say, brown or green.
Amid all of its details, there's always one you can't forget: its size. At 157 inches long, it's 17 inches shorter than the already modestly sized Nissan Leaf, presenting it with a rather square stance. You don't quite realize just how small it is until you get it into traffic next to other vehicles, as its interior is actually quite spacious—at least for front-seat passengers.
Sitting DownBMW further accentuates its new approach to car-making with an open, lounge-like interior, highlighted with light-colored materials and big windows that present an airy feel. Without the need to have an engine or transmission up front, it allows space for the dashboard to float freely without any footwell intrusion, and the interior uses recycled materials to heighten its green credo.
Examples: The leather seats are Bridge of Weir, tanned without any toxic chemicals. Much of the plastic inside is made of hemp—it's not cannabis, we asked—and the carpet is made of recycled bottles. Other highlights include two razor-sharp color display monitors for the gauges and iDrive infotainment system, features that look like they were poached right out of a Mac store, and the design is among the most innovative we've seen.
Unfortunately, it's let down by one glaring flaw: Exactly none of the seats in the BMW i3 are comfortable. The front buckets are flat, unsupportive, and thinly padded, which left us with severe fatigue from just 60 miles of driving and riding in the i3. The back seat has as much room as you'd expect in a subcompact car, which means somewhere between "Deal with it, begrudgingly" and "Haha! Sucker!" The rear-hinged suicide doors—an apt description in this case—make getting in and out a little better. Still, there's a lot of room for improvement, both figuratively and literally speaking.
DrivingLike any electric car, torque comes on quickly and never relents. The BMW i3 we drove without the range-extending two-cylinder engine (a $3,850 option) came in right around 2,700 pounds and supplied 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque to the rear wheels.
That proved plenty peppy in traffic, whether in Comfort, Eco, or Eco+ mode, but we wondered why there was no Normal to be found—unlike other BMWs. While its acceleration pleasantly surprised us, it was the i3's deceleration that proved somewhat disconcerting. Most electric cars will automatically brake with their regenerative systems putting juice back in their battery packs. The BMW i3 was no different. However, its regen was among the most aggressive we've used, allowing us to drive the car with just one pedal at almost all times. The upside is the car's efficiency, making the most of its 22-kilowatt-hour battery pack and estimated 100 miles of range. The downside was that, until we got used to it, the car felt jerky.
That feeling became exacerbated by the car's suspension, which tried to tame Los Angeles' undulating, under-maintained roads the best it could. Unfortunately, its tall, upright stance and loosey goosy wobble, along with the unsupportive seats, led us to sway from side to side quite frequently. That, in turn, created a bit of motion sickness.
With narrow 175mm tires—and those are the wider, optional "sport" tires—the i3 does its best to maintain composure over potholes at speed, but it can only do so much. The BMW i3 really ought to have wider tires, as its tires quickly find their limits in any kind of spirited driving—the sort of driving you'd expect from a BMW, exhibiting a high-pitched WAH-WAH-WAH noise in any quick corner.
It's a good thing the electric power steering is tight and decent, reminiscent of a Mini Cooper's. Its turning circle is amazingly small, and visibility is excellent all around. Much of the rest of the way the BMW i3 drives is a bit of a letdown.
SummaryThe 2014 BMW i3 has so much going for it, from its futuristic interior to its dynamic, daring exterior styling. Yeah, it may not be pretty, but it's sufficiently fun, funky, and experimental, and its ambience will never be confused with anything else's.
It's just a shame that it's wholly unsatisfying to drive, and its ride is the chief culprit. For more than city jaunts, it's also one of the more uncomfortable vehicles we've driven this year, and that further solidifies its place down a rung from the typically excellent products BMW builds. Perhaps it would have been best if BMW would have left its badge off the i3.
From the Toyota RAV4 EV to the upcoming Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive to even the far cheaper Nissan Leaf, there are more comfortable, quicker, longer-range electric cars that are, in many ways, more enjoyable to drive. BMW created a whole new way to build an electric car, sure. But new doesn't always mean better.