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November 2014

2014 BMW i3  

The Ultimate Driving .....Appliance


by John Miller & Matt Matuszek

images by Lee Lichtenstein

(Updated: January, 2015)

BMW, known for their trademark Ultimate Driving Machines, has gone in a new direction with the 2014 BMW i3.

With its i3, BMW has entered the fray of electric vehicles (EVs) with the lightest EV on the market. While highly efficient and reasonably fast (0-60 performance is 7.2 seconds), the styling is a bit unusual, if not outright odd. The i3 has a liquid-cooled 22-kilowatt-hour battery pack providing more than 80 miles of all-electric range. In an unusual move, the electric i3 is also available with an optional small gas engine that doubles its range and removes the so-called 'range anxiety' of a pure plug-in.

In a radical styling departure from  BMW's mainstream offerings, the i3 is somewhat reminiscent of the small 'milk truck' style that was well captured by the original Scion xB. At 157 inches long, 70 inches wide, and 62 inches high it's a bit taller than the Scion and has proportions much more like that of a small SUV, but certainly won't be mistaken for any Toyota/Kia/Nissan/generic SUV on the road. The interior, with the exception of the dash-display is one hundred percent familiar-BMW. The digital displays (one behind the wheel and one in the center area) look like a parts bin afterthought -- useful, but poorly blended with the otherwise sleek interior. One design peculiarity that we had particular trouble with were the rear hinged doors. BMW refers to them as coach doors. While it looks highly usable when the front and rear doors are open, the practicality of using the rear door when parked in a standard parking spot because an exercise in aggravation. The front door must be sufficiently opened in order to open the rear door (illustrated). In the confines of a narrow parking aisle, this leads to a lot of back and forth maneuvering.

Our first test drive experience behind the wheel of i3 was was mostly unremarkable. Our black and blue i3 (christened, 'The Bruiser' by our intern Matt) exhibited no problems commonly associated with newly created models and never came close to stranding us with an empty charge. BMW says the i3’s 125-kilowatt electric motor driving the rear wheels produces 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. Startup is much like the all-electric Tesla Model S--it accelerates forcefully, yet eerily quiet. Release the accelerator pedal and the i3 rapidly drops speed and comes to stop, thanks to the regenerative braking (the charge indicator shows the inflow to the battery pack). The i3 is powered by a 22 kilowatt-hour 450-pound-lithium ion battery pack. According to BMW, the usable capacity is approximately 19 kilowatt-hours, which adds up to a realistic driving range of about 80 miles on a full charge. The i3 includes an active liquid thermal management system the battery pack keeping the temperature at 70 degrees (F) which means cold and hot weather should not have a significant impact on the i3’s range. BMW is aggressively building out a charging station network, including prominent placement of (for the moment) free-access charge stations in front of BMW dealerships (pictured). The i3 with optional (two-cylinder, 650cc gasoline)  range-extender engine is rated at 117 MPGe combined, and 39 MPG using "gasoline only". Our second road test revealed some points that weren't noticed on the first test (chronicled in the video link below). The regenerative braking is more than aggressive--it's intrusive. After closer examination, we are revising our results: Release the accelerator pedal and the i3 ABRUPTLY loses speed. It's as if the brake has been applied, forcefully--there is no such thing as 'coasting' in the i3. No doubt this is done in the name of conserving it energy supply, but the abruptness of it is too severe and very un-BMW-like. Another aspect that became clearer during our second road test was the acceleration. Low end acceleration, from 0 to 35 or so, is indeed excellent. After that, it rapidly trails off. In the video (below), notice the red BMW 3 series in front of our i3. The 3 series is (audibly) accelerating hard. We attempted to do the same and you can literally see the red 3 disappear as we struggle to reach 70 mph in the i3.

The BMW i3 carries a starting price tag of $42,275 (before BMW, state and/or federal incentives). The i3 version with the range-extended engine pushes the price to $45,300 (plus destination fees). BMW says they expect about half of buyers to opt for the range-extender version.

While the i3 feels part of the “ultimate driving machine” stable, with responsive steering, precise handling, and tight turning radius, it does lack much of the styling appeal of the rest of the BMW line (including the electric i8). Perhaps, it's more precisely the "lesser ultimate driving machine". For now, we think of it as a marginally exciting, efficient, effective.... appliance.



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