BMW Gets Into the Electric Car Game For Real with the 2014 BMW i3
The 2014 BMW i3 is the Rorschach test of electric cars. What you see says more about you than the car you’re looking at – or even driving. Here are some examples of reactions we’ve seen:
- Is it the latest must-have piece of technology, designed not to be mistaken for any other mere mortal internal combustion engine car? Then you’re a classic early adopter or EV-evangelist ready to scoop up something that might have the cache of a Tesla for one-third the price. And, of course, you know all about the carbon fiber cabin coming out of a carbon-neutral production plant downstream from the Grand Coulee Dam. Like the first generation Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, you will not be mistaken for anyone other than a person driving a new BMW i3 when you tool down the road in this.
- Is it just the latest piece of Munich-based hardware? Then the roundel on the leading edge of the front is all you need to know. If BMW is willing to put its badge on this car, then the assumption is that it must the “ultimate electric
- Do you love EVs as much as you love your children, but can’t get beyond the “unique” styling? Well, this could not be further from a MINI-E or Active-E. From 40 feet away either of those two earlier BMW electric car programs could have been mistaken for a gasoline-drinking Mini Cooper or BMW 1-Series sedan. Even with the quick-start the i3’s sales have had, this car will not be blending in anytime soon. To be honest, even if it did become ubiquitous, it would probably still stand out in the same way a Model S does in its home territory of Silicon Valley.
So there you have it. Take a look and let us know where you stand. In the meantime, we’ll let you know what we thought of the i3 in our week-long test.
First, we should disclose that our BMW i3 experience was not limited to the week’s test drive. We had the opportunity to spend the better part of a week in three different pre-production i3s last year and more recently also took an i3 on a short freeway run to get a better sense of that part of its character. Everything we experienced in our earlier drives was confirmed and reinforced in the most recent i3 drives.
The “Ultimate” In Electric On-Road Performance
The 2014 BMW i3 is a true BMW, delivering an on-road experience that belies the car’s tall, skinny, low rolling resistance (155/70-19) tires. Handling is on par with the BMW 1-Series sedan, which is a similar length. With 450 pounds of lithium-ion batteries built into the floor of the high-riding car that weighs in at 2,635 pounds (2,899 for the Range Extender version we had) total, road-hugging has some assistance from gravity and smart planning. (More on the weight tricks of the i3 later.) Macpherson struts up front and a five-link rear suspension deliver the rest. The short i3 also offers a very tight turning radius in line with its projected urban residency.
The other part of the BMW driving experience is power, in this case 170 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque coming from a synchronous electric motor. In the Range Extender version we had there is also a two-cylinder 650cc gasoline engine that serves as a battery charger when needed (we didn’t need it in our time in the car). Power is delivered full-strength from zero rpm up to the redline of 11,400. The 22 kWh battery stores the electricity, enough for 80-100 miles of range in the real world (with the gas engine added another 50 miles of backup).
The i3 is zippy and very responsive. as you would expect from a BMW. Matching its aggressive acceleration is regenerative braking strong enough to stop the car without touching the brake pedal from low speeds. But stopping is not what the i3 likes to do. It will tackle hills and corners with as much gusto as you want to apply, cleverly showing the sporty BMW lurking underneath a tall, functional exterior.
An Exotic Interior
Like the exterior, the interior may be another of those Rorschach moments. We would predict you’ll either be entranced by the exotic materials or put-off by the uniqueness of it all. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. Every time you approach this vehicle you will be challenged to either welcome it as (as BMW says) “the future” or reject it for the same reason.
Enter the interior and you’ll see bits of exposed carbon fiber, just to let you know how BMW was able to shrink the heft of the vehicle (since CFRP, or carbon fiber reinforced plastic, is about half the weight of steel while maintaining as good or better strength as steel). Some additional weight loss came from the use of an aluminum chassis and other lightweight components you can’t see. The size of the interior is impressive. BMW claims it has the interior space of a 3-Series while the exterior footprint is closer to a 1-Series. After noticing the spaciousness and exotic materials, you’ll be struck by the quietness. Electric cars tend to be quiet, but the i3 takes things up a notch to a Lexus-like level of interior stillness. For a small car, it’s doubly impressive and a marker of the luxury brand that the BMW represents.
The instrument panel surround and door trim use fibers from the Kenaf plant, the dashboard wood trim is crafted from eucalyptus and olive-leaf extract is used to tan interior leather surfaces. Those are details behind the striking insides of the i3, all designed to reinforce its environmental aesthetic and in some cases aid the cars prime directive—reduce weight.
Inside the i3, you’ll note there is no key slot; a start-stop button is all that’s needed, augmented by a gear-selector similar to that found in other BMW vehicles, but a far cry from a traditional “gearstick.” A touchscreen “floats” in the center of the dash above the eucalyptus wood and offers a variety of information on all of the electronics in the car. Redundant controls for key elements can be found in the dash below the screen. Around the steering wheel are a variety of levers, several of undetermined function. The i3 presents itself like many European models as a car that will demand some research to be fully appreciated and used to its full capacity.
For technology, the base (Mega World) model features BMW Assist eCall, Remote Services and BMW TeleService, BMW Navigation system and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. The next level up (Giga World) adds a universal garage opener and
Comfort Access. The top-of-the-line Tera World upgrades the leather upholstery. Each level has unique wheels.
Like most BMWs, the i3 focuses most on the driver. That seat is placed high for great road visibility and has plenty of comfort features. Likewise, the front passenger seat offers a place of honor. The front end of the cabin is spacious since there is no transmission hump. When you move to the rear bench, things change. First, there’s the matter of entry through the half doors found on each side. Ingress and egress is easier than a typical two-door, but far from the ease of a four-dorr sedan. The bench seating angle is a little more abrupt than usually found and the comfort level down a notch. It’s not a place you would want to have a friend spend much time.
Pricing & Warranties
2014 BMW i3 $41,350
2014 BMW i3 with Range Extender $45,200
A federal tax credit of $7,500 is also available and some discounted financing and lease arrangements are being offered.
The i3 comes with BMW Ultimate Service that provides four years of no-cost service, along with a 4-year/50,000-mile new vehicle limited warranty, 4-year/Unlimited mileage roadside assistance and an 8-year/100,000-mile high-voltage
If electric cars are not for everyone, then the 2014 BMW i3 is the poster child for EVs. Its styling, price and features place it at the upper end of the class. And you get a lot for that upper end positioning. But the i3 is not a blend-into-the-crowd kind of car. It’s is a true BMW, at least in everything but styling, and even with that BMW has gone to great extremes to create a distinctive look that will make sure everyone who sees the car will recognize it as an electric.
As mentioned above, the BMW i3 is a car that presents itself in some ways as a science project. there is much to learn about it. A week is not nearly enough to fully appreciate all of its technology and potential. But it was enough to understand it is a fully functional electric car and a great representative of the BMW brand. Based on that, it’s not surprising to see why the buying public is snapping up these cars as soon as they arrive on dealer lots. A lot of people are clearly seeing themselves in the i3.