Week With a Car is a recurring look into the garage and multiple outdoor parking spots of Sam Smith, R&T’s globetrotting editor at large. Expect it to hold magazine test cars, vintage race cars, whatever he's driving that week. It generally takes the form of a Frequently Asked Questions interview, with the author interviewing himself. It doesn’t always make sense, but then, that’s Smith. —The Editors
2017 BMW i3 with Range Extender
170-hp, 184 lb-ft electric motor
647-cc I-2, 34 hp
33-kWh lithium-ion battery pack
One-speed direct-drive transmission
Price as tested: $54,295
Oh hell, here we go. You’re a BMW nerd. You like these things.
Is this going to be rampant fanboyism? I don’t have time for rampant fanboyism.
You’re on the Internet, reading something on a car site. I’d wager you have a lot more time than you think.
Fair point. So . . . you’re going to be a fanboy.
No! I’m objective. Or try to be, when appropriate. An old journalism professor of mine once told me that, while objectivity is useful, opinion is interesting. Each has its place. (Granted, that prof also drank morning coffee that I’m pretty sure was spiked with Johnnie Walker, but wisdom is wisdom.)
Regardless: BMW makes several new cars that I don’t care for. Also a handful that I love. That fact has nothing to do with whether those cars do the jobs they were designed for. You know that line about how not everyone gets to be an astronaut? Not everyone can be a Z1, a 3.0 CSL, an E30 M3, a 2002tii, an M4 GTS, a 228i, an E39 M5, a . . .
But I haven’t even gotten to the E30 M3 Sport Evolution yet!
Let’s try an experiment. First, picture the Internet traffic on this post falling like a rock.
Okay. Now what?
Nothing. You’re done.
You’re funny. Shut up.
This isn’t as cool as an M4. Can’t we talk about the M4? That GTS thing, or something?
We could, but that’s not what I drove last week. I tried a 2017 i3 with Range Extender, which is, yes, the official model name on the window sticker, the whole thing, including the words “with Range Extender.” Which seems helpful but also unnecessarily complex. Like naming your child Tommy Who Likes Pickles Smith.
You were a little too quick on the draw there. That’s what you named your kid, isn’t it?
I have two small daughters. Neither is named Tommy.
So one of them is, like, Jenny With Hair on Her Head Smith?
Neither of their names are Jenny. Although both of them do have hair. But if I had my druthers, my daughters would have had much cooler names. My wife wouldn’t let me make either of their middle names Paul-“Camshaft”-Rosche Smith. Or Smith. Or Smith. Or literally every other possibility that I came up with.
I’m beginning to think you should not have been allowed to have children.
That’s what the doctor said. Showed him.
Showed him what?
I’ve already said too much. Did I tell you about putting my kids in the i3? Their car seats fit in the back. Both of them, at the same time. This is important, if you are a parent; first off, the i3 has captive rear doors, like an old extended-cab pickup. You can’t open the rear door without first opening the front. Second, car-seat fit is actually one of the dumber parts of being a parent. Modern automotive child seats are designed to protect against all manner of impacts, and they are not small. Large side panels, large bases, tethers and all manner of weirdness.
Modern cars—especially SUVs and crossovers—have spacious interiors, but only relatively, only compared to vehicles of the past. Car seats have grown larger at a much greater rate. It’s entirely possible to own a midsize car—much less a small one—that won’t fit your child seat of choice. Pack two rear-facing kid seats into the back of a Ford Focus, you’ll have to slide the front seats forward so much, you might not be able to fit in a front passenger.
So the i3 fits kids? It’s kind of small.
It does fit them. Room to spare, in both front and rear seating areas, and our child seats aren’t small. The trunk is a bit too dinky for road trips, but the i3 wasn’t built for that. The , which isn't really enough for long distance zero emission driving.
Why would you . . . What would you . . . Some people have commutes longer than that.
It’s an electric car designed for city use! We only live so much in the future; cut it some slack. The optional range-extender engine (you can also buy the i3 as a pure EV, with up to 114 miles of range) helps. The engine is a 647-cc two-cylinder borrowed from BMW’s C600 scooter. It operates in a small rpm band and turns a 34-hp generator. The latter produces juice for the car’s electric motor. Adds indefinite range if you keep filling the fuel tank. Which is 2.4 gallons.
One. Point. Nine?!?
I’m going to quote from over at our sister magazine, Car and Driver:
The i3’s stunted range is a product of policy, not product planning or technical capability. California’s zero-emission-vehicle mandate allows BMW to earn credits for range-extended i3s as if they were pure battery-electric cars rather than hybrids—but only so long as the electric range meets or exceeds the gas range. The i3 would be far more practical and the $3850 premium for the range extender would be much more palatable if the gas tank simply held another five gallons of fuel.
That reads like a car review. In other words, moderately pleasant and also wholly useful, unlike this. Why don’t you write more like that?
I do, when necessary. Just not here. (And if you want to know more about the i3, really, , it’s very informative.) This space is meant for rambling discussion and also I need more reasons to talk about the M3 Sport Evolution. Did I mention the M3 Sport Evolution? Friend, have you heard the good news about the M3 Sport Evolution?
I THOUGHT I TOLD YOU, STOP WITH THE BMW-NERD THING.
But they won, um, something something touring-car championships S14 four-cylinder and um uh . . .
SHUT UP SHUT UP I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU WON’T SHUT UP JUST TELL ME ABOUT THE i3 SOME MORE I WAS ACTUALLY INTERESTED GOD I DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW THIS WEBSITE GETS ANY TRAFFIC AT ALL IF THIS IS WHAT THEY LET YOU PEOPLE DO.
That range extender also makes the i3 the only true series hybrid currently on the market. The gasoline engine is in no way connected to the drive wheels, and incapable of driving them through a mechanical connection.
Also, obligatory picture of and also .
What’s that range-extender thing like?
Like you’re being followed by a small, slightly agitated refrigerator with a loud muffler. It only fires up when you run out of battery charge. Once that happens, it sits there, pup-pupping away, louder than you’d expect, never changing rpm. Or maybe the seeming loudness is only because electric vehicles are so fundamentally quiet. The added noise, when it comes, seems offensive next to the near-silence of a typical EV.
That engine reminds me of an air compressor in heat, running after another, more female air compressor. It’s almost drowned out by tire and wind noise and rocks bouncing off the car’s underside. When you come to a stop, the cooling fan is a little loud. It whirs.
Call it a necessary evil. Silence is half the joy of an EV. If I were you, I’d just keep the battery charged.
You are me, because you’re talking to yourself, but let’s ignore that for a moment. I give up: Is this car good at its job? And do you like it?
Good or No: The interior is a nice place to be, if a little short on storage space. Steering feel is decent for a modern car, though surprisingly distant for a BMW. Especially given the narrow, 165-section tires and the car’s relatively low unsprung weight. Around town, it’s genuinely peppy and responsive, if not outright quick—Car and Driver saw 7.0 seconds to 60 mph, an impressive result in context of . The driveline offers a staggering amount of regenerative braking, more than most EVs, which can take some getting used to. It’s easy to see out of. The seats are comfortable. If you set aside the high price—high for a car of this size and ability—the i3 does its job fairly well.
Like or No: I wouldn’t buy it, because $46,000 (my test car, with a handful of assistance and trim packages, was almost $55,000!) is a lot of money for a small electric vehicle, even one with a roundel on the hood. And the handling balance and feel aren’t to my taste; the i3’s body roll, soft damping, and slightly distant personality are out of character with the things I’ve come to love about good BMWs. But that doesn’t change the fact that I enjoyed using the car for errands. It’s an easy commuter. The people who buy this thing will probably enjoy it.
Also, the body is made of carbon fiber and aluminum. Properly used, carbon is both light and remarkably strong. You cannot buy a cheaper new car made of carbon fiber—the stuff has long been the purview of purpose-built exotics, from the McLaren F1 to the Ferrari LaFerrari. The i3’s existence and relatively low price tag are themselves achievements.
That seems like a forced transition. I feel like you’re about to drop some trivia on me. In awkward fashion.
OH MY GOD HOW DID YOU KNOW? The i3’s carbon fiber was produced in a massive plant in Moses Lake, Washington. A while back, BMW projected automotive carbon-fiber demands that would outstrip the industry’s current supply, at least at the cost point they wanted. So they invested in a plant. Which helps BMW, but also the rest of the industry, and also the economy in Washington State, where I live.
Neat! So did you take the i3 there and take a picture or something and make the trip pass for a feature story? Or make a bad pun and turn it into a headline? Isn’t that what car journalists do?
No! (Although yes, that is what car journalists do.) My house is in Seattle. That plant is in Moses Lake, around 180 miles away. In the i3, it would have been a slightly unpleasant trip. It also would have either taken forever or required five million stops at a gas station, because of that 1.9-gallon range-extender tank.
This thing looks odd. Why do most small electric cars look odd?
Because people buy cars on style and impulse, not logic. Take the first-generation Toyota Prius: It was an amazing tech achievement, but it looked like a pated dolphin that had been punched in the face, so nobody loved it. The second-gen car looked like a relatively normal car with a healthy dose of practicality and The Future. The i3 looks like The Future, full stop. Even if cars in the future look nothing like this, it lines up with what we want the future to be.
Which is never what it actually does look like, of course. (See: Buckminster Fuller, the Popular Mechanics Flying Car, Biff Tannen's modded BMW 6-series in Back to the Future II.) But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to dream. And I happen to like the way the i3 looks.
You know, I kind of see a little Sport Evolution in there.
Hell no. Kidding.
Aw, don’t toy with me. But look, this comes from the brand that brought you so much greatness!
Ravaglia looks like a boss. Did you try that with the i3?
He was a boss. Still is. Also, the car has really soft springs, anti-roll bars, and dampers; I doubt it has enough roll stiffness to lift an inside wheel. But more important, the i3’s electronic stability control cannot be turned off. Presumably for safety reasons. Which is a shame, because the car’s layout and tiny, 165-section tires seem to demand entertaining antics. Which you can’t chase, which seems weird for a BMW, but hey, maybe that’s the future.
We live in strange times.
I’m literally talking to myself on the Internet under a byline. And my wife wouldn’t let me name one of our daughters after an engine designer. Tell me about it.
Update: An earlier version of this post cited specs for the 2016 i3 rEX.