The BMW i3 is arguably one of the most important cars the company has ever produced. It also has a lot of brand heritage to live up to. Is the Bavarians' first big push into electric cars worth the hype?
(Full Disclosure: BMW wanted me to drive the new i3 so badly that my local dealership politely invited me to test-drive a pre-production model that was in Chicago for American consumer testing.)
This isn't a comprehensive review by an auto-journalism professional, but instead a personal reflection on my experience with the car. I fall into BMW's target market, being young, environmentally conscious and a city-dweller, so I was curious to see what the i3 was all about.
Many reviewers have drawn lines between the car and its brand stablemates. My BMW driving experience is limited to my 2013 128i, so that's the only direct brand comparison I can make. I have also owned a Civic Hybrid and a Volvo V70 GLT, so I'm using them as comparison points for the i3's eco/electric operation and cargo space/versatility, respectively.
The i3's looks are polarizing. You either love it or hate it. Personally, I think it looks like the future, and that's what matters most for this car. The one what I drove was also a lovely shade of taupe, though I failed to take any exterior photos when I was on the lot. Luckily, the Internet has plenty.
I can see why you might not like it. It's certainly not Tesla S-sleek, and no one will accuse it of being pretty. However, the exterior very effectively conceals the car's impressive interior space.
This is where the i3 really shines. The internal surfaces are a stunning mix of carbon, wood and textiles. Some of it feels a little hollow, but the i3 supposed to be a lightweight car, and it feels appropriate. Buttons all click with typical BMW heft and authority, and the door controls are finally on the door instead of the dashboard.
The amount of interior space in the i3 surprised me. The fiber dashboard stretches out in front of you, minivan-style, and there's plenty of room in the back for passengers. Even with the front seat properly adjusted, I had plenty of leg room in the rear seats (I'm about 5'11" with long legs).
If there was one shortcoming, it was the lack of intimacy in the cabin. I'm used to my 128i feeling like a driver-centered cockpit; the i3 was much more of a perch. A comfortable, spacious, airy perch, but not what I was used to. I'm sure my older parents would love it though, since the seats are high up at hip-height, there's plenty of space for bags/knick-knacks and the greenhouse offers a great view of the road.
It's no drag-racer, but the i3 has that typical "hydraulic" thrust off the line. Even rolling starts happen in a hurry, and I found myself whipping around way above the speed limit on surface streets by accident. The i3 may be limited to 93 mph, but it will get you to extra-legal speeds more quickly than any eco-conscious vehicle I've ever driven. For city driving and highway on-ramps, it's more than adequate.
I also kept the i3 in "Comfort" mode the whole time, which maximized performance, inasmuch as that matters. Eco Pro/Eco Pro+ just dulled the experience, though I'm sure they help squeeze out a little bit more range.
The i3's regenerative braking is reduced from its maximum potential to keep the back end from getting squirrelly on slick pavement, but it's strong enough for real one-pedal driving. I had to get over the anxiety that I was going to stall it at every stoplight (I'm used to a manual), but for someone used to automatics it should be no problem. The real brakes seemed fine as well, though I hardly touched them.
The i3 manages potholes and cracked Midwestern streets pretty well, though impact sounds are a bit less damped than on my 128i. I wasn't beat up in my short time with the car, and the seats kept me comfortable. That said, the i3 feels a bit hollow, which is expected given its construction/weight, though disappointing compared to its stablemates and considering its not-insignificant price.
This is the BMW's big bugbear. The steering wheel is small and grippy, and low-speed handling is superb. On-center steering effort seems a bit artificially heavy, though confidence-inspiring. Unfortunately, things fall apart quickly in the corners, with overly-light effort and almost no feedback from the road. Goose it around a bend and the i3 feels balanced and corners fairly flatly, considering its height (thanks to the low-mounted battery and motor), but it understeers quickly. Of course, that's to be expected, given the eco-conscious skinny tires and the cold Chicago temperatures, but it's worth noting.
Like my old Civic Hybrid, there's enough feel in the steering to get comfortable with (eventually), and I'm sure it would be fun to drive slow-car-fast—I just wouldn't expect any miracles on the autocross course. For a city car, it's fine... But I don't think BMW should be content with "fine."
There isn't a gearbox to speak of, though the gear selector (direction selector?) is easily reached and intuitive to use.
The Harmon/Kardon radio sounded great, in-line with BMW's other entry-level offerings. The car itself doesn't make much noise, but that's part of the fun. You can hear a distinct high-pitched whine from the electric motor under hard acceleration or heavy regenerative braking, which I enjoyed. Having owned a hybrid with auto-stop, I like having complete silence at stoplights, and hearing the wind rush around the car while underway is exciting in its own way. That it had any sound from the motor at all was good enough for me—I'm not sure what to expect from electric cars in terms of aural feedback, but the i3 was satisfying.
I'm a big fan of iDrive, and personally find it to be the most intuitive system on the market. It's well-implemented on the i3, with an easy-to-reach controller and beautiful screen. The main instrument panel is actually a bit small (the viewable area isn't as big as the screen itself), but it flashes the speed, range and power/regen meter, which is really all you need.
The navigation system also pops up a handy "range bubble" to let you know your limits, and displays nearby charging stations if you're zoomed-in. The i3 of course comes with the standard safety assist systems, which I didn't test, and backup sensors that helped me not smack into the car behind me while parallel-parking.
Given its relatively modest premium over other electric cars, I'd say it's not a bad value proposition. Sure, you can find a wheezy Geo Metro for a couple thousand dollars, but the i3 isn't all about saving gas. It's a premium vehicle that is both eco-conscious and futuristic, and in that regard, I think it's a fine specimen.
So from everything I've said, the i3 seems all well and good. And it is! But it's not what I want to be driving any time soon. When I got back in my 128i, I felt immediately at home. The tight, driver-centered cockpit, the sweet six-speed manual that shudders when you blip the throttle at stoplights, the sublime steering/handling and sonorous straight-six exhaust note—that's what bonds me with my car. I feel fine in the i3. I feel connected in the 1-Series.
The 128i might be one of the last NA I-6/6MT/RWD cars we see in North America from a major manufacturer for a long time. I enjoyed my time in the i3, but I ripped off 7000 RPM upshifts and heel-toed around corners all the way home. I don't mind what the future looks like, but I'm happy to enjoy the present while I can!
(Pictures via BMW, myself, edited lightly for grammar)