New & Used BMW i3: In Depth
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The BMW i3 is the brand's most unusual, yet most environmentally forward-thinking vehicle ever. It's BMW's first electric car, has a body formed from carbon fiber, and can be outfitted with an optional range-extending two-cylinder engine that kicks in when its batteries' charge is depleted.
The i3, launched in 2014, is so different from BMW's carefully honed traditional lineup of sporty sedans and crossovers that it gets its own sub-brand. The i3 forms the first entry in what will become a range of "BMW i" vehicles, joined initially by the i8 hybrid sports car.
MORE: Read our 2016 BMW i3 review
The i3 can trace its roots to BMW's MegaCity concept car. The architecture that concept spawned is called LifeDrive—it's a passenger (Life) module set atop a powertrain (Drive) module, for a modern twist on the old body-on-frame idea. In a first for a mass-produced vehicle, the passenger cell is produced from carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic, while the rolling chassis is made of aluminum.
The i3 is designed and styled for urban environments. The tall hatchback has plenty of glass all around, including on the hatch, to provide great visibility and make parking easy in tightly packed cities. The doors are hinged at the rear to keep it short and provide a coupe-like look. Like the iconic Toyota Prius and the more recent Nissan Leaf, the BMW i3 is instantly identifiable—with looks that provoke strong reactions, one way or another.
The i3 is primarily an electric car, with a 170-hp rear-mounted electric motor system providing somewhere between 80 and 100 miles of driving range. Separately there’s the option for a range-extender—a 0.7-liter gasoline two-cylinder engine making 34 hp.
In the BMW i3, the range extender only functions to provide electricity, not supplemental tractive power, like in the Chevrolet Volt. With its tiny 2.4-gallon fuel tank and an estimated 33-42 mpg, it nearly doubles the effective range—as well as curb any range anxiety. The i3 will charge fully in about three hours at 220 volts, or get to a full charge in 30 minutes using an (upcoming) SAE standardized DC fast-charger.
The 22-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery that powers the i3's rear-mounted electric motor is sandwiched into the car's floor. The body is made of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP), so strong that there are no pillars required between the front and rear doors on each side.
Although modest, the system's output is enough to move the i3 in a sporting way; BMW claims a 0-60 mph time of 7.2 seconds, and the little city car can top out at 93 mph. The rear-drive layout and near-50/50 front/rear weight distribution help it to outdo the dynamics of other small electric cars, although the handling is somewhat affected by the tall body and boosted electric steering. The weight-saving measures also pay dividends here, as well as with energy consumption. The i3's tall and narrow tires measure 155/70R19 and are of the low-rolling-resistance variety to improve mileage.
The i3 has a very upright cabin layout that helps make the most of available space. Cabin upholstery includes recycled materials—even the wood has been sustainably sourced—and with the tall roof, there's more than enough space for adults in back.
Three different trim levels of the i3 are offered, although BMW has chosen to call them Worlds instead. They include the Mega World, Giga World, and Tera World. Navigation, ConnectedDrive, LED headlights and running lamps, an alarm system, and a 7.4-kW charger are included on all levels. The Giga World adds leather and wool upholstery, contrast stitching, and satellite radio, while the Tera gets special trims, a full-leather interior, and its own unique wheels. Beyond the trim level and a few color choices, there are not many options or packages offered on the i3.
Pricing in the U.S. started at $42,275 when the i3 went on sale in May 2014. Thus far, early sales have been split about 60:40 between the range-extended and battery-electric versions. After a short initial model year, the 2015 model arrived with few changes—heated seats, satellite radio, and the DC fast-charge port were made standard, and base prices rose about $1,000 as a result of the added equipment.
Few changes were made for the 2016 model year.
At the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show, BMW unveiled a concept i3 that can park itself without a driver in the vehicle, stowing and retrieving itself in parking garages. The company also showed an i3 equipped with an advanced laser sensor array for safety, as well as a smartwatch app that can control some vehicle functions. With the exception of the latter, which is now available, no timetable has been set for roll out of these features to the i3 or any other BMWs. The i3 app is also going to be the first remote-vehicle-control app offered on the Apple Watch, which is likely to be purchased by the kinds of early adopters who are after this new electrified BMW.