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Set aside everything you think you know about what a BMW is. The new 2014 BMW i3 electric car is just what its makers have been saying it is: a very good city car, the perfect zero-emission personal transport for residents of crowded urban centers in Europe and Asia. Think Amsterdam, or Tokyo, or the dozens of mega-cities to be built in China and elsewhere over the next few decades.
Which is to say, the BMW i3 really isn't aimed at North America. It will likely sell adequately in traditionally modeled large cities like New York and Boston and San Francisco, perhaps even in more sprawling conurbations like Atlanta and Dallas and Los Angeles.
Here's the challenge. The unexpected genius of the i3--making stop-and-go traffic tolerable, providing a calm, soothing, capable vehicle in which to travel through crowded, dense urban areas--is hardly what U.S. buyers associate with BMW. The new i3 plug-in electric car is an "ultimate driving machine" only if you expand "driving" to incorporate navigating rush-hour traffic, zipping around tight corners and down narrow alleys, and wedging the car into minimal parking spaces at the curb or in high-rise garage structures.
The 2014 BMW i3 is fine on highways and open roads, though its roadholding won't please any owner of a BMW M sedan who drives it hard. But the i3 is likely the first BMW ever whose design team stressed their mission of providing a calming environment for travel; an interior that evokes spacious, open loft living; and the car's ability to show you walking routes, bus and train schedules, and multiple transport modes.
Many U.S. buyers of BMW's current model range likely haven't been on a bus since high school, but the company stresses that the BMW i3--and future "i" plug-in models, including the i8 plug-in hybrid sport coupe--are an entirely new approach for a new century of congestion, carbon limits, and electronics dominating driving experience. The older guard may not like it, and BMW's U.S. marketers may find their heads exploding at the challenge.
But make no mistake: The BMW i3 is a good car. It's just good at very different things than any past BMW. And whether those things prove to be of interest to a broad enough U.S. audience to make it a volume car is the big question.
The styling of the BMW i3 launches a new design language for its "i" plug-in cars. They'll all have a mock twin-kidney grille (actually blanking plates) outlined in blue, along with glossy black hoods, roofs, and tailgates or trunklids. The i3 battery-electric minicar has a broad stance, with its large 19-inch wheels pushed out to the corners, and an upright posture that makes it look bigger than it is. The front and side are distinctive, but the rear is a cluttered intersection of shapes, straight lines, curves, and multiple materials--by far the car's least attractive perspective. Inside, a calm, modern, almost minimalist cabin feels expansive in the front, but remains cramped in the rear. BMW says the i3 has as much interior volume as its 3-Series sedan, but it's organized differently--and we suspect most i3 cars will be occupied by only one or two people most of the time.
On the road, the i3's 125-kilowatt (170-horsepower) electric motor accelerates swiftly and smoothly from a stop, powered by a 22-kilowatt-hour liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery pack in the floorpan. The truly distinctive feature, however, is the strong regenerative braking (up to 50 kW) that permits the i3 to be driven largely by modulating the accelerator only--without touching the brake pedal except when full stopping power is needed. The strong regen both minimizes energy use and distinguishes the electric BMW from other electric cars tuned to mimic the behavior of conventional cars with automatic transmissions, complete with idle creep. It's easy to get used to, and once learned, many drivers will never go back.
The i3 is comfortable to ride in, with excellent front seats and bright, crisp graphic displays. Aside from some wind noise at speed, the cabin is quiet and motor whine is well suppressed outside of full acceleration. The car is nippy and its small turning circle and compact dimensions make it easy to use in crowded cities. But the tall, very narrow tires have stiff sidewalls and produce a firm ride, without the grippy handling that is expected from any traditional BMW. It's perfect for zipping around town--quiet, comfortable, peppy--but it's certainly not the car you'll take to a slalom course.
BMW has invested heavily in advanced electronic systems both for safety and for multimodal transportation--what other car will give you bus and train schedules to help you reach the destination you dial into the navigation system? It hasn't yet been tested by the NHTSA or IIHS, but we expect those results sooner rather than later, to understand how its unique carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) body shell--mounted on an aluminum platform that contains the running gear and front and rear crash structures--will behave in the usual suite of crash tests.
We expect the BMW i3 to be one of the more efficient electric cars on the road, but the EPA has not yet released either range or efficiency ratings. BMW says the range is 80 to 100 miles; we're betting it will be rated at 75 to 85 miles. Recharging to 80 percent of battery capacity takes less than 4 hours using BMW's own home charging station, with a charging rate up to 7.4 kilowatts--higher than any other plug-in car except the Tesla Model S. BMW i3 cars will offer a Combined Charging System (CCS) quick-charging port as well, although today there are only a handful of public charging stations using that standard.
Our driving tests were in German-market battery-electric i3 models only; no cars fitted with the optional range-extending two-cylinder engine were available at the global media launch. We'll add comments on that car as soon as we can get behind the wheel.
BMW i3 production for the U.S. market will start in March 2014, and the first 2014 i3 cars will reach selected dealerships in May. The base price is $42,275 (including the mandatory $925 delivery fee), and the optional range-extending two-cylinder engine adds an additional $3,850 to that price. Beyond that, BMW has not yet released details of other features, options, and trim levels for U.S. models specifically.
- Smooth, powerful acceleration
- Nippy low-speed handling
- Spare, elegant, stylish interior
- Superb one-pedal driving
- Clever, optional range extender
- Lines are an acquired taste
- Body roll, wheel hop 'not very BMW'
- Awkward rear-seat access
- Battery range less than 100 miles