The quirky-looking BMW i3 hatchback is BMW’s first foray into the electric car market. With a price tag that rivals upper-end 3 Series sedans, the BMW i3 can go 80-100 miles on a single charge and is the first mass-produced vehicle to use a body made of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic, which is significantly lighter than aluminum and steel.
Size-wise, the BMW i3 is a few inches shorter and slightly narrower than the Mini Countryman, and sits about an inch taller. It’s significantly shorter in length than the Nissan Leaf, by nearly 18 inches. The i3 retains some classic BMW styling cues, including a squashed outline of the twin-kidney grille (though a grille is not needed on an electric car), swept-back headlamps and large, multi-spoke wheels bearing the blue and white roundel. But other than a few details, the BMW i3 looks like nothing else in the BMW lineup. With its diminutive front end and boxy body, one could say the i3 still looks like a BMW the way a snake still looks like a snake after it’s swallowed a goat.
The BMW i3 can charge in three hours with the use of a 220-volt Level 2 charger. An optional DC combo fast charger is optional, and can fully charge the vehicle in as little as 30 minutes.
Although the standard BMW i3 is a purely electric vehicle, an optional range extender is available in the form of a 650cc gasoline motor, which essentially converts the i3 into a type of plug-in hybrid. The engine starts and maintains the battery’s power level, but doesn’t power the wheels directly. The gas engine is called a range extender because it allows owners to continue driving after the battery is drained.
Not to be mistaken for a wimpy econo-box, the i3 uses signature BMW engineering elements such as rear-wheel drive and near 50-50 weight distribution. The BMW i3 is powered by a hybrid synchronous electric motor that makes 170 horsepower and a maximum of 184 pound-feet of torque. Power is sent to the rear wheels via a single-speed transmission. BMW estimates it can go from 0 to 30 mph in 3.5 seconds and 0 to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds. Top speed is electronically limited at 93 mph. The i3’s lightweight construction makes for a lean curb weight of just 2,635 pounds for the all-electric version, besting the Leaf by more than 730 pounds. The i3’s optional range extender adds another 264 pounds.
Like other hybrid and electric vehicles, the i3 uses regenerative braking. The i3’s system is speed sensitive, recapturing the most energy at lower speeds and letting the car coast at higher freeway speeds. The accelerator also acts as a brake when the driver lifts off the pedal. We seldom needed to use the brakes to slow down. Although it may be efficient, this one-pedal driving style feels very different from driving a traditional car and takes some getting used to.
Trim levels sound more like sci-fi flicks than refined German driving machines: Mega World, Giga World, and Tera World. Certain interior materials are natural and sustainable, including dashboard trim made from eucalyptus wood, instrument panel and door trim surrounds that contain plant fibers, and leather upholstery tanned with olive-leaf extract. Every i3 comes with BMW’s Connected Drive, which allows drivers to access charging and other vehicle information via their iPhone.
Competitors to the BMW i3 don’t match up exactly when it comes to price and features. Tiny cars like the Chevrolet Spark EV, Fiat 500e and Nissan Leaf are thousands of dollars cheaper, and the Ford Focus EV and Honda Fit EV offer more space for less money. But none have the cachet of the BMW brand, nor the space-age materials and haute couture interior design. The BMW i3 is the most expensive of these, though federal and state tax credits can help offset its price.