With its NASA-approved body, super-efficient powertrain, and laser focus on conquering the urban sprawl, the BMW i3 pushes the boundaries of electric vehicle design. It is perhaps the most focused electric vehicle that retains a range-anxiety relieving gas motor. The tall, narrow design helps this electric city car not only look like a futuristic travel pod ready for outer space, but it is also the first widely available city car to use lightweight carbon fiber for its basic body structure. Remember our faces when the Pagani Zonda dropped that fact on the world in 1999? That single mission focus makes the i3 the most energy-efficient car we’ve ever gotten inside of.
For 2017, the i3 receives its first major update since being introduced in 2014. Mainly, the battery size has increased from 60 Ah to 94 Ah (or 33 kWh) of capacity. In principle, the battery has increased in volume by about 50 percent. This results in greater range – customers can expect to get up to 300 kms instead of just 190 kms with a full cycle of battery and range extender usage.
Customers who purchased the first iteration of the BMW i3 can rest easy. Thanks to BMW’s passion for sustainability with the i3, they are in the midst of developing a program to retrofit older i3s with the newer and larger battery without having to do any major modifications. So far this is only available in select markets, and there is no word on if this will be available for Canadian customers just yet.
The i3’s Range Extender is a miniscule 9.1-litre gas tank. Without any additional electrical components turned on (air conditioning, wipers, heated seats) you can get an estimated 115 km of range on gas alone.
The biggest weakness for range however, like most electric vehicles, is the highway. Cross-country journeys will likely have you filling up the fuel tank once every hour. If you plan on taking long road trips, it won’t hurt to look at other EVs like the Chevrolet Volt, which offers 680 km of combined range. Luckily, during my test week I mainly took city roads and didn’t even get a chance to tap into the fuel tank.
Assisting me with that feat was an obsession with keeping the battery topped up with charge. Like playing a video game aiming for the highest points, I did whatever I could to get the lowest possible electric usage throughout the week.
BMW will supply you with a standard 120-volt household outlet that requires a full 17 hours to charge the i3’s battery from null. Now, like most people who have jobs, there is not really a time where my car will not be used for 17 hours straight. So I downloaded an application called PlugShare to assist with finding 240-volt Level 2 car chargers or DC fast-chargers.
In my area of Toronto, the 240-volt chargers are few and far between, but in downtown Toronto you can find them quite easily. In about four-hours, a 240-volt charger can fully charge the BMW i3 from flat, and a DC fast-charger is capable of performing the same task in about 30 minutes.
Like other electric cars, acceleration from a stop is forceful, silent, and immediate. The rear mounted 170-hp electric motor can catapult the i3 to 100km/h in just 7.5 seconds. Even for an electric car, energy consumption is very low at 6.6 km/kWh, which essentially translates to 1.6 L/100km.
On the road, the i3’s low center of gravity gives it surprising agility and stability. As a result, the i3 feels incredibly zippy and fun to drive. Turn-in is sharp and there is little to no body lean. However, given the i3’s quick steering response, little feedback, and short wheelbase, I did find it to be a little too darty and was heavily susceptible to crosswinds at highway speeds.
Let’s face it. Most car interiors are boring and unoriginal. It’s the same materials, same over-glossed wood, and the same sculpted dashboard. Not in the i3. The i3 challenges convention in the cabin. It feels more like a four-seat Scandinavian style living room than a German electric car.
The textures and materials are unlike any other car I have been inside. They are mixed together in a crazy-quilt pattern. Mid-century modern enthusiasts will love the large panels of fiberglass-like resin material and the large panels of matte-finished bent wood. The Eucalyptis wood trim mixes wool tweed cloth with a roughly-textured “Carum Spice” grey leather. The interior will certainly not be to everyone’s taste, but it is a fresh take on the modern automobile.
The BMW i3 also gains a moonroof option. The $1,200 option looks like a set of T-Tops ripped straight from a 80’s Trans Am. Each opening has its own sunshade, but the moonroof itself is just one piece, and slides back with the push of a button. Unfortunately, it only opens about eight inches, slightly more than half of the actual opening in the roof. It’s not even large enough to stick your head out.
The big knob on the centre console controls the familiar iDrive system, which operates the audio, navigation, and phone functions through the menus on the center screen. On-screen fonts are big and clear. Functions for radio, phone, and the like are grouped together. It might take some time to find the function you want, though. There is an added eDrive menu to aid in displaying the BMW’s efficiency settings and will illustrate a power flow diagram.
Like many things about the i3, the controls take familiarization. For instance, a pod off the side of the steering column houses the start-stop button. It still took me a few tries to get familiar with this, and overlooked it a few times. Next, when it comes to shifting into gear I had to recalibrate my brain. You have to rotate the dial on the pod in the direction you want to go, by pressing forward for drive, and pulling back for reverse. This may seem intuitive, but it goes against almost every automatic transmission that was built in the last half-century. You also have to press the ‘P’ button to engage park.
There was one quirk I found with the i3 that really got under my skin, and it plagued me while the Toronto Blue Jays were in the midst of their October playoff. To my dismay, the i3 is one of the first cars to completely abandon AM radio. Fans of sports radio, local traffic and weather updates are out of luck. It does not have a CD player either.
No matter how you outfit the i3, driving the future does not come without its costs. The i3 starts at $45,300, and $49,300 with the Range Extender, and while it may seem expensive especially when loaded up, Kathleen Wynne will happily give you a $13,000 rebate towards the purchase.
Given its hefty price, futuristic styling, and the induction of range anxiety that comes with every electric vehicle, it’s completely natural to feel hesitant about purchasing one. The i3 however has a certain charm to it, and is a quirky urban dweller that provides an effective cruising range with impressive road manners, a beautifully laid-out cabin, and one hell of a government rebate.