The production version of the BMW i3 was unveiled Monday at three simultaneous events in New York City, London and Beijing. Given that the i3 grew out a BMW electric vehicle project called Megacity, the urban debut locations make a lot of sense. Since BMW literally spent years researching urban trends in the Megacity project, years when the competition was building and selling EVs already, there is a lot of pressure on the German automaker to come out with an EV that is the right fit for today's cities.

BMW's message is that the i3 actually represents the beginning of electric mobility for the company.

BMW had help in this from the Mini E and Active E electric vehicle pilot programs. One way you can see the company's EV history is in the location of the charge port on the rear passenger side. Most plug-in vehicles today put the charging connector in the front, but both the Mini E and Active E had a rear charge port and BMW didn't get enough complaints to change it for the i3. If you opt to pay the roughly $4,000 extra for the gas-powered range extender, then your i3 will be built with a second fuel door, this one on the right front of the car. Putting the ports in these locations cuts down on the amount of fuel lines and wires required in the car, which in turn contributes to the i3's light weight (official figures are not yet available, but BMW estimates the i3 weighs around 2,700 pounds). It's all connected.

Despite BMW's years of testing and driver feedback on earlier EV programs, the official message in New York was that the i3 actually represents the beginning of electric mobility for the company. As Norbert Reithofer, chairman of the board of management of BMW AG, said in New York, "The car has existed for nearly 130 years. Today marks a shift - a change - in the future of mobility.

Does it?
orange bmw i3 side profile

BMW's kidney grill remains, but on the i3 is not an air intake because the electric motor doesn't need it.

The i3 is still just a car. It has four wheels and seats five. It's also just an EV. It has a battery and the aforementioned chargeport. All of this is pretty familiar in 2013. So, what about the i3 plants the flag for a new "era of true sustainable mobility?"

Two answers jump out: carbon fiber and the renewable energy used in production. The i3 is the first mass-production vehicle made with a carbon-fiber-reinforced-plastic (CFRP) passenger cell wrapped with aluminum, and it makes total sense to use the lightweight technology in an EV. It's also part of a story BMW has been telling for a long time, as this 2010 article shows.

BMW brought in the Governor of Washington State, Jay Inslee because the CFRP used in the i3 is made in Moses Lake, WA using hydroelectric power. Calling the i3 "a global product to solve a global problem," Inslee said that, "The more carbon that goes into the car, the less goes into the atmosphere." This is true, but BMW still has to ship the passenger cells from the Western US to Germany, where the i3 is assembled using some wind power. BMW also buys the lithium-ion battery cells from a supplier, but then builds the packs in house. At least the Kenaf plants, used for their fibers that get put into the i3's instrument panel surround and door trim, are grown in Europe. Kenaf fibers have been used in production automobiles before (like the Ford Escape) but usually on the inside of something. In the i3, they are literally front and center.

We briefly got to sit in the front seat and noticed not only the plant fibers but also a funky shift knob on the right of the driving wheel stalk. It probably works just fine in practice, but it looks cumbersome, to say nothing of the vehicle start/stop button positively hidden behind the steering wheel (can you see it in the picture below?). On the outside of the car, the black roof is made out of recycled carbon fiber. The iconic BMW kidney grill remains, but on the i3 is not an air intake, because the electric motor doesn't need it.

bmw i3 shift stalk

"The whole idea of the energy extender is really emergency insurance. It is really about giving that extra certainty" - Hildegard Wortmann, BMW senior VP.

Before the launch, word on the street was the the small tank was a way for BMW to offer both California HOV lane access and a gas engine. The idea is that the 22-kWh pack (18.5-kWh actually used) offers a real-world all-electric range of 80-100 miles and the small 9-liter (2.4-gallon) tank doubles that range, exactly what is needed for the HOV stickers in California. We asked Hildegard Wortmann, BMW senior vice president, product management and after sales, about this, and she told AutoblogGreen that tank size was chosen without regard to the California Air Resource Board (CARB) rules.

"The whole idea of the energy extender is really emergency insurance," she said. "It is really about giving that extra certainty." Feeling more secure is why she expects, at least in the beginning, more customers to opt for the range extender "for psychological reasons." As time goes by, more and more buyers "will realize that the battery is completely sufficient and you wouldn't really need [the engine] then. You put extra weight into the car with the energy extender and you're better off not having it in," she said. In any case, i3 buyers will be able to get gas-powered loaner vehicles for longer trips.

As for the tank size, Wortmann said the i3 was purpose-built as an EV and with the 50-50 weight balance, and the 9-liter tank was exactly the right fit. "I would feel quite uncomfortable putting in a 20- or 30-liter [5- or 8-gallon] tank because then it would be a completely different concept again and you'd rather go for a plug-in hybrid. If you travel long distances all the time, honestly, the i3 is not your car, because it is made for urban traffic." For those drivers, she recommends an EfficientDynamics 320d.

If this is where cars of the near future are headed, we're happy to tag along.

That CARB's rules were not the defining guidelines for the gas tank size make sense since the tank is the same in all countries. "When we developed the whole idea of this range extender, we didn't have the final regulations from CARB anyways," she said.

In other words, the i3 is designed the way it is because BMW spent a long time researching not only what kind of electric car to build for city use but also how to build it. Now that it's almost here, the questions are, Is there a market for a small rear-wheel-drive electric car with suicide (sorry, "coach") doors that starts at $41,350? Does the i3 offer enough of an improvement over the electric competition to warrant the extra cash? We will be better able to answer these questions when we get to drive the car at some point in the near future. The i3 goes on sale in the US in the second quarter of 2014. You can read BMW's official press release in our original report on the debut, which also includes details on the three trim levels and performance specs.

In the end, we can see why BMW wants to say the i3 is a game-changer. It is an impressive little package and if what we were told about its urban agility is true, the i3 should make city traffic a little more tolerable. We take the broader view and see the i3 more as part of a changing automotive landscape than something that "begins a new era" on its own. Still, if this is where cars of the near future are headed, we're happy to tag along.

BMW i3 Electric Car World Premiere

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