Company guys—the engineers, designers, software, and hardware gurus—paint the BMW i3 as a moon shot. A blank-sheet mobility solution. We had hoped it'd be the electric car that's so advanced, it would slow our long slide into vehicle autonomy by pairing BMW's lauded driving dynamics with electric efficiency. The company guys promised all that wrapped in a sophisticated composite chassis, packed with the latest technology, and selling for way less that the comparably advanced Tesla Model S.
A shame then, that Jason Cammisa raked the BMW over the coals when he drove it in Germany. The i3 simply didn't live up to BMW's legacy when Cammisa hustled it through BMW's own cone course. Fair enough. Our second drive of the car carried us through dense and bicycle-centric Amsterdam. Though our drive routes couldn't have been more different, when I tried to sling the rear end of the 2600-lb, 170-hp rear-drive BMW i3 through a roundabout, my conclusion was the same as Cammisa's: The i3's pervasive, undefeatable stability-control intervention ruins a platform that deserves to be fun.
Throw any notion of autocrossing or back-road corner carving out the window and you can get a much better read on BMW's technological marvel. Amsterdam's tight and crowded streets are a great stand-in for New York or Los Angeles, and those dense urban environments are where the i3 is going to shine.
BMW's case for building a premium electric city car is a strong one. Half of the world's population lives in cities. That percentage is growing every day. Cities also have the best support structure for electric vehicles and are more likely to tolerate an electric car in congestion-sensitive city centers. When viewed as a premium-quality urban people mover, the i3 is pretty appealing.
Humming along without the optional $3850 range-extending scooter engine, the i3 is amusing to drive in the city. Credit goes to the excellent one-pedal driving system. It will bring you to a gentle and complete stop with a little planning, regenerating the battery charge all the while. It's a system that takes just a little getting used to, and one that leaves the brake pedal seldom used. That's a good thing. Cleared of any responsibility for regenerating energy, the i3's brake feel is excellent.
Lugging through rush hour is a chore. The charm of the i3 lies in its ability to make it a little less dull. Creeping forward, then slowing to a stop isn't glamorous, but we all do it, and the i3 can do it well. By constantly providing digital and kinetic feedback on your efficiency, the i3 can make a small challenge out of the daily grind. If you like to play games with your car while stuck in traffic, if you prefer a little conversation with your vehicle to turning up the radio or looking forlornly out the window, the i3 is a good dance partner. The ability to engage a driver, especially a driver buried in urban congestion, is special.
For these urban traffic combatants, BMW doesn't envision much need for the optional range extender. Its rolling research fleet backs that idea up: After covering almost 20 million miles in its fleet of electric Mini Es and 1-Series Active Es, BMW found the average daily drive was about 50 kilometers, or 31 miles, a day. That's well within the 80–100 mile range of the i3. It's a sound argument, and one that should be considered before ticking an option box that's potentially 10 percent of the purchase price of the car.
Interestingly, if you choose not to option the range extender, the i3 is left with a tantalizingly large void just inside the right-rear wheel well. We took the opportunity of our drive to sample opinions for a better way to use that empty space. Options varied from a small supercapacitor to a beer cooler. We'd settle for a little more room in the trunk. In any case, it seems odd to leave space unused in such a small car.
While the i3 might have a tough time communicating through the seat of your pants, it does stay in through your mobile phone. BMW's iPhone app is fascinating and still evolving. Besides a wealth of information sucked straight from the i3's computer (range, state of charge, time left for complete charge, and the like) the app also takes over navigation directions where the car's nav left off. It can decide on the most efficient route to a destination using public transportation as well as surface streets, and then figure out the fastest route back. The app can also be used to set timers to optimize charging for off-peak hours, warm up the battery, and engage the heater while still plugged into the charger for maximum range. You can even use the app to honk the car's horn. While you're driving.
This level of communication is possible because the i3 is always on and always communicating. The car is equipped with its own SIM card, and there's constant discussion going on between BMW's computers and the computers on board the i3. Besides keeping your phone up to date, this data exchange also allows for very accurate range prediction. One of the nifty tricks aboard the i3 is the map displayed on the larger of the two dash monitors. Close inspection shows a blob around the car's location. That blob represents a constantly updated practical range for your current state of charge. The blob also has representations for each of the three driving modes, Comfort, EcoPro, and EcoPro Plus. In the unlikely event that you find yourself trying to claw back a few miles for a run to the larger Whole Foods on the outskirts of town, a quick look at the dash will tell you if you can make the trip just by switching modes.
Comfort mode offers a driving experience that's most similar to a conventional car. For most commutes, there's no reason to venture elsewhere. EcoPro softens the blows of your lead foot upon the accelerator and helps boost range slightly. EcoPro Plus is for the committed: It does away with any range-sucking peripherals (like air conditioning) and imposes a speed limit, albeit one that can be easily overcome with a sharp stab of the accelerator pedal.
While driving modes are selected via switch, the transmission is directed through a PRND-type rotating selector mounted on the right-hand side of the column. It's intuitive and convenient and allows for more space around your feet on the flat, almost step-through floor. The stalk also provides a home for the Start/Stop button. Nearby, on the screen mounted just above the steering wheel, the typical data you'd find on the driver's instruments is represented by a simple set of numbers for speed and range, and graphics that look not unlike piano keys for monitoring your driving efficiency.
Just behind the driver's display is another talking point for BMW: a dash made of plant matter and recycled carbon. It's interesting. It looks a little like dark, coarse MDO plywood, and its contours soak up light like a B-2 bomber soaks up radar. The contrast with the eucalyptus-wood dash does an excellent job of sending the "premium" message.
If it seems like the i3 is focused on the gadgetry, you're right. The door handles open opposite where you'd expect the hinge to be, just to save a tiny bit of weight. The 19-inch aerodynamic wheels are a measly 5 inches wide at the front in order to reduce drag and weight. The result is a wheel that weighs only 15 pounds. That's what comes from a blank slate: individual statements about efficiency and technology. In the end, they come together to make a vehicle that's as fascinating as it is polarizing.
It will take more than two days of driving to figure out which features among many make the grade and which will, one day, amount to nothing more than a technological remembrance or an asterisk on a Wikipedia page. As a package though, BMW's moon shot proved to be a technological leap forward. It's a leap to a place where the term "Googling" might mean taking a car to the market, as well as searching for cat videos. We suspect it will be a tough leap for some BMW enthusiasts to follow. We also expect that there are plenty more ready to leap into their place.