For BMW purists, the idea of the Ultimate Driving Machine living up to its storied reputation with just electric battery power may seem anathema -- like John Wayne trying to sing in a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. But the BMW i3 that will debut in most of BMW's U.S. showrooms this May will surprise many with just how fun it is to drive.
Driving electric is still a novelty in the U.S. But in and around the Dutch city of Amsterdam, where our test drive took place, electric vehicles are becoming part of the natural cityscape. The city is chocked full of bicycles and bicyclists, undeterred in their pedaling by driving rain. But it's also home to plenty of electric cars. As we weaved through the city streets, slaloming around the cyclists, the navigation system lit up no less than 12 nearby places to recharge the car.
BMW is not starting the new "i" brand of electric cars just for the Dutch. The U.S., the European Union, the United Kingdom, China and Australia are among the countries that have increasing regulations governing fuel economy and carbon emissions. If not driven by consumer demand, zero-emission vehicles are going to be driven by government authorities with tax incentives for consumers either in the form of higher gasoline taxes or tax credits to consumers for buying electrics, hybrids and clean-diesel vehicles.
BMW has been at this project since 2007. It was in 2009 that the German company decided that it would build the electric car and powertrain itself, rather than jobbing it out to another company. "We are at the beginning of a very big technological change in driving and sustainability, and we are committed to being a leader in this change," said BMW board member in charge of finance Friedrich Eichener.
The i3 is the first of two product introductions in the brand for 2014. The other is a luxury sports car, called the i8, which will employ a combination plug-in electric/gasoline powertrain. If you have seen Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, it's an early i8 prototype that Tom Cruise drives for part of the movie as he flies through the city to try and save the world.
Judging by two days of driving the i3, BMW is off to a very good start exerting its chops for engineering fun-to-drive cars, even when the throaty growl of an engine is replaced by the soothing whiiirrrrrrr of the electric drive-train.
It's roomy, light, seemingly wired for more connectivity than a space shuttle, and fast. It comes with many touches that telegraph to the driver that the savvy designers and engineers who gave us the 3-Series sedan, the Z4 roadster, X5 SUV and MINI Cooper got serious about building a kick-ass electric car.
The BasicsSticker Price: $41,350?
Invoice Price: NA
?Powertrain: The BMW electric motor generates output of 125 kW/170 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. The car uses a single-speed transmission.
?Performance: The i3 can go 0-62 mph in 7.2 seconds and 0-37 in 3.7 seconds. The top speed is electronically limited to 93 mph.
?Range: 80-100 miles on electric power alone. An optional small gas motor acts as a range extender, keeping the battery charged for up to 180 miles.
Seating: Five people
?Cargo Capacity: 9.18 cubic feet
One of the big hurdles for people will be the exterior design. While I found the design allows for interior space that is wonderfully roomy without being bubble-like at all, it is a boxy design with a hatchback rear end. In the minds of many U.S. consumers, that design and shape spells "econo-car." That is not good for a car that has an end-cost for most buyers of around $33,000-$43,000 after federal and state tax credits.
BMW intentionally made the car look different and modern, apart from BMW's usual design language. One of the signature features of the look is the "black belt," which extends from the hood, over the roof and into the rear where it spreads out across the rear deck. Exterior design leader on the i3 Benoit Jacob told us he has always loved science-fiction illustrated novels, and wanted the i3 to clearly communicate "the future."
BMW does not want the i3, or its successors within the i brand, to be seen as anything but a real BMW. So, the front grille gets a twin-kidney shape (despite the car not actually needing air intake), the BMW logo/roundel on the hood and a BMW signature line on the lower part of the rear window -- known as the "Hofmeister Kick," for former BMW designer Wilhelm Hofmeister who first started bending that bottom line on BMWs in 1961.
At only 13 feet long, the car fit easily into cramped city parking spaces around Amsterdam, and showed an extremely tight turning radius allowing for easy u-turns on narrow streets.
BMW said the interior of the i3 was inspired by hip urban lofts found in cities like New York, Berlin, San Francisco, London and Paris. The first thing one notices is the spaciousness of a car only 13 feet long. The flat floor and relatively high roof line gives the feeling of driving a true crossover, not a "hatchback." It is worth noting that Europeans do not disdain hatched vehicles like many U.S. buyers do.
In the upper end trim levels the dashboard is dominated by a curved wooden (eucalyptus, to be specific) shelf that may make some think of an Ikea table. Indeed, it was inspired by the idea of a coffee table in order to make the cabin feel more homey. The dip in the center plays home to the giant 10.2 -inch navigation and i-Drive screen, and provides a natural home for a cell phone or perhaps a wallet. The big screen sitting on the wood made me think of the comfort of my own living room at home.
Seats are extremely supportive, and I couldn't help noticing how slender they are from the side. This also contributes to spaciousness.
BMW is very conscious about making its first big-production electric vehicle as sustainable as possible. Much attention has been paid to all the materials. The leather, for example, has been tanned with tree leaf extract instead of chemicals. Fibers from the kenaf plant are used for other surfaces. Twenty-five percent of the plastics in the interior have been replaced with recyclables.
Passenger And Cargo Space
The i3 will fit four people comfortably. And I do mean comfortably. It's possible that a driver or passenger taller than 6'3'' will present a problem for someone if there are four people riding. But on the whole, people will be surprised at how roomy it is for hips and headroom.
The rear doors are half-doors that open without there being a B-pillar on the side. This makes the getting in and out of the rear seat extremely easy. I am 5'11'' and have an "ample frame," and I was comfortable sitting and getting in and out of the back seat.
Rear cargo space is not wonderful, at a little over nine cubic feet. We are talking four or five grocery bags, or probably two carry-on roller bags and a backpack. But you have to ask yourself how often you are going to have this car full with four people and luggage or a week's worth of groceries. How about never or almost never? If you're carrying a load of people and stuff on a regular basis, this car isn't going to make your shopping list anyway.
Driving DynamicsTake off from a dead stop, and you feel tons of low-end torque rocketing you off. No problem getting onto a highway from the on-ramp. No problem passing that cautious pensioner in the Buick.
The i3 weighs just 2,634 pounds. That remarkably light weight is achieved through the use of aluminum, carbon-fiber and the small size of the batteries. The fact that BMW built the i3 from the ground up to be an electric vehicle without a big internal combustion engine (ICE) and transmission means it could optimize every bit of the car for weight and battery power. Cars that are converted from ICE to electric creates overly heavy vehicles, usually with severely compromised cargo space.
BMW prides itself in always creating nearly perfect 50-50 weight distribution over the two axles in its cars. The i3 is no different. The balance is compromised, however, if a buyer opts for the gas motor that goes in a compartment beneath the floor in the back of the car.
Drive the car a few minutes and you will notice the accelerator doesn't feel the same as a gas-powered car. Take your foot off the pedal as you approach an intersection or turn, and the car engages in what is called "regenerative braking," which delivers power back to the battery. I found no objection to the feel of this. This system also saves huge wear and tear on the brakes and helps to lower the overall running maintenance and repair costs by one-third compared with a comparable BMW 1-Series, according to BMW.
The i3 is equipped with electric power steering, as well dynamic stability control that helps keep the four tires planted on the ground no matter how you might be tossing the car around. It also helps during an accident where a tire blows and creates an emergency steering situation.
Tech And InfotainmentWhere would I fill the i3 up with electricity? Besides the network of electric charges that is growing in the U.S., BMW will set you up with a home-charging box supplied by Bosch. The wall-box will charge the batteries up to 80 percent in under six hours. A full charge, if you start on empty, which will seldom happen, should take about eight hours. Most EV owners learn to charge overnight when electricity is at its cheapest.
An i3 app for smartphones, which we tested, tells the owner the level of charge the battery is a and enables the owner to set charging to start when electricity rates go down.
Other goodies standard or available as options: the BMW Intelligent Drive system that includes hands-free phone, adaptive cruise control, navigation that displays traffic, speed-limit and charging station info, pedestrian recognition and collision avoidance, rear-camera, rain sensing wipers and more. There are so many ways to connect the car to the world through one's smartphone, and ways to avoid an accident that, seriously, if you bend this car or miss an appointment or crucial e-mail, you really have to look at yourself to blame.
Sales of electric vehicles are climbing as more carmakers offer them. But they aren't offering them because consumers are clamoring for them like they do new flavors of potato chips, championship sports teams and lower taxes. Automakers are building them because of mounting government regulations and screw turning over boosting fuel economy and reducing carbon output from their automobiles. Production of zero-emission electric vehicles gives the automakers credits to balance out the need to sell a certain number of highly-profitable pickup-trucks and SUVs.
BMW officials say they think that the i3, and eventually the i8 sports car and other i-brand vehicles, will attract many buyers in Europe, the U.S., China and other markets who have not been considering a BMW up to now, viewing the brand as standing mostly for old-tech internal-combustion engines and dirty modern driving. I can also imagine that some unknown number of BMW owners interested in an electric or plug-in will be induced to add an i3 or i8 on the other side of their two-car garage from the 5-Series sedan or X5 SUV.
Why not? The performance and operating economy of the i3 is compelling. It is fun to drive, and has one of the most well-designed interiors I have ever tested. Plus, you get a great head rush while filling up the batteries with electricity, which can be one-third the cost of petrol or diesel.
The i3 is a terrific package, and would be a pleasure to use as a daily driver. In the end, though, it will be in the eye of the buyer as to whether they think a cool -- some will say quirky -- looking hatchback is worth around $40,000 out the showroom door. Even if it comes with the satisfaction of driving electric.