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The new and revolutionary 2014 BMW i3 electric car is going to require some of the German maker's most loyal customers to rethink their notions of what a BMW actually is. The all-electric five-door hatchback is as different from the classic 3-Series sport sedan as you could imagine; without the blue-and-white roundel badge and twin-kidney grilles up front, it's likely no one would ever peg it as a BMW.
Instead, the i3 is exactly what the design team set out to create: a remarkably good and conscientious city car, the ideal personal transport for people living in the crowded urban centers of Asia and Europe. Built for the mega-cities China is building by the dozens and the crowded city cores and neighborhoods of Amsterdam, Tokyo, or Jakarta, the i3 may be the most soothing and calming vehicle ever created.
BMW stresses that the i3--along with 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. And that's even before they have to explain the pros and cons of its optional, two-cylinder range-extending engine, which will increase the car's range from perhaps 75 miles to only 150 or so. That's courtesy of a tiny gas tank holding less than 3 gallons, to comply with some complex California regulations on zero-emission vehicles.
Which is to say, the 2014 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. It works 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. They've created an interior that evokes spacious, open loft living; and a car that shows you not only roads but walking routes, bus and train schedules, and multiple transport modes.
That poses a major challenge for North American buyers, however. The electric i3's unexpected genius--providing a calm, soothing, capable vehicle in which to travel through crowded, dense urban areas, one that makes stop-and-go traffic tolerable--is far from what U.S. buyers associate with BMW. The new i3 plug-in electric car is an "ultimate driving machine" only if you "driving" includes navigating rush-hour traffic, zipping down narrow alleys and around the tightest of corners, and parking in minimal curb-side spaces or high-rise garage structures.
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.
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.
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.
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
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