In Focus

June 4, 2014

Road Raves: BMW i3 is electrifying

Revolutionary ride is much more than just another high-tech toy.

The brand-new all-electric BMW i3 just got here, and it’s already driving away with awards: two 2014 World Car of the Year Awards (World Green Car and World Car Design) picked up at April’s New York International Auto Show. And in the first UK Car of the Year Awards, the i3 won two categories, Car of the Year and Best Supermini.

All the hoopla acknowledges the i3’s revolutionary use of aluminum/carbon fiber construction to keep the weight down (2,900 pounds) and the range up (80-100 miles on a single three-hour charge). Drivers choosing what BMW calls “Eco Pro” and “Eco Pro Plus” modes will eke out an additional 12 to 25 percent improvement in range, and an optional two-cylinder gas engine powers the electric motor for an additional 300 or so miles.

In the i3’s chassis, even the bolts are aluminum, although the rear suspension links still use steel. But the big news is the carbon fiber “tub,” familiar to supercar aficionados, which houses the passenger compartment. Carbon fiber is expensive, but the trend to it is irreversible and explains BMW’s investment in a Washington state manufacturing plant to expand the material’s use and, therefore, lower the cost.

Amid the accolades, some decry the i3’s ladybug looks, dismissing it merely as a high-tech toy and wondering if BMW is losing its way. But even though the i3 appears top-heavy, the center of gravity is actually low, aided by the 450-pound lithium-ion battery and the electric motor (both under the passenger compartment). The motor is good for 170 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, which BMW claims will propel the i3 to 60 mph in just 7.2 seconds.

The four-seat interior is surprisingly spacious unless two 6-footers are planted in front: then, the back seats become virtually useless except for small children or groceries. Niceties abound, however, like the rear-hinged rear doors that open the cabin up for easy access, and the startling, free-floating iDrive screen that hovers over the dashboard.

Four levels of interior design offer an increasingly rich experience, starting with the basic Atelier level and moving up through Loft, Lodge and Suite — the last two offering swoopy, one-piece sustainable eucalyptus wood for the dash panel.

So it’s clever, revolutionary and groovy. But what makes the i3 worthy of all the hoopla as well as the right to wear the vaunted BMW roundel?

That’s easy: how it drives.

Because it’s electric, acceleration is instantaneous and plentiful. Handling is superbly balanced and the i3 feels BMW-solid and confident. The turning radius is incredibly tight, making the i3 well-suited for city driving and for going around and around and around and around and … you get the idea. Overall visibility is great, and there’s no vacuum cleaner whoosh to signal your arrival. In fact, there’s hardly any sound at all, which is kind of eerie, especially on the highway. You just get in and go, silently.

State-of-the-art engineering like this demands getting used to things like BMW’s regenerative braking system. More so than the Tesla or the Volt, significant braking begins the instant you take your foot off the accelerator. Once you’re used to it, the i3 becomes a single-pedal car and brake pads should last a bazillion years. On the other hand, when idiot tailgaters use your rear red lights as their cue to go whoa, some angry finger-pointing might ensue.

Also, the column-mounted shifter looks like it came straight out of Forbidden Planet, which is very cool. But it operates as if beamed up from the “What?” zone. Rotate to go backward or forward. OK, the Prius shifter is funky, too. But wait, punch a button on top of the fixed stalk to park, then punch another button on the stalk’s face to turn the car on or off. What? Is this really necessary?

But those are minor quibbles. As usual, Bavaria’s best are in it to win it and have thrown down the gauntlet of “ultimate driving machine” to the entire electric car industry with the stunning, revolutionary i3. Luddites, beware: The future is here, and it’s got BMW written all over it.

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