- Smooth acceleration
- Agile urban handling
- Simple, elegant interior
- One-pedal driving
- Range extender option
- Polarizing style
- Lacks BMW's traditional dynamism
- Rear seat is compromised
- Range pales compared to newest rivals
The BMW i3 is a technological and stylistic tour de force—yet like any technology, it's nearing its sell-by date.
Without a doubt, the BMW i3 is the most unusual car to bear the brand's signature blue and white roundel. Yet it's also the most environmentally forward-thinking car to ever emerge from Munich, even if it is rather pricey despite the compromises it forces.
We appreciate the i3's unique personality, but there's no denying that electric cars behave like computers; they become outdated very quickly, which is just what has happened to the i3. It's a 6.6 out of 10 on our scale. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
The i3 is offered in several "worlds," as BMW calls the model's trim levels—Mega, Giga, and Tera.
In terms of range, it has been beaten at its own game by the Chevrolet Bolt EV, which is more practical and cheaper—if not as well finished inside. For 2017, BMW has addressed the i3's range. A more power dense battery is available as an option to increase range from 81 to 114 miles. Also, BMW has increased how much fuel can be stored in the optional gasoline range-extender's fuel tank for the new model year, bringing it in line with the i3 sold in Europe.
BMW i3 styling and performance
The i3 isn't supposed to appeal to BMW's performance-minded buyers, who will be immediately turned off by its narrow tires and tall proportions. 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 Europe and Asia, although it's not totally out of place in urban and suburban America.
If you didn't see the i3's blue-and-white roundel badge and twin-kidney grille (which is, of course simulated), you'd likely never associate it with the rest of the BMW range. The i3 has a broad stance, with its tall but narrow, 19-inch wheels shoved out to the corners, and an upright posture that makes it look bigger than it is. The i3 launched a new design language for the brand's "i" plug-in car. It's not pretty, but it is distinctive.
We like its almost Scandinavian interior a lot more. BMW claims that there's more interior space here than in a 3-Series sedan, but it's organized in a different manner. It feels like an open, urban loft, and it's full of trendy, generally sustainable materials.
The 22-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery tucked under the floorpan that gives a range of 81 miles has been supplemented by a 33 kWh model with a 114-mile range for 2017. An optional 650cc 2-cylinder range-extending (REx) engine produces 38 horsepower and 40 pound-feet of torque. It doesn't actually power the wheels, but instead runs a generator to recharge the battery, boosting the car's range to as much as 150 miles between fill-ups. For 2017, the tank can hold 2.4 gallons of fuel, up from the 1.9 it was electronically limited at last year to comply with complex California regulations on zero-emission vehicles.
The i3's 125-kilowatt (which works out to 170 horsepower) electric motor allows it to accelerate smoothly and rapidly, but its most distinctive feature is its regenerative braking that lets its be driven essentially with one pedal. Touching the brake is only required when full stopping power is needed, which helps distinguish it from other electric cars that are tuned to mimic conventional automatic transmission cars. It's easy enough to get used to and quickly becomes addicting.
The i3 is rated as the single most energy-efficient electric car sold in the U.S. The lower capacity battery version earns a rating of 124 MPGe, while the new model requires a little more time to charge and comes in at 118 MPGe. (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.)
BMW's own home charging station is rated at a hefty 7.4 kw, which helps provide charging times of around 3.5 hours for the lower capacity battery and 4.5 for the higher capacity. BMW i3 models offer a Combined Charging System quick-charging port as well, although today there are only a handful of public charging stations using that standard.
The i3's motor is almost silent, only revealing itself under hard acceleration.
BMW i3 comfort, safety, and features
Front seat passengers are treated to thin but comfortable seats covered in a wide range of materials, plus they're afforded a terrific view ahead. The rear seat is best for occasional use in part because it's awkward to get into or out of thanks to the rear-hinged carriage-style doors.
Federal testers haven't rated the i3 yet, but the IIHS gave it mostly good scores. The i3 boasts some advanced safety tech like a carbon fiber reinforced body shell that's mounted to an aluminum platform.
BMW doesn't outfit the i3 with conventional trim levels. Instead, it calls them "worlds." The Giga World stickers for $1,500 over the base Mega World and the Tera World tops the range for an additional $1,000. Each has its own unique styling touches and a few more features, but all models are outfitted well from the start with heated front seats, SirisuXM satellite radio, and DC fast charging. A few option packages are also available and there's a BMW-branded charging station that's available as an accessory.
2017 BMW i3
It's not exactly pretty, but the i3 remains distinctive, daring, and like nothing else on the road.
Now four years into its life, the BMW i3 remains a unique and distinctive design. It's the kind of car that still has people stopping in their tracks to stare at it and ask questions about it—but it is not a particularly attractive car.
We've awarded an extra point for the i3's innovative and soothing interior, which feels a little incongruous against an exterior that could have been penned by a tech startup and not a car manufacturer. We rate it at a 6 out of 10. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
The blue hue that rings the blacked-out mock grille up front—BMW calls it Frozen Blue—is set to become a signature of the brand's i division.
We think the i3 is most successful when viewed from the front or the side. Its stubby nose and tail and its tall profile may look a little dorky, but it has a solid presence that belies the compact size of its footprint. Chunky door handles further reinforce the sturdy image but stand in contrast to the tall and laughably narrow tires and wheels aimed at reducing fuel consumption. Sit behind an i3 in traffic and you're immediately drawn to what look like mountain bike tires.
The i3's side profile is boxy but intriguing. Walk around to the rear, however, and it all goes somewhat wrong with a confusing blend of straight lines and curves never feeling very consistent.
At the rear, too many intersecting lines deliver a busy, complicated look with a mixture of curved and angular shapes and what could be vestigial tail fins when viewed from certain angles. It's the least successful aspect of this little car.
There's a distinctively Scandinavian look and feel to the i3's interior, even though it's a thoroughly German product. The dashboard itself looks more like a shelf with a tablet propped up on it, an intentional cue that works to provide more simplicity. Infotainment is handled by a 10.2-inch central display controlled by a knob located on the center console.
Tightly woven textiles in light and dark hues brighten the i3's cabin and give it a sense of whimsy and elegance not seen in the rest of the automaker's more business-like lineup.
Mega World models have recycled leather-like upholstery and an instrument panel finished in what BMW labels "grain foil." Giga World models include wool and olive leaf-tanned leather trim in gentle earthy tones plus a leather-wrapped instrument panel and open-pore eucalyptus wood trim that's truly upmarket.
The top Tera World includes similar styling but covers most of the interior in a very dark brown hue. 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.
2017 BMW i3
We're not sold in the i3's range-extender, but its "one pedal" driving characteristics are impressive.
Though it's now one of the older electric car designs on the market, the BMW i3 remains unique in that it can be ordered with an extra cost range-extending engine that serves as a generator and can be refueled to give the little hatchback drive all day capability.
But don't think of the i3 as a cross-country cruiser; there's a lot of tech on board, but not all of it works as harmoniously as we'd like to see. We're giving it 6 out of 10 points—the extra above average is for its "one pedal" driving experience. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
For 2017, the big change is that a 33-kWh lithium-ion battery pack joins the carryover 22-kWh unit. At $1,200 more, it provides 50 percent more capacity and an extra 33 miles of range, BMW says. Though it takes an extra hour to charge, the battery seems like a worthwhile add-on to us.
Up for debate, in our eyes, is the range extender (REx) and generator package that supplements the 125-kilowatt (170-horsepower) and 184 pound-feet of torque electric motor that drives the rear wheels.
BMW stands alone in selling a combustion engine as an option to extend its electric car's range. The engine itself is a motorcycle-derived 650cc 2-cylinder that delivers 34 horsepower and 40 pound-feet of torque. It doesn't directly power the wheels but instead runs a generator that recharges the battery, boosting the car's range from the 114 miles of the larger battery-only version to perhaps 150 miles or so between refills. But the electric range of the REx version falls because of the extra weight of the engine and its fuel tank.
Speaking of that fuel tank, it has now been configured to hold 2.4 gallons—an improvement over the 1.9 last year, mandated due to an arcane California rule on zero-emission vehicles. That's a tiny tank by any standards, however, and it means frequent fill-ups on long trips; don't think of the i3 as the car that's going to drive you across a desert on a hot day unless you're carrying several gas cans.
The main drawback here isn't the i3's range, its that, under sustained loads, the range extender just doesn't generate enough current to deliver full power. It happens on long and steep grades or at full highway speeds with many accessories running, but it's startling and potentially hazardous. At the very least, buyers looking to use an i3 on a variety of tasks should be aware of this drawback.
Driving the BMW i3
To start the i3, the proximity fob must be in the car, and the driver's foot must be on the brake pedal. The start button is on the inside of a rotary controller behind the steering wheel on the right that lets the driver choose forward or reverse, and also holds a "Park" button. The electric parking brake is far enough back on the tunnel, at the base of the storage bin and armrest, that we had to have it pointed out to us.
Buttons on the console let the driver select "Eco Pro" or "Eco Pro+" mode, to stretch battery range a bit further (BMW says about 12 and 25 percent, respectively). A kickdown function in the accelerator lets drivers override either Eco Pro mode when sudden performance is needed on short notice. Unlike Eco modes in most other cars, the BMW i3's efficiency modes leave the car responsive and capable of keeping up with traffic. The Eco Pro+ setting more aggressively restricts the energy devoted to heating or cooling the cabin; it's the "wear a down jacket" setting that will keep the car going as far as it can in cold weather.
Like other electric vehicles, the i3 delivers smooth and continuous torque from the start. The battery model zips to 60 mph in 7 seconds flat, while the range extender variant adds 0.8 seconds to that. Around town, it's much zippier and we've seen upwards of 83 mph on the highway, although that's when the battery erodes much, much faster.
The i3 handles nimbly, with crisp responses and a 32.3 foot turning circle that makes it ideal for urban motoring. It's also excellent on the highway, excluding its limited range, but it can be a bit sensitive to heavy crosswinds and it rides rather stiffly because of its unusual tires.
During a handling test, it was easy to get the narrow front tires to squeal on fast, sharp turns. We also noticed that the rear of the car jittered and skipped in fast cornering on broken surfaces. And because the car's heavy battery pack is mounted low, in the floor, but occupants sit straight up on top of it, the sensation of body roll is amplified. The BMW i3 rides well enough, but it's not a car you're going to want to take to track days or slalom courses, which stands in contrast to the brand's "Ultimate Driving Machine" slogan.
Regenerative braking in the BMW i3 differs considerably from that found in most other electrified vehicles. It begins immediately when the driver lets up on the accelerator, rather than the car freewheeling, which allows for only occasional stabs of the brake halt the i3. BMW's approach distinguishes the i3 from other electric cars that mimic the behavior of a gasoline car with an automatic gearbox. There's no idle creep, which means that the i3 requires acclimation in traffic.
There's a coasting mode between acceleration and regeneration, but it's now seamless thanks to some software updates. The regeneration feature itself can definitely catch a novice off guard, but it soon becomes second nature as it helps add a little more juice to the battery. WE barely ever used the friction brakes in our last i3 tester.
2017 BMW i3
Comfort & Quality
Though the i3's front seats are comfy, access to the back is compromised by its rear-hinged doors and its trunk is small.
With its minimal footprint, the i3 is best thought of as a two-passenger car. But since BMW includes a difficult-to-access rear seat and a fairly compact cargo area, we've had to deduct a few points.
Front seat passengers are treated to comfortable thrones wrapped beautiful upholsteries, but the rear is hard to get into and not particularly pleasant once you're back there. For that, the i3 is rated a 4 out of 10 for its comfort and quality. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
The i3's front seats feature thin backs to keep weight down, but they are well bolstered and comfortable for longer stints. The seating position is upright and higher than some other small cars, giving the driver a good view ahead at the level of other traffic. There's even an unusually wide range of adjustment to the tilt and telescope steering wheel.
Rear seating, however, is a tight fit for adults; there are seat belts back there, but we'd use the second row for pets and groceries and not our friends. Getting in and out is awkward, because the rear-hinged "carriage doors" are not full-size, and the rear seat actually sits further back in the cabin than their openings reach. As a result, passengers "flop" into the second row.
Rear passengers are stuck inside until front seat occupants open their doors. Rear seat passengers sit a bit higher than those up front because of the battery's placement, deliver a small amount of knees under the chin feel back there.
Notably, however, the i3's newly enlarged battery capacity doesn't mean a larger battery pack itself, which preserves the car's interior space.
The i3 is highly refined with minimal road and wind noise entering the cabin. What's nearly totally absent is any mechanical noise; only a light hum from the electric motor penetrates an otherwise serene environment.
We love the choice of materials inside the i3. The Giga World trim level subs out the base model's vinyl upholstery for beautiful wool and olive leaf-tanned leather, plus it features open pore eucalyptus wood trim that we'd love to have in our kitchen or bathroom.
2017 BMW i3
The i3 hasn't yet been rated for its crash performance.
The BMW i3 comes with a full complement of safety features, but it hasn't yet been tested by federal regulators. The IIHS subjected the i3 to its full battery, giving the small hatchback mostly top "Good" scores with an "Acceptable" rating for head restraints.
As a result, we can't rate it until we see those figures.
The i3 comes standard with six airbags including seat-mounted side airbags that BMW says have been designed specifically for the slim, lightweight seat frames.
Optional systems come as part of two packages: The Parking Assistant package bundles a rearview camera, parking sensors, and parking assist. The Technology + Driver Assistant package includes upgraded navigation with real-time traffic, adaptive cruise control with stop and go, city driving assist, and BMW Online.
Vision out the front of the i3 is good, except for the area blocked by a large rearview mirror and camera housing at the top center of the windshield, but right-side and rear three-quarter vision are only adequate. The rearview camera may be a must for some drivers, as the rear window is short and placed high up in the vehicle.
2017 BMW i3
A good warranty and lots of optional features offset the i3's relatively sparse base package.
Though the i3's base price isn't that much heftier than its non-premium brand rivals, that figure climbs fast with options—some of which, like the range-extending engine and larger capacity battery—may be crucial to some shoppers.
We've awarded the i3 points for BMW's terrific warranty, its wide range of customization options, and its big infotainment screen. The base model is a little sparse with no AM radio and no rearview camera, however, so it's brought back down to a 7 out of 10. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
BMW eschews what the rest of the world calls trim levels, with the German maker's i cars instead coming in a handful of "Worlds." The most basic among them, the Mega World, includes upholstery made from recycled plastic, a flat-faced 19-inch wheel design, and features such automatic climate control, LED headlights, a basic navigation system, cruise control, HD and satellite radio, heated front seats, and a DC fast-charging capability using the Combined Charging Standard connector. That sounds well-equipped, but some key features like a rearview camera and an AM radio are not standard.
The next step up is the Giga World, which is mostly an appearance package—unique alloy wheels, wool and cloth upholstery, leather on its dashboard, and wood trim are included. The Tera World brings full leather and special alloy wheels.
All Worlds and options are offered on both the battery-electric and range-extended models. The larger capacity battery, with its 30 mile range boost, adds a reasonable $1,200 to the i3's bottom line. The range-extending motor is exclusively available with the larger 33-kWh battery and it pushes the i3's base price to over $48,000.
All three Worlds offer 20-inch wheels as an option, plus two available packages. The Parking Assistant package bundles a rearview camera, parking sensors, and parking assist itself. The Technology + Driver Assistant package includes upgraded navigation with real-time traffic, radar adaptive cruise control with stop and go, city driving assist, and BMW Online.
Options, depending on the World/trim level chosen, include an upgraded Harman/Kardon audio system, metallic paints, and a moonroof.
2017 BMW i3
Though it's not a range leader, the i3 is an impressive electric city car.
Even though the Chevrolet Bolt EV offers a greater overall range, the BMW i3 remains the most energy-efficient vehicle sold in the U.S. That applies to the carryover battery-electric version, but even with the optional larger battery and the range-extender (REx) gasoline engine, the i3 scores well in EPA efficiency tests.
We've given it 10 points, our maximum. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
The carryover 22-kwh battery has an average electric range rating of 81 miles, while the new 33-kwh battery comes in at up to 114 miles. However, the larger battery takes more energy to charge, which is why its MPGe rating is 118, while the old battery's is 124.
Realistically, though, most buyers are going to be more interested in overall range—and that's where the Bolt stretches its legs with nearly 240 miles.
Using a BMW 240-volt Level 2 charging station, the i3's onboard charger runs at up to 7.4 kilowatts, higher than the 6.6-kw charging that's standard in the Nissan Leaf. That will recharge its battery pack in about 4 hours. Installing the BMW charging station may require some home electrical work, but no more than what's needed to install an electric stove or clothes drier. On standard 120-volt household current, the recharge will take up to 16 hours.
The i3 comes standard with a DC quick-charging port that works on the Combined Charging Standard protocol—although so far there are fewer stations using that standard than there are CHAdeMO stations that can be used by a Leaf and a Bolt EV. However, virtually all new DC quick-charging stations now being installed are "dual-standard," with two cables, one for each protocol.