The first BMW that I became intimately familiar with was my Dad’s 1992 BMW 325i sedan. At the time, I was just 7 years old and it was the coolest car around – at least it was next to my moms 1989 supercharged MR2. This was the car that ignited my interest in automobiles. I remember my dad explaining that the “3” represented the position in the lineup, and that I could ignore 1 and 2 because the Germans skipped those infantile numbers. He then taught me about displacement and that the “25” represented the 2.5 liters of capacity in the six cylinders and that BMW would ALWAYS display the precise measurement on the trunk lid for mechanics and potential mistresses to size you up. And finally he explained how the “i” represented injected, as in fuel injected and that maybe one day, there would be other letters there like “d” for diesel, “h” for hybrid, and “cf” for cold fusion. My dad’s 3 series was the first car where I read the owners manual cover to cover (and probably the last). It was the first car I went 100 mph in – he was driving. And about a decade later in High School, it became the first car where I used the back seat, intimately.
Fast forward nearly a quarter century and the 3 Series (now in 320i, 328i, and 340i variants) is still generally the king of the castle in the entry lux segment, although competition has grown fierce. However, over on the other side of the dealership lot, things have changed rather significantly. By reversing the order of the “3” and “i” BMW has created an entirely different type of vehicle and hedged a large bet on the future of mobility.
The i3 does not look like a traditional BMW. Not in any way. While it does have trademark kidneys on the front, they are not intakes, just a design element to keep the BMW loyalists from forming peaceful protests. The looks are unconventional for any manufacturer. It is tall, narrow, rides on pizza cutters for wheels. It is weird but strangely appealing. Funky but fresh. It looks like a concept car and in fact, its design changed very little from the original concept. My only gripe with the exterior appearance is the black hood which looks better on some exterior colors than others (i.e. white). Our tester was a dark grey and the black hood/roof as well as blue accents contrasted nicely.
The interior is a place of pure zen magic. And this is no accident. According to the BMW designers credited with the i3, they wanted to create a calming and peaceful sensation. Apparently when we (Americans) are calm we drive with a less heavy right foot and this leads better efficiency from
both the onboard battery and gas generator. An M model on the other hand is designed to make you angry and therefore drive like an ass.
But the most impressive part of the i3 is the part you don’t really see, and that is the carbon fiber monocoque. BMW is betting heavily on carbon fiber and is incorporating it more and more into each of its new launches (see the new 7 series). While the costs to produce carbon at this scale is still extraordinary, the drive for reduced weight in all vehicles will help to balance out some of those costs. You don’t see much of the carbon structure. BMW intentionally displayed it only when necessary. You do get a glimpse in the door sills and when you open the hatch, which is enough of a reminder that you have some bonofide supercar technology wrapped around you.
The model we tested was a range extended version ($3,850 premium of the standard all electric) which adds an additional 50 miles of gasoline powered range. The anxiety of being stranded in an electric car (especially one with a sub 100 mile range) is hard to overcome and we feel 4 thousand dollars is a far price to pay for piece of mind. There is a downside however to the range extender, and that is what we in the industry call NVH. Unappealing noise, vibration, and harshness is the best way to describe the i3’s 3 cylinder rear mounted engine. It really isn’t that bad for a small, odd cylinder count engine but once you become used to driving an electric vehicle in pure silence, you notice how loud and annoying a gas engine can be. Unless you have a commute that is consistently under 50 miles and a good place to charge your i3 regularly, we would highly recommend the range extended version.
Either way, the i3 is an absolute joy to drive. Of course it isn’t a rear wheel drive straight six powered sedan, but I was grinning ear to ear every time I drove it just like when I was 16 and my dad tossed me the keys to his 3. The acceleration is fantastic thanks to the instant torque (189 ft.
lbs.) and sub 3,000 lb curb weight. The steering is direct, in traditional BMW fashion, and the braking is … well aggressive. Probably the biggest adjustment when first behind the wheel of an i3 is that you rarely need to actually use the brake pedal. In an effort to maximize regenerative braking, BMW has mostly eliminated coasting. You see, with low rolling resistance tires and reduced friction where ever possible, the i3 would otherwise coast for a good distance. Instead, when you lift off the throttle the i3 slows down, rather quickly. The brake regeneration works quite well in practice. After driving about 36 miles in heavy Southern California stop and go traffic, I had only used about 12 miles of actual range.
With the i3, BMW has truly made a huge leap forward in the green car movement. Next to the Model S, this is the easily the most significant car on sale today. And like the Tesla, BMW doesn’t make a profit when they sell one. Not when someone buys an i3 for $50,000 and they sure as hell don’t make a profit when someone leases one for $289/month. Fortunately for us, they are willing to lose money and give us an awesome glimpse of the future of mobility. If it fits your needs, and you have regular access to a charger, you would be crazy not to get an i3. That is, unless you’d prefer the i8.