First look at the BMW i3 electric car

ImageFor the amount of fanfare and effort BMW gave to its i3 electric car, I would have expected something at least nearly competitive with the Tesla Model S. But BMW’s vision for a clean, futuristic urban vehicle doesn’t reach far beyond what has already been put on the market by Nissan, Mitsubishi, Ford, and Honda, at least when it comes to raw performance numbers.

With an electric vehicle, performance primarily means range. BMW estimates the i3 will go 80 to 100 miles between charges, putting it in the same class as the majority of electric cars launched in the last few years. From BMW’s perspective, that range fits perfectly within the parameters it set out. As an urban vehicle, the i3 is meant to handle daily driving around a city. Especially in Europe, that range is more than adequate for the majority of people to make a daily commute and run errands.

That sort of range is a tougher sell in the U.S., even if most people don’t actually drive further on a daily basis.

When it comes to style, the i3 may not fit the brand perception BMW has built up in the U.S. The i3 comes out as a premium small electric car, a five door hatchback. Small and premium remain uncomfortable partners in the minds of U.S. car buyers, although vehicles such as the Lexus CT200h have begun to bridge that rift.

The i3’s hatchback style offers excellent utility, with the ability to carry four passengers and cargo. Adding to the utility of the i3 is the fact that BMW designed it from the ground up to be an electric car. As such, there are no intrusions into the cabin for legacy components such as a transmission. The cabin floor is flatter than in most gasoline cars, while BMW takes a minimalist approach to the dashboard. The result is equivalent cabin space to BMW’s 3-series, despite the shorter overall length of the i3.

Similar to the i3 concept vehicle BMW displayed at the 2011 Frankfurt auto show, the production version uses carriage style doors, meaning the rear doors are rear-hinged. However, the production version uses a longer front door, so the rears are half-doors, similar to the Mazda RX-8 or Honda Element.

As a premium vehicle, the i3 shows off nicer interior materials than you would expect from the typical economy hatchback in the market. And BMW gives the i3’s cabin a futuristic twist. Rather than an instrument cluster embedded into the dashboard in front of the driver, BMW carves out some of the extra dashboard space and sets up an LCD for all instrumentation display, kind of like a flatscreen TV standing atop a modern entertainment center.

Likewise, stereo, phone, and navigation controls appear on another LCD panel sitting on the center of the dashboard. However, BMW keeps its standard iDrive controller mounted on a console between the front seats as an interface for the cabin tech features. In fact, current BMW owners with iDrive will find it easy to adapt to this version in the i3.

Adding to the idea that the i3 is a car of the future is its carbon fiber reinforced plastic body. BMW took great pains and a lot of investment to develop this high tech material for mass production. This body construction promises a lighter car, without sacrificing strength and safety, and is unique among the competition.

Despite the lightweight materials, though, the i3 doesn’t get any better range than its electric competition, at least on paper. It makes you wonder why BMW went to all the trouble.

The electric drivetrain itself hasn’t evolved much, at least when it comes to power and efficiency, than that which BMW released in its ActiveE vehicle. The ActiveE, based on the 1-series, is an electric vehicle that BMW offers for limited leasing, and is being used to gather performance data for electric drive technology.

The i3 gets a 22 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. Like the ActiveE, its electric motor drives the rear wheels and produces 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. That gets the i3 from zero to 62 mph in 7.2 seconds, a reasonable acceleration rate for most traffic situations, but not ground-breaking. Top speed is electronically limited to 93 mph.

Similar to the Tesla Model S, BMW activates braking regeneration when the driver merely lifts from the accelerator, slowing the car without applying the brakes. It makes for a different driving strategy than with a gasoline-powered car, one where most of the driving is done with the accelerator pedal, and very little with the brake pedal.

BMW says the i3 can be fitted with a range extender internal combustion engine, which would bring total range up to 186 miles. BMW has not specified which markets might offer the range extended version.

Battery recharge will take about 5 hours from a 240 volt source, or 30 minutes for an 80% charge from a DC fast charging station.

Selling points
With pricing at $41,000, the BMW i3 comes in slightly higher than its electric competition. Federal and state incentives can bring the total price down by almost $10,000. Although its technical specifications don’t make it look much more attractive than other options, upscale buyers may be more attracted to the brand.

Test drives will be another factor. If the i3 holds up BMW’s Ultimate Driving Machine mantra, it could win converts through a premium ride experience.


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