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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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 102 Comments
      DaveMart
      • 1 Year Ago
      I was always doubtful that a foreign automaker would design a car, or in this case the gas engine, by reference to Californian regulations, although clearly that is an important market for BMW. Lawmakers can change their minds too fast, so production cycles and major design and production efforts can't be specified against such an unstable reference point. That is the territory of runs of a few hundred for compliance purposes, not efforts involving three continents and ground breaking carbon fibre technology. My guess on the limited capability of the RE is that BMW knows what is coming down the line in new batteries, and well within the production cycle for this car, perhaps by around 2017, it may be possible to up energy density by 50-100%. As an option for the current car that should cover people who need more range.
      purrpullberra
      • 1 Year Ago
      This is a wonderful car. Full of wonders, nearly 1/2 as ,many as the ModelS which is very good indeed. I'd love to own one. Great job BMW!
        Spec
        • 1 Year Ago
        @purrpullberra
        Well . . . it definitely makes me wonder.
      Scooter
      • 1 Year Ago
      Support and buy an EV if you can. Many car models are barely matching or pitifully surpassing their sometimes 20 year old ancestors in MPG's. MPGs have almost plateaued for the last 20-30 years, while gas prices have more than tripled. Research every popular model you know of, you'll be shocked by how much MPGs have NOT changed or decreased in some cases. Do you have to sacrifice power and size for MPG? Nope. Its been confirmed already. Model S proves a car can totally bypass fossil fuels as primary power sources and still be lightening fast.
      A P
      • 1 Year Ago
      Its the Pontiac Aztec for Lemmings! If this had a Japanese label on it, the sneering would have been epic from the euro-lemmings. This thing is a hot mess on the outside....maybe it might not be so sickening if it did not have the black accents.....BMW cant do exteriors right at all. They have two settings, blah, and BLACH. They really need to hire somebody from Kia or ANYBODY that makes good looking cars. It is pitiful when a Kia Optima looks better than ANY BMW.
        OptimusPrimeRib
        • 1 Year Ago
        @A P
        Why does your profile picture look like a photo of you and your brother at you 40 year high school reunion?
          A P
          • 1 Year Ago
          @OptimusPrimeRib
          Naaahhh, dirtbag, I dont hide behind a fake ID like you. Be a man and post with your Facebook pic. How much do you get paid to defend car companies? You think they have your best interests at heart? Get back to your Transformers action figures...
        aatbloke1967
        • 1 Year Ago
        @A P
        Here we go ... it's been a while since AP beached himself onto Autoblog to regurgitate his usual vacuous anti-European diatribe. Let's see if he manages to type all he wants to say before belching.
          A P
          • 1 Year Ago
          @aatbloke1967
          The cars are ok, its Euro-trash like you that makes me puke.........buurrpppppp!
          aatbloke1967
          • 1 Year Ago
          @aatbloke1967
          Grow up.
      RobbieP
      • 1 Year Ago
      What's the betting they change that rear door after year 1!! Gosh it be ugly!
        Ben
        • 1 Year Ago
        @RobbieP
        I don't understand the logic behind the design of the passenger door. The interior is great though.
        aatbloke1967
        • 1 Year Ago
        @RobbieP
        What's the betting they change that rear door after year 1!! Gosh it be ugly! The Opel Meriva utilises a similar design treatment for the window line, it's been a huge success and there's been no sudden design changes. In areas where parallel parking is a necessity - such as the urban landscape in Europe - it's very useful to have that dip in the window to provide extra side vision.
      Lachmund
      • 1 Year Ago
      also the people sitting in the back (children) will have a greater view
      Giza Plateau
      • 1 Year Ago
      I'm harsh with the automakers and deservedly so but I'll point out some good things they did here today. They made a bold move with using carbon fiber. That's a rather dramatic departure from convention. It is however totally undermined by the fact that it didn't translate to a low weight but points for trying anyway. They went all electric and with a purpose built vehicle with some significant rethinking. They didn't just take one of their usual cast iron steam locomotives and smear some lame electric assist on them like Honda, Toyota and Lexus do. As half hearted as their electric bet is, it still feels fresh because they did change a lot. It smells like EV spirit. And the one thing that they probably did the most right, the optional range extender (if you have to have one). Rather than be the stubborn old goat minds like almost all car makers are and stick the profoundly offensive heap of crap ICE pile in the nose of the car, they went with a small 2 cylinder relegated to a small corner of the car. That's very different from the BMW mindset of only a couple of years ago when they said they will stick with the combustion engine for moving cars, period. Those who have been here for years will remember that the brilliant Dan Frederiksen said many times that's what they should do :) Sadly he is not with us anymore but he's still with us in spirit :) Of course to anyone even remotely intelligent it is obvious to choose a bare minimum range extender because that's all you need to cruise on the freeway and you don't want to burden the car with 2 full drivetrains. But it's still quite surprising when automakers who are so spectacularly dense in the head that they go and do something really right. BMW stumbled/fumbled on the finish line with the i3 so it fell far short of what it could have been but if you list the highlights it is actually very close to serious righteousness. Carbon fiber body Alu chassis Thin wheels Pure electric Tiny 2 cylinder range extender as option. It's like if you have a retarded kid that's a really profound disappointment in your life, suddenly does something that's not half stupid. You feel like applauding :)
        GasMan
        • 5 Hours Ago
        @Giza Plateau
        Well, 2700 lbs for an EV (or any other car these days) is pretty damned light. I agree with you that they ticked all the innovation buttons but the sum is less than the parts. Here are some examples: 100 mile range is not enough. Leaf has shown us that. Range extender doubles that but why not more? If I am going to lug around a gas engine I either want it removable for everyday or to extend my range by 200+ miles like a Volt. How about an option for an extra battery pack instead of the range extender? Interior is beautiful and spacious so why not allow 5 seats? Styling. I think they nailed it. A car this different is going to cause lots of discussion. Embrace it. Pricing. Fair for BMW quality and brand. If they make money on them, maybe they will actually support and promote them. Driving. Remains to be seen but I expect it to go better than it looks due to low COG.
        jeff
        • 5 Hours Ago
        @Giza Plateau
        Giza Plateau, I am suprised that you visit here. You are wrong most of the time. Does than not get old to you? For example you said that the advanced composites did not translate to lower weight... However, very simple to obtain facts prove you wrong. What other EV of the same size is lighter than the i3 at 2700lb?????? Most others are about 500-100lb heaver....
          Giza Plateau
          • 5 Hours Ago
          @jeff
          Most others aren't trying jeff. And I'm not wrong. You are. And yes it does indeed get very old. Nissan Leaf is so stupidly engineered that they have a lead acid starter battery in it. A VW Golf7 weighs 1050kg. All steel. That's 200kg less than i3. I'm not wrong. You are.
          jeff
          • 5 Hours Ago
          @jeff
          That is because it does not have 500 lb of batteries in IT!!!!
      Grendal
      • 1 Year Ago
      If it doesn't sell well it will be because of its looks. It's expensive too but people expect to pay a lot for a BMW. The designers went with city car functionality over good looks.
      Taipei Racer
      • 1 Year Ago
      Thing is ugly man...
      carwatcher
      • 1 Year Ago
      hideously ugly. what.. were.. they.. think..ing?????
        Giza Plateau
        • 1 Year Ago
        @carwatcher
        it's not hideous. you just have a stagnant obtuse mind. it's not good looking either though but not hideous
      Marcopolo
      • 1 Year Ago
      A great little car, with 'love it, or hate it', distinctive styling ! The BMW i3 is not that cheap, but then it's a BMW . It's styling is avant-garde, but then for those who want the conventional the Ford Focus E, is available. More of an 'urban' car than the brilliant GM Volt, but with the range extender, still a very practical vehicle. For a first entry into the EV market, BMW has produced a really exciting, innovative vehicle. Well done BMW.
        Giza Plateau
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Marcopolo
        the brilliant Volt? are you high? :) the Volt is exceedingly uninspiring. done by the tar minds that fought against EVs and did the Hummer and Suburban. It is very very very far from brilliant. It's so bad it's offensive.
          jeff
          • 5 Hours Ago
          @Giza Plateau
          Giza, like i asked before, Do you ever get tired of being wrong?
          Marco Polo
          • 5 Hours Ago
          @Giza Plateau
          @ Giza Plateau "so bad it's offensive", very self descriptive .....
      sevenfeet
      • 1 Year Ago
      I have to add my vote to the "what were they thinking" category when it comes to exterior styling. Let's face it, selecting a car is still an emotional process...there's been an art to car design ever since Harley Earl came to GM in 1927. Good looking cars connect with buyers in ways that other cars can't. Good looks can get people to excuse other problems the car has. Ugly cars in most cases never have a chance. And I'm not talking about plain, functional cars. I'm talking about the truly unbalanced, unsymmetrically monstrocity BMW is trying to convince us to get behind. If the car is ugly, the potential buyer may never get close enough to investigate the great interior work, the revolutionary light weight body (2700 lbs in an EV!!!) and any of the other tech. What's amazing is that BMW is no stranger to controversial styling (flame surfaces, Bangle butts) so you'd think they'd know better. Customers may still buy it, but I have to wonder if it's going to have wide appeal after the early adopters. The 1st-gen Prius was not attractive either, but it looked a lot better than this.
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