The $42,400 BMW EV's unique, lightweight "LifeDrive" architecture features a Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic (CFRP) passenger cell on an all-aluminum chassis. Powered by a 22-kWh lithium-ion battery pack, its 170-hp AC synchronous motor spins out a healthy 184-pound-feet of torque through a single-speed transmission and offers three drive modes: Comfort, Eco Pro (which BMW says adds roughly 12 percent of range) and Eco Pro+ (another 12 percent).
The quirky i3 soon won me over.
The optional rear-mounted 647 cc (0.65-liter) in-line 2-cylinder REx engine drives an electric generator, never the wheels. It increases the sticker price to $46,250 and curb weight from 2,860 pounds to 3,130 lb., and that 270-lb. weight penalty reduces its electric-only range from 81 to 72 miles and EPA-rated combined (gas-equivalent) fuel economy from 124 to 117 MPGe, and slows its 0-60-mph acceleration from 7.0 to 7.8 sec. But it nearly doubles the i3's official EPA-rated total range from an EV-only 81 miles to an EV-plus-gasoline 150 miles.
The i3 arrived (from roughly 90 miles away) with its battery depleted but an indicated 75 miles of gas-powered range remaining. Wanting to experience it REx-only at first, I drove it on a 9.6-mile local trip and found little difference in sound or performance from what I recalled from that California battery-only test drive. When I returned home, however, the indicated gas range was just 55 miles, so I had used 20 miles of projected range in less than 10 local miles.
My initial impressions were mostly good, but with a few quibbles. Its performance felt strong, and its little REx engine was surprisingly quiet. You could hear it humming away back there, but it was hardly obtrusive. As with past BMW EVs, its regenerative braking was very strong whenever I lifted off the go pedal. This is good for range, and owners say they love "one-pedal" driving (rarely using friction brakes), but I found it a bit much at times. The handling was BMW crisp and responsive, but the steering felt artificial (too quick and heavy) and the ride on lumpy local roads was too stiff for comfort. Biggest complaint: the radio offers FM and Sirius/XM but no AM. (Note to BMW: some of us still want AM for local news, sports and other things, without a hack!)
My initial impressions were good, with a few quibbles.
I plugged the car into 120-volt garage power overnight (the charge port is on the right-rear fender, not the usual left-front) and next morning found its fully charged battery offering an indicated 82 miles of EV range, plus 57 gas. After 12.3 miles of local errands (driving normally in "Eco Pro" mode), it showed 64 miles EV and 50 miles REx range. Apparently operating 50-percent less efficiently than projected, I had used 18 miles of predicted electric range and (without burning any more gas) seven miles of REx range. If I owned it, I'd probably learn to do better.
When I gave the i3 an aggressive run (13.8 miles in "comfort" mode) on nearby two-lane roads to test its acceleration and handling, its BMW character began to shine. It was surprisingly sluggish (for an EV) at first in full-boot launches from rest, but the motor's torque soon kicked in to power through 60 miles per hour in a tick under eight seconds. And I appreciated its quick steering and strong regen braking more than I had in normal driving. That sort of testing sucks up range, of course, and I brought it home with just 37 electric and 45 gas miles remaining.
I wanted to experience the transition from battery to gas-generated power, so I didn't recharge before parking it at my local airport for three days with 28 electric miles and 45 REx range remaining. For some reason, those numbers adjusted slightly to 27 electric and 47 gas while parked. Then I took it on a freeway and watched EV range drop to zero after about 20 miles at 70-80 mph (normal mode). At that point, the little REx engine fired up and kept me going almost transparently with little, if any, change in perceived performance. Nicely done, BMW!
Nicely done, BMW!
I backed into my garage 8.6 miles later with 43 miles Rex range showing and plugged it in at about 7 pm. When the i3 was picked up 15 hours later, its battery was not quite full and offered just 60 miles EV range. A good reminder that its 22-kWh battery is big and and a Level I charger are slow, so owners will want to invest in 240-volt, Level II charging. The good news was that those 60 battery miles plus the remaining 43 gas miles would get the i3 back to its home base. And the beauty of the optional Rex is that you can stop and fill its tiny gas tank if needed.
Bottom line: While I'm still not sold on its quirky styling - though my car-loving wife thought it was "cute" - and prefer adjustable regen braking that lets me choose its strength depending on how I'm driving, I truly appreciate the i3's leading-edge technology and found it much more fun and appealing than expected based on that California test-drive two years ago. Now I really can't wait for a turn in BMW's ultra-high-tech hybrid i8 sports car. Stay tuned.