The 2014 BMW i3 had a twin-kidney "grille" up front, but little about the rest of it says BMW at first glance. That's because it launches a new design language that will be shared among many products in BMW's new "i" range of plug-in electric vehicles.
That blanked-out mock grille in front is ringed with blue, one element of the new design language. Others include the hood, roof, and tailgate in shiny black, regardless of what color the rest of the vehicle carries. There's also a deep dip in the beltline to make the windows in the rear doors taller, followed by a jog up to a higher base for the third window in the rear pillar--which is echoed by a dip down from the roofline that makes that last window quite shallow.
The BMW i3 is most successful from the front, front three-quarter, and side views. The snub nose and distinctive profile of the tall shape, and the i3's wide stance, with wheels at the very corners of the car, give it a solid stance and a presence that belies its relatively small footprint. The large and handsome 19-inch wheels help as well (the same trick used on the Scion iQ), although the narrow tires can be disconcerting when the car is shown with its front wheels cocked--that's when they look far too small for their openings. Big chunky door handles reinforce the sturdy image.
It all dissolves into a confusing blend of straight lines and curves at the rear, though. The body sides extend slightly past the tailgate below the window line, giving the i3 either vestigial tail fins or perhaps jowls. The rear fascia and bumper shield sweep back and up to the base of the high load deck (which has the traction motor and drive unit below it). The U-shaped tail lights, hidden under the black glass of the rear hatch, are outlined with a mix of curved and straight shapes and outlines. Overall, the rear of the i3 just has too many design elements that clash with each other, and it's the least successful aspect of a distinctive design.
Inside, the i3 is unlike any BMW you've seen before--and far more akin to a loft living room with carefully selected Scandinavian modern furniture. The 10.2-inch central display screen, controlled via the iDrive knob on the console, sits on a stalk above a useful wide and shallow bin in the top surface of the dashboard. A smaller screen behind the steering wheel also sits proud of the dash surface, rather than enclosed in a binnacle like virtually every other car's.
BMW proudly touts interior panels made of kenaf, a renewable fiber, though to our eyes their mottled finish looks like they were supposed to be covered in something else. It's fine for the far part of the dash top, but the portions of the door panels finished that way rather look like they've had their covering stripped off. That's the only sour note in an otherwise simple but elegant interior. The textiles are tight weaves, in light or dark colors, and while you can get the mostly-black treatment, you can also have a lighter, more living-room-like palette of greys, creams, and earth tones with contrasting stitching. It's surprisingly elegant, and unlike anything else BMW sells.
The optional wood covering for the glovebox door is open-grain eucalyptus, with no sheen at all. Its texture adds to the natural feel of the fabrics and seat coverings, which include leather dyed in olive extracts, as well as wool. There are (inevitably) molded black plastic elements to the interior, but they're in the background, with the lighter and more novel materials catching the eye.