This all started back in 2007 when the megacity urbanization trend hit full stride and BMW began brainstorming the 2020 future of mobility. The product was thus originally called the BMW MegaCity vehicle. Then the 'i' division of BMW was officially born in 2011, and we have since been exposed to various "leaked" images and official prototype unveilings of both this i3 and the i8 eco sports car. The latter (called i12 in the halls of Munich) was originally called the Concept Vision Efficient Dynamics and presented as a diesel-hybrid.
The time is now upon us for the market launch of the plug-in i3 (called i01 internally). The wider motoring public already has its opinions and BMW is listening to all of them, so there's a bundle of nerves around these limited drives of the i3 for a select few members of the media, Autoblog included. We came to an airfield outside of Munich and were handed an i3 test car to drive around a set course filled with blue- and white-striped cones. BMW tech experts were everywhere and some of the discussions around the various technical displays even got a little heated.
After our vast amounts of coverage during the gestation period of this new i3, we are well aware of the vocal – or at least written – sentiment of doubt among many computer users and BMW faithful. Not that this undertow of nay doesn't have its place in BMW's execution of the deliberately gradual i3 information rollout, but Munich and Leipzig (where the production center for i is located) are almost exclusively focused on customers who are new to BMW. These customers lack preconceived notions of BMW as a performance brand, and also crave the latest and greenest expression of their environmental concerns, preferably in an insanely networked and connected premium package. BMW i representatives have announced publicly that interest in the i3 is huge among newbies. Could the i3 become the Toyota Prius Plug-in for the no-Toyota-thank-you crowd?
Steel adds up to make less than 10 percent of the i3. The rest of it is made from lightweight and incredibly strong CFRP (i.e. carbon fiber reinforced plastic) and exhaustively lightened and stiffened aluminum. Aside from these two dominant materials, the large dashboard substructure is made of magnesium and the supporting structure for the center console is fiberglass. The exterior of our test cars, meanwhile, were still sporting a token strip of camouflage around the beltline and the interior was cloaked in tailor-cut sheets of felt to leave some things to be discovered in all of their beauty at the official reveal, which happens later this month in New York City.
We tried only the full-EV version, which will be the first one available to customers.
On our drive, we tried only the full-EV version of the i3, which will be the first one available to customers starting November of this year in Europe and then January 2014 in North America and elsewhere. There will also be a hybrid version with a 650cc two-cylinder engine from BMW Motorrad acting only as a range-doubling generator that will be the bigger seller, in part because of how it skirts the CARB HOV rules in California. This version launches two months after the EV trim at a modest price premium of around $2,000, so we are told.
While the circuit laid out for us this day threatened to be a reverse NASCAR experience with all right-hand turns, there were actually several points where evasive moves and slaloming were required in order not to kill cones. These dicier sections showed the i3's consummate maneuverability in tighter spots – it has a small, 32.3-foot turning circle – and its very light steering feel. Visibility from the driver's throne is basically from a command seating position and can be characterized as vast.
To get the show started, it's a typical foot-on-pedal-press-the-Start-button ritual, the result of which is the digital dash instrumentation and electrical power unit waking up. There is one tone from the sound system that indicates you have pressed the Start button, then another that signifies you are good to go. The i3's drive selector, which shockingly does not have a capitalized sub-brand name like EDriveTronic, is a rotating handle on a stalk that branches from the 2 o'clock position on the steering column. And then you just get going by pressing the amp pedal (i.e. throttle).
If you try to make it live up to the definition of "Ultimate Driving Machine," you are missing the entire point of the i3.
If you leave the mode button on the console in Comfort, you can get pretty dang quickly to 60 miles per hour. The quoted time is 7.0 seconds flat and the i3 feels every bit capable of this through its 1:10 single reduction gear supplied by BMW's transmission assembly facility in Dingolfing. The other two drive mode settings are Eco Pro and Eco Pro+, each providing more recharging to the lithium-ion battery assembly through forced resistance, while limiting top speed and climate control energy-scavenging. Each adds an additional 12 percent to the estimated EV range.
The test cars were fitted with skinny, rock-hard and low-rolling resistance 19-inch Bridgestone Ecopia tires, sized 155/70 R19. After just a single spirited lap of the set course in 93-mph v-max Comfort mode, it was clear that we were driving the i3 in a style for which it was never designed. If you try to make the i3 live up to the well-honed definition of "Ultimate Driving Machine," you are categorically missing the entire point of the i3. We can expect that character of the i8 and other future sportier products from BMW i, but items such as the i3 are all about heading down the road in premium-built style and comfort while minimizing your carbon footprint more than anyone else around you. And doing so with the latest high tech.
Still, by stressing this age-old tagline of promised dynamism for the i3, albeit with an intended newer meaning, BMW is doing the i3 a disservice. This push to validate the i3 as a real Bimmer misses the mark a touch, mainly because the i3 is good at so many other things, the things you would expect from a green-thinking EV or e-hybrid from a German engineering-focused company's fresh little brand. The i3 fits better with the tagline "Pure Driving Pleasure," or with the new generic umbrella, "Designed for Driving Pleasure."
The i3 fits better with the tagline "Pure Driving Pleasure," or with the new generic umbrella, "Designed for Driving Pleasure."
After our first misguided lap where the i3's side-to-side dynamics left something to be desired but the straight-line speed was really enjoyable, we played with the Eco Pro and Eco Pro+ modes. We also kept our weight transfers more sweeping and gradual as an everyday driver of the i3 will do. Keeping it real this way revealed the i3's truer driving pleasure, while also keeping things far greener and closer to the EV version's potential 124 miles per full charge in Eco Pro+ mode. These more efficient modes can be overridden by standing on the accelerator.
The e-motor mounted at the rear and to the left above the driven axle is a 168-horsepower unit from Bosch. Capable of 11,400 rpm, it's supplied 22 kWh of propulsive energy by the 507-pound lithium-ion battery pallet lying within the sturdy aluminum undercarriage. Torque from a standstill is 184 pound-feet if you stomp it, enough to fling the 2,755-pound i3 down the road with authority. While thus stomped – for instance during that first over-amped lap – there is a distinct sort of brisk rhythmical whipping-through-air sound coming from beneath the car, a sound that every single BMW i expert present insisted was news to them.
Torque from a standstill is 184 pound-feet if you stomp it, enough to fling the 2,755-pound i3 down the road with authority.
All of the needed connectivity iMobility apps via Smartphones are present, as are plans for i3 subscription fleets in key cities. The wall box quick chargers are a separately sold item, the price of which has yet to be determined, as has the price of having said box mounted properly in your garage. A battery charge up to 80 percent capacity with a standard European household DC plug will take roughly eight hours, while the same with the wall box (7.3 kW) will need three and a half to four hours. Find a serious 15-kW public charging station and it is all done in one hour. The warranty on the battery pack lasts for eight years.
The only distinct criticism we have regarding the i3 thus far – apart from the diminished dynamic and ride expectations that go part and parcel with any non-sporting EV – is its comparatively large front doors. There are no middle cabin pillars due to the incredible structural strength of the passenger cell, and the doors open carriage style to ease getting in and out. Closing the smaller rear doors is fine, but when we closed the front doors there was a serious amount of cheap-sounding and plastic-like rattles going on that was very un-BMW and un-premium. This worries us; while we love the fit and finish and bold idea of the i3, this new wee wondercar had better at least come across as absolutely premium and solid-sounding. As far as this early drive opportunity of admittedly pre-production cars goes, these frequently touched and used doors fail the basic requirement of a BMW experience.
This new wee wondercar had better at least come across as absolutely premium and solid-sounding.
We still like the i3 statement rolling along the road since it gets one and all wondering what that slick-finished car is, which is half the battle for this all-new i division in the coming years. If BMW i can keep the starting price at around $34,500 as recently announced, and if they can fix the front doors, that'll put the small people mover in good stead.