The quirky-looking BMW i3 is a four-door electric hatchback with seating for four passengers, now in its fourth year of production.
This dedicated electric vehicle maximizes the potential of its electric motor and battery pack with a compact featherweight body shell of carbon fiber – borrowed from racing, yet stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum.
The 60Ah model is priced at approximately $42,500, and the REx (Range Extender) model I drove was $47,450, relatively expensive for an EV.
The i3 has an uncommonly low center of gravity, resulting in nimble handling, along with spirited acceleration, and improved all-electric range thanks to a new larger battery for 2017.
A larger 33-kWh battery is the only major change for 2017 with 45 percent more usable storage capacity, allowing the all-electric i3 to travel approximately 114 miles on a charge, up 33 miles from the smaller 22-kWh battery.
The smaller battery is still available on a new 60 Ah version (Ah = amp-hour capability), which is rated for about 81 miles per charge. Base and Range Extender versions (90 Ah) come with the larger battery as standard, rated for about 120 miles and 180 miles respectively.
The range extender is a 0.6-liter two-cylinder gasoline-powered generator, not linked to the drive axle, which increases the weight of the vehicle, and reduces the electric-only range to 97 miles. A slight increase in fuel capacity for 2017 – to 2.4 gallons from 1.9 gallons – allows a combined range of 180 miles.
Range depends on sustained speeds, achieving less when driving at highway speeds. Speed is also limited to about 75 mph when the battery is depleted and the Range Extender is activated. Going uphill or against the wind will also reduce range and speed, which could be a problem for distance commuters. The Range Extender adds 265 pounds to the i3, making it slightly slower from zero-60 mph, at 7.1 seconds as opposed to 6.6 seconds, which is still pretty quick for an EV.
Charging time depends on the source of the power. A standard 120-volt household outlet will charge the 90 Ah in about 17 hours. At 220 volts, typical for electric dryers or stovetops, charging is reduced to under five hours, and it’s under an hour at 440 volts, a typical public fast-charging station.
DC fast charging requires a lot of power and costs a lot of money to install at home, so BMW’s ChargeNow partnership with the EvGo network provides two years of free 30-minute charging sessions at participating charging stations. Fast chargers can recharge up to 80 percent in 20 minutes, slowing at that point to safeguard from overcharging. Charging stations are, unfortunately, not available all over at this point, but are becoming more so.
The Base (actually the second model in the line) has upgraded wheels and tires – wider in the back – keyless enter/start, and upgraded navigation with real-time traffic data. Adding the larger battery increased the price of the i3 by about $2,200.
As the larger battery does increase the base price, models with this battery have as standard a new lower-cost Deka World cloth interior. Mega World faux leather/cloth interior is now an extra-cost option for $1,400. More standard equipment is also new for 2017, including heated seats, DC fast charging, and automatic wipers.
Two options packages are available – Technology plus Driving Assistant, $2,350, with advanced navigation with a split-screen display, real-time traffic, and advanced local search, all-speed adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, BMW Online and BMW App for social networks music, and location sharing, BMW Connected to send destinations from phone or watch; and Parking Assistant, $1,000, with rearview camera, added front parking sensors, and automated parking. Twenty-inch wheels, a premium stereo upgrade, and a new power sunroof are also available.
My i3 with Range Extender was Protonic Blue with Frozen Gray accents ($700), one of six exteriors with interesting names and color combinations. Capparis White with Frozen Blue is standard, while Ionic Silver Metallic with Frozen Blue, Fluid Black with Frozen Blue, Platinum Silver Metallic with Frozen Blue, and Mineral Gray Metallic with Frozen Blue add $700.
Four trims are available, each trim adding its own interior: Deka World has dark paneling, gray cloth, and blue accents; Mega World ($1,400) has 19-inch Turbine Wheels, Mega Carum Spice Gray Sensatec and Carum Spice Gray Cloth, and smoker’s package; Giga World (my tester, $1,800 extra) comes with 19-inch Alloy Turbine wheels; Light Eucalyptus Wood Trim, Giga Cassia Natural Leather and Carum Spice Gray Wool Cloth, and smoker’s package; Tera World ($2,600) has Dark Oak Wood Trim, 19-inch Turbine Wheels, Tera Dalbergia Brown Full Natural Leather, and smoker’s package.
BMW i3 exterior styling is hard to describe adequately. The kidney grille is BMW’s signature, flanked in this case by U-shaped LED daytime running lights with LED automatic high beam headlights, and topped by the small, slightly curved hood with nearly vertical sides. The bumper stretches across the front to include large LED turn signals set into a black back-loop above the bumper.
The large diffuser-style bumper dominates the rear of the vehicle; “eDrive” and “i3” logos are positioned at the outer edges of the glazed tailgate. LED taillights in the same U shape include brake lights and turn signals, while backup lights, rear fog lights, and reflectors are integrated into the bumper.
A BMW logo with blue “i” accents sits in the middle of the tailgate and the hood – the characteristic “black belt” from the front of the hood to the bottom of the tailgate, including “A” pillars and roof pillars in black high-gloss with a matte chrome strip.
Due to the rear coach doors, there is no “B” pillar, just a long expanse of glass with a dip at the front of the rear door, angled back up to the rear pillar – unique, to say the least. The wide doors made entry and loading easy (a boon for parents with small children in forward-facing seats), and the closed doors assumed the protective function of the absent “B” pillar.
The interior was also unique, with a deep carbon fiber dash, featuring the undulating eucalyptus wood trim with a large flat area under the 6.5-inch display. Cassia Natural Leather trimmed the top of the door panel and the armrests, while Carum Spice Gray Wool cloth trimmed the body of the door panel. Carbon fiber finished the bottom of the door panel.
The driver-information screen was mounted at the rear of the steering column, independent of the dash, and the gauges were easy to see through the wheel. A very nontraditional shifter stalk on the side of the steering column – short and fat, with a “hook” for your thumb – had the start/stop button as well as gears, and required a little time to adjust to before becoming easy to use.
Seating surfaces and seatbacks were wool cloth with leather trim on the side bolsters, seat cushion front and seat back shoulder area – reminding me of patches on a tweed jacket at wear points.
Seat adjustments were manual, to help conserve electricity. The rear seatbacks folded flat 50/50 for a little more cargo capacity. The trunk holds 11.2 cubic feet of cargo, which is a little small due to the motor and generator under the floor. This also made the loading height a bit high, too.
All controls were logically grouped and conveniently located, with an iDrive controller on the console to control most secondary vehicle systems. The audio system had FM/HD/satellite, Bluetooth and USB, but no AM or CD. Phone pairing was simple, and managing the iPod interface was easy via the controller.
My i3 was fun to drive, after I became accustomed to the odd-feeling regenerative braking, which occurs in stages. At low speeds the car slows quickly and the brake lights come on automatically. At higher speeds, slowing is less aggressive, which means it is possible to slow the car down incrementally without touching the brakes at all. BMW specifically designed this feature to return lots of energy to the car’s batteries. An i3 with Range Extender needs 111 feet for a panic stop from 60 mph, which is an amazingly short distance.
The carbon fiber body structure is very rigid, and along with the excellent suspension, makes for a pretty smooth ride. A touch of wind and road noise comes through, since the electric motor is silent. If the gas generator comes on, the growl is quite pronounced.
With quick, responsive steering and a short wheelbase, the turning circle was tight for excellent urban maneuverability. It could feel darty on the highway, especially if the surface is uneven. Cornering was well balanced due to low center of gravity, rear-wheel drive, and 50/50 weight balance.
Rear passengers felt a little crowded, but as we weren’t traveling long distance it was a non-issue. In fact, i3 is mainly an urban/suburban vehicle, although it is capable of highway speeds for short distances.
My i3 had a Mobility Kit, basically a tire repair kit with compressor, in place of a spare. My i3 was also capable of AC quick charge and DC quick charge, where available.
Though i3 costs more than competitive EVs, the interior quality, eco-friendly materials, and modern design justify that cost.
With a Parking Assistance Package, Tech plus Driving Assist Package, Giga World, and $995 destination charges, my i3 delivered for $54,295.
The automotive columns of Emma Jayne Williams have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 2007. Contact her at email@example.com.