By Ron Amadon
LANDOVER, MD. – Let me make it clear right up front that I am generally not a fan of all-electric cars due to their limited range over gas powered flivvers.
Yet this new from the ground up BMW advances the cause nearly as much as Edison’s light bulb snuffed out candle sales.
It is compact, fun to drive and has an interior that takes design not to the next step, but one beyond that.
Where other makers have adapted electric drive to existing models, the i3 was designed to be all-electric from day one and that reduces all the constraints imposed in a pre-existing vehicle design. So the passenger compartment is created with Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic that BMW claims is “equally strong as steel” while being 50 percent lighter and 30 percent lighter than aluminum – important factors in an all-electric car weighing in at a max of 3,135 pounds.
Because all the drive components are in the rear, there is no transmission tunnel hump in the interior, hence flat floors. BMW claims that results in the same interior space of a 3-Series.
The i3 can travel 80 to 100 miles on a single charge in Comfort Mode according to its maker with an EPA estimate of 81 miles. This can be increased by selecting one of two Eco drive modes, but this really saps performance.
Recharging takes three hours with a 220 volt, 32-amp device. A “DC Combo Fast Charging” can restore 80 percent capacity in 20 minutes while recharging on normal 110 volt house current runs to 20 hours.
To deal with “range anxiety” the i3 can be had with a 34-horsepower two cylinder gas powered “Range Extender” engine that does not drive the vehicle’s wheels, but maintains the battery’s current state of charge. BMW claims this roughly doubles the vehicle’s range, but you are not going too far given the gas tank’s 2.4 gallon capacity.
The i3 is 157.4 inches long, nearly 70 inches wide, and 62.1 inches tall, riding on 101.2 inch wheelbase. That is a foot longer than the Chevy Spark, two inches shorter than the Honda Fit, and 18 inches shorter than the Nissan Leaf electric.
It boasts a 170 horsepower electric motor, a 22-kWh lithium-ion battery with lots of low end torque and a speedy, for its class, 0-60 run of about 7.2 seconds. All out the i3 will hit a top speed of 93 mph.
There is an ideal 50-50 front-rear weight distribution, and a tight turning radius of 32.3 feet that is just right for an urban environment.
That down low torque makes the i-3 feel very lively in traffic, but there is one thing that first time drivers will immediately notice. Back off the accelerator and the Brake Energy Regeneration kicks in to feed power back into the battery. From a driver’s perspective it feels like mild braking has been initiated and the brake lights will illuminate if you quickly back off the power. But get the hang of it, and you can achieve, in normal traffic flow, “Single Pedal Driving.” Of course, to avoid any unintended incidents, the brake pedal is right there for reassurance.
While the exterior styling might be an “acquired taste” for some, the interior design is positively of the next generation. The instrument panel surround and door trim uses fibers from the Kenaf Plant, a fiber plant grown for several thousand years in tropical climates for food and fiber. (Don’t feel bad, I didn’t know what Kenaf was without a search.)
The fine looking dashboard wood trim was crafted, BMW said, of “responsibly-forested eucalyptus.” All of the needed driver information appears on two tablet computer like screens helping to give the interior a slick, modern, new and very refreshing feel.
Starting the vehicle is different but simple. A stalk to the right of the steering wheel is how you do it. Push “Start” and then rotate a large knob until D lights up and you are on your way. The i3 proved to be rather quiet underway, and I would recommend leaving the drive mode in “Comfort” over the two Eco modes.
There was abundant room up front for two adults. Access to the back is through rear hinged doors much like the Honda Element. Two adults will fit in in, but there is not an abundance of space.
The rear seats fold for added cargo space, up to 38.8 cubic feet.
Those who own an Apple Watch can obtain an app that will deliver information on the I3’s battery status, and even remind drivers where they parked.
The base price is $41,350 before any tax incentives, destination and handling charges. Range extender models will start at $45,200.
Three trim levels are offered – Mega, Giga and Tera. Step up to the top of the line Tera and get unique 19-inch wheels, a full leather, olive leaf tanned interior with textile accents, contrasting stitching and anthracite floor mats.
Among other things, the mid-range Giga model comes with a sunroof, satellite radio, garage door opener, and a leather and wool cloth interior, plus the i Charging Station for your garage.
So what is it like to drive? Lots of fun, really, thanks to its quick acceleration, nimble feel, responsive steering, and compact design. And do not fear – you will become accustomed to the regenerative braking effect.
The i3 is perfect for its target audience – those living in an urban environment, or suburban dwellers who want to bypass gas stations in a forward thinking, fun to drive errand runner that also carries the BMW propeller emblem. Yet in this car, perhaps a stylized artistic rendition of an electron would have been more appropriate.