- Powerful, smooth acceleration
- Agile low-speed handling
- Elegant, spare interior
- Design is polarizing
- Wheel hop, body roll "not very BMW"
- Rear-seat riders can't open doors
The 2016 BMW i3 is a futuristic and different kind of car, not just a new take on what a BMW represents.
The 2016 BMW i3 is clearly the car most unlike any other on the BMW showroom floor, and we think that's the point. Unlike the brand's reputation for performance, it's the most energy-efficient car sold in the U.S. this year—for the third year in a row. It represents nothing less than something of a revolution for the whole auto industry. The five-door small hatchback has advanced technology in spades, a body structure made of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic, and a fully electric powertrain that can be ordered with an optional two-cylinder range extender (REx) derived from a motorcycle engine.
This funky city car is meant to provide quiet, all-electric transport for those living in congested urban centers. The resulting BMW i3 is absolutely the most calming, soothing vehicle we've driven in truly chaotic rush-hour traffic. It works fine on highways and open roads, of course, though its roadholding is different in character and limits than any other BMW.
But the i3 isn't supposed to appeal to BMW M buyers. The electric i3's genius—providing a calm, soothing, capable experience through crowded urban areas—is intended for packed city cores and the crowded neighborhoods of Amsterdam, Jakarta, or Tokyo. In the U.S., it'll sell in and around traditional big cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco, as well as more affluent areas surrounding cities like Atlanta, Dallas, and Los Angeles. But while the i3 remains a far cry from what U.S. buyers associate with BMW, it's sold in higher numbers than most analysts expected—1,000 units in some months, catapulting BMW to the front ranks of electric-car makers as a percentage of their total output.
If you didn't see the i3's blue-and-white roundel badge and twin-kidney (simulated) grilles, you'd never associate it with the rest of the BMW lineup. The i3 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. But the i3 launches a new design language for the brand's "i" plug-in cars.
They'll all have that mock twin-kidney grille outlined in blue, along with glossy black roofs, hoods, and trunklids or tailgates. The front and side of the i3 are distinctive, but the rear is a jumbled intersection of straight lines, curves, and materials—by far its least attractive angle. Inside, a modern, calm, almost minimalist cabin feels expansive in the front, but remains cramped in the rear. The interior evokes spacious, open loft living (and the car shows you not only roads but walking routes, bus or train schedules, and multiple transport modes). BMW says the i3 has as much interior volume as its 3-Series sedan, but it's organized differently—and we suspect most i3s will be occupied by only one or two people most of the time.
The 22-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery under the floorpan gives a range of 81 miles in the battery-only version. An optional 650cc two-cylinder range-extending (REx) engine produces 34 horsepower (25 kilowatts) and 40 pound-feet of torque. It doesn't power the wheels, but simply runs a generator to recharge the battery, boosting the car's range from the 72 miles its battery provides to perhaps 150 miles between fill-ups. That's thanks to a tiny gas tank holding less than 2 gallons, purposely made to comply with complex California regulations on zero-emission vehicles.
A 125-kilowatt (170-horsepower) electric motor allows the i3 to accelerate swiftly and smoothly from a stop. 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—touching the brake pedal is really only necessary when full stopping power is needed. The strong regen distinguishes the electric BMW from electric cars tuned to mimic the behavior of conventional cars with automatic transmissions, complete with idle creep. It's easy to get used to; once learned, many drivers will never want to go back.
The i3 is rated as the single most energy-efficient electric car sold in the U.S. The battery version earns a rating of 124 MPGe, the highest of any electric car tested. (The Mile Per Gallon Equivalent unit, or MPGe, measures the distance that a car can cover electrically on the same amount of energy that's contained in one gallon of gasoline.)
Recharging to 80 percent of battery capacity takes less than 4 hours using BMW's own home charging station, with a rating up to 7.4 kilowatts—higher than any other plug-in car except the Tesla Model S. BMW i3 cars offer a Combined Charging System quick-charging port as well, although today there are only a handful of public charging stations using that standard.
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. Still, the i3 is comfortable to ride in, with excellent front seats and bright, crisp graphic displays.
The i3 hasn't been tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but its unique carbon-fiber reinforced plastic body shell—mounted on an aluminum platform that contains the running gear and front and rear crash structures—should receive good crash scores. (The low volume of the i3 may mean that neither organization will ever crash test the car.) It also includes most of the latest electronic active-safety features found in luxury brands.
Instead of trim levels, BMW has chosen to sell the i3 and i8 in futuristic-sounding "Worlds." The base is the Mega World, followed by the Giga World for $1,500 extra, and the Tera World for another $1,000. Each world has its own stylistic differentiation, as well as wheel designs, upholstery choices, and interior colors. Standard equipment includes DC fast-charging, heated front seats, and satellite radio. Beyond the worlds, BMW offers some option packages—one for parking assist and another for driver-assistant features and technology—as well as some standalone options, including 20-inch wheels and premium sound. A BMW-branded charging station is available as an accessory.
The price starts around $43,000 for the Mega World version of the battery-only BMW i3. The REx range-extending engine adds almost $4,000 to the price, and it's easy to take a top-level BMW i3 past the $50,000 mark.