It’s safe to say that Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) has the high-end luxury electric car market locked down, at least for the time being. Arguably, the Tesla’s closest competitor is the Fisker Karma, a car not even in production anymore (at least so far). Pickings for electric cars are still pretty slim, so if you’re looking to move down market in the electric car segment, there aren’t a whole lot of options to choose from.
There’s the Nissan Leaf, a practical and utilitarian car that for all intents and purposes serves the needs of the masses with relative ease provided that you a) are not traveling more than 75 miles or so per day; b) are not hauling large quantities of people and/or cargo; and c) can manage your daily needs just fine with what a fairly typical hatchback offers.
But if you’re looking for something more upmarket than the Leaf and less upmarket than the Tesla, there’s virtually nothing in the way of a plug-in electric car. That is, except BMW‘s (BAMXY.PK) quirky i3 compact, which I had the good fortune of taking for a quick spin earlier this week. To say it’s unlike any other BMW on the road is an understatement — it’s truly a different car in just about every way.
Firstly, let’s tackle the looks. Yes, it looks pretty goofy — really goofy, actually, but definitely not short on character. It’s boxy and a bit strangely proportioned, but retains some very BMW-like details like the kidney grille and the sleek headlamps.Needless to say, its looks aren’t for everyone; generally, BMWs are exceptionally pleasing on the eyes but BMW is determined to put some separation between the i line and its main line of vehicles, and it’s done an exceptional job in that regard.
That unusual back window curve doesn’t exactly help the i3 fit in; but then again, it wasn’t meant to — the i3 is essentially a design study in modern motifs. It’s like a concept car that never made it to the production stage but was produced anyways. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — just different.
There are some cars that rely on their looks as much or more than what’s underneath. That’s not as important in this case; in the case of the i3, what’s underneath takes precedence over its peculiar looks. The i3 is meant to serve the same purpose as the Nissan Leaf, just on a more premium field. Nonetheless, there are some cosmetic quirks about the i3 that are worth noting.
In a unique approach for the compact car sector, the i3 features suicide doors in the back. It’s not bad; I was able to egress and digress with ease, and the i3′s boxy shape facilitates comfort for all passengers with little regard to size or stature. The suicide doors are representative of a recurring theme with the i3: not bad or negative for the car, but they would just take some getting used to. Along with a large handful of other stuff. But more on that later.
The seats are, actually, pretty comfortable. In concept cars, the seats are always illustrated as being excessively thin for the sake of adding interior space; these resemble those greatly. Comfort, as is BMW tradition, is paramount, and these don’t disappoint — they’re sturdy and supportive, despite the thin structure.
The i3 consists of two significant parts: There’s the Life module, or passenger space, which is largely made up of carbon-reinforced plastic, a strong and stable structure that’s both exceptionally safe but also quite lightweight — far lighter than conventional steel or aluminum frames. Then there’s the Drive module, which consists of really everything else — the battery pack, the motor, and all the stuff required to make the car move.
The inside is pretty pleasant overall. The materials used — almost all of which are recycled, giving the car a carbon-neutral status (also helped by the renewable energy powered factory in Germany where it’s made, the sales rep says). It also gives the inside a unique textured feel that you don’t see a lot of, further helping the car stand out. The dash is slung really low, allowing for terrific visibility out the front. Rearward visibility was on par with its segment — decent, but nothing to write home about, necessarily. The dashboard itself is clean and simple, and its buttons are nicely laid out and not clustered or confusing.
There are a few really quirky (but pretty cool) features inside, starting with the “gear” selector (inset). Instead of the conventional lever, BMW has outfitted the i3 with a sort of rotary switch that you turn up for drive, down for reverse; there’s a separate button for Park. Also, the turn signal stalk doesn’t click up or down when pushed — like those lane-passing functions, it just turns the blinker on and returns to the neutral position immediately, but it won’t “click” back with a turn of the wheel like we’re used to. Again — not bad, but will take some getting used to.
So, how does it drive? Quite well, actually. Like the Tesla that we reviewed earlier this week, the i3 offers smooth, effortless acceleration thanks to the instantaneous torque that — get this — makes it BMW’s fastest accelerating car up to 45 miles per hour. Yes, the brick-like i3 can outpace an M5 up through 45 miles per hour, BMW sales representative Chris Bortree told me during the drive. I didn’t verify that claim scientifically, but after opening up the accelerator a couple times, I wasn’t about to dispute it. It definitely hauls — one doesn’t realize the how intrusive the transmission is before driving a car that doesn’t have one. The direct drive nature of the electric motor is fantastic, as it was in the Tesla, and as it likely is in the Leaf. It’s exceptionally quiet inside, even at speed, and acceleration is accompanied only by the sound of the A/C fans and that addictive hyperdrive-like whine from the electric motor. Like the Model S, the i3 is rear-wheel drive.
While many vehicles of the i3′s size are riding on 16- or 17-inch rims, the BMW rides on a set of 19-inch behemoths that vaguely represent the propeller that also forms the foundation for BMW’s roundel. What’s more, the tires that wrap them are just 155 millimeters across — ultra thin, in the interest of decreasing rolling resistance to squeeze every last mile from the car’s lithium ion battery pack.
But then there is the regenerative braking system. On Tesla’s Model S, there are different settings for the regen braking, from quite mild to much more aggressive. Not so in the i3; there’s one setting, and it’s aggressive. It’s also one of those things that isn’t necessarily bad but will take lots of getting used to. BMW — and Bortree by extension — say that it really encourages one-pedal driving, and I found that to be true. The regen is so strong on the i3 that it actually brakes the car to a complete standstill; throughout the test drive, I may have used the brake twice. This feature definitely won’t appeal to everyone, and it certainly takes some getting used to, but given that the rated range for the i3 is only about 80 miles it makes sense that Bimmer wants to recoup all the energy that they can.
Handling-wise, the BMW takes turns with ease, and although the battery pack is nicely situated along the bottom of the car, the center of gravity feels higher. There’s a fair degree of body roll through the turns, but not enough to make you feel as though you’d lose control of the car. Steering is responsive and surprisingly tactile, with a very BMW-like feel to the wheel. Unlike the Tesla, there’s only one mode for steering in the i3.
This is, and always was, built specifically to be a commuter car, and not for long distances. Range is rated at 81 miles, but may vary as wide as 70 to 110 miles without the optional range extender (which will about double that figure), depending on driving style, terrain, and amount of braking. The home charging setup that comes with the car isn’t exactly efficient; I was quoted that an empty-to-full charge with the basic charger can take as long as twenty hours with a 120-volt outlet. Buyers can upgrade their charging stations though, to bring 80 percent charging down to about six hours, but that brings added costs of better charging to what is already a pretty pricey car for its segment.
It’s not a cheap car. The model I drove stickered for just over $42,000, before the federal tax credit of $7,500 is applied. The i3 certainly has a premium feel, but whether it’s that premium is up for debate. Regardless of how you swing it, that’s a lot of money for a compact car. On the EV spectrum, the i3 fills in the niche that the BMW 3 Series does for gasoline cars: It’s an entry-level luxury car that’s compact and easy to live with, but even the 3 Series starts at $10,000 less than the i3.
Nonetheless, the car is proving quite popular in Europe, exceeding BMW’s initial quota for demand. It will be very interesting to see what demographic is largely drawn to the i3, given that those looking for an affordable EV will more than likely be more drawn to the Nissan Leaf.
Perhaps the i3′s biggest competition hasn’t even been introduced yet — that will be the Gen-III Tesla, which will so far tentatively have a range of 200 miles, a price tag of $35,000-$40,000, and be about 20 percent smaller than the Model S. With those figures, the choice will be a simple one for many buyers, but the i3 still has time to evolve before the Tesla is released. The Mercedes B-Class electric car, which looks like a standard B-Class but features a Tesla-derived drivetrain, will also give the i3 a solid run for its money, but the i3 offers a more offbeat option for buyers looking to stand out more. The B-Class’ price and specs are easily comparable to the BMW, at $41,450 and 85 miles, so the choice of which German brand will be a personal one.
How concerned i3 buyers are with range will be apparent by how many range-extended models the company sells; however, the Nissan Leaf has similar figures, and its owners don’t seem too concerned about that at all. I feel like it will be the i8, despite its limited quantities, that will be the defining car of the i segment; the i3 is a good little car, and what it does it does well. For those who can afford it and are drawn to its unique look, it most likely won’t disappoint.
Special thanks to Chris Bortree and the staff at The Automaster in Shelburne, Vermont.
Editor’s Note: In a previous version of this post, we incorrectly identified some of the the charging figures for the i3. We have since addressed the issue, and we thank our diligent readers for pointing the errors out to us.