The world is melting, Polar Bears are dying and Leonardo DiCaprio can't save trees fast enough. These are simple truths that many people cannot (or simply choose not to) understand. As unfortunate and scary as this may sound, the internal combustion engine must die. Fortunately for us though, this techno, electro-future doesn't have to be so boring. It turns out, BMW thinks, we can save all the Polar Bears, un-melt the polar ice-caps and give Leo a big, helping hand, while still having a laugh and a bit of fun.
BMW has finally released it's "i" Division, M Division's much more ecologically responsible brother, with the stunning i8 and the funky little i3. The "i" in i Division supposedly stands for innovation, and with it, BMW wants to develop new, innovative ways to look at the automobile. BMW knows that the internal combustion engine, due to environmental hazards and the world's quickly-depleting oil, must go by the wayside. So what they've done is create an electric car for the future, that can be used today.
Electric cars aren't new, hell, the first electric car was invented in the mid 1800's. But, you might also be thinking about the Toyota Prius, Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf or the incredible Tesla Model S. Well let me stop you right there. The BMW i3 is in a class of two. Only the Tesla can match the i3, and in some ways surpass it, in terms of technology, quality and innovation. All others are simply posers, built to lower the CAFE Standards of car manufacturers.
In the past few months, I've driven a Ferrari California, Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT, McLaren 12c, BMW 435i M Sport, and the Cadillac ATS with the Performance Pack, and none of those cars "Wow'd" me like the i3 has. I'm not talking performance-wise either, because a last-gen VW GTI would spank the i3 in any performance category. The i3 has impressed me beyond the others due to it's innovation, forward thinking and spunky, can-do attitude.
BMW knows that Electric Vehicles aren't as well integrated into our society as a gasoline car is, so to help people find out if they could live with one, BMW is letting potential buyers take an i3 home for a few days to try it out. BMW of Freehold, NJ allowed me to partake in the event to get an idea of what potential customers might find. I was helped by Arlene, the woman in in charge of said program there, who helped me pick a date for my test and provided me with all of the info I would have needed, had I been a customer. The program really is quite helpful, as it shows you first hand if you are ready to own an EV. So a big thanks to all the folks over at BMW of Freehold!
The BMW i3 is an all-electric hatchback, powered by a 170 horsepower electric motor. This motor is fed electricity by a bunch of lithium-ion batteries (made out of recycled materials, mind you) placed down the spine of the car, for better weight distribution. Speaking of weight, this is where the i3 shines over everything else. The i3 weighs only 2,635 lbs. That makes it lighter than any other car without a Mini badge on the front. The reason for the low weight is the construction. The i3 is essentially an aluminum skateboard, with a passenger cell bolted on top of it. But that passenger cell is one, solid piece of Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic (CFRP), a compound designed in-joint by BMW and Boeing. It's fascinating technology and the kind of tech not used in any other car under $100,000. The body panels are all made of a high-strength polymer, as opposed to sheet metal, to keep weight down and inward towards the center of the car for better handling.
The i3 is a funky looking little thing, which is good. When you're driving in something as futuristic as the i3 is, you want futuristic looks. Like I said above, I've driven some pretty impressive cars this past year and nothing, I mean nothing, got as many looks or cell phone pictures taken of it, than the i3. It just stops people dead in their tracks. Some people love it, some hate it, but regardless of your feelings, you can't look away. That's exactly what you want in something as different as the i3. I personally think it's ugly, but so ugly it's cute...like Pugs.
The interior is another interesting part of this car. It looks like no other. The model I had, came with a mixture of cloth and leather. The cloth is made out of recycled water bottles and the leather is fake, but dyed with olive oil, so to not upset the Vegans (my only complaint about the car, Vegans should stick to their Prius'). However, the quality was top notch, with tasteful splashes of leather and real wood (taken from already fallen trees, you're welcome DiCaprio) to give the car that premium BMW feel. My absolute favorite part though, was all of the exposed CFRP. It wraps around the dash, the door panels and runs along the door frames. It looks so different and so fresh, exactly what you want in a car with the kind of forward thinking the i3 has.
Engine...err, Electric Motor:
170 horses is plenty in a car weighing less than 3,000 lbs. In fact, it's way more than enough. The i3 is easily faster than every electric car, other than the blistering Tesla, which makes BMW M5's quiver. The cool thing about electric power, is the instant thrust it provides. Put your foot down in the i3 and you don't need to wait. The instant torque surge shoves you back as you watch the digital speedo get closer to illegal speeds faster than you might like, all without making so much as a faint electric hum. The i3 will do 0-60 mph in 7.0 seconds flat. That's faster than any fuel efficient car. Hell, it's almost as fast as some sports cars, like the Subaru BRZ. Admittedly, it's tons of fun beating a mid-90's hooked up Civic off the line at red lights in a car that makes no noise and looks like a Jetson's spaceship.
Ride and Handling:
When it comes to the way a car rides, handles, feels and moves, weight is the number one killer. The heavier a car is, the worse it is. Again that CFRP structure comes into play. Because it's so light, BMW have been able to fit softer shocks to give it a more compliant ride, but it still has that tight, buttoned-down feel all BMW's have. Also, because the CFRP structure is all one piece (unlike a steel-framed car which is bolted and welded together), the car is incredibly rigid and feels as solid as a bank vault made out of depleted uranium. This helps out tremendously in the handling. The turn-in is crisp and accurate, the chassis follows your steering inputs wonderfully and because the i3 is rear-wheel drive, it feels neutral and sharp. In terms of handling, the i3 feels like a baby 3 Series BMW.
I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the regenerative braking. Regen braking is when an electric car slows itself down by converting the kinetic energy of the electric motor back into batteries. This increases efficiency and slows down the car at the same time. All electric cars do this, but it's the way the i3 does it that differentiates itself. Whereas most electric cars start their Regen Braking when you first apply the brakes, then as more braking power is needed the car will apply the mechanical brakes. The i3 applies the Regen Braking the moment you lift off the accelerator pedal. And it slows the car down quite dramatically. The Regen in the i3 is so strong that you need not use the brake pedal unless you're coming to a complete stop. Unless stopping at a red light or stop sign, the i3 can be driven with one pedal. It's unnerving at first, how this works, but once you become accustomed to it and learn how to use it, it becomes second nature and actually quite enjoyable. I found it fun to see close I could get to a complete stop, or how far I could drive, without touching the brakes. Another benefit of this, is that the Regenerative braking doesn't affect the brake pedal, which more often than not makes the brake pedal feel mushy and odd.
This is what people asked me about the most — "How far can it go on one charge?". BMW says the i3 can do 100 miles on one charge, but to do so you would need to use ECO Pro Plus mode (which dulls throttle response, turns off the A/C and limits the car to a top speed of 55 mph), starve yourself before the trip, throw out any luggage or passengers and get a helpful breeze. Realistically, I got a solid 80 miles out of each charge. A very helpful tool in enabling me to do so, was the power meter underneath the speed readout, which lets you know how much ePower and how much Regenerative Braking you're using. Everyone I told that to balked at the idea of only being able to do 80 miles. But the truth is, how much does the average person drive in one day. It's not 80 miles, that's for sure, it's not even close. For someone who doesn't commute, a stay at home parent, or someone who lives in the city, the i3 is a perfect car. Charging it does take quite awhile though, if you use a standard wall charger. What BMW calls an "Occasional Use Charger" is a cable fit for a standard 120v wall outlet, and takes about 12-15 hours to fully charge from flat. However, when you buy the car, BMW will sell you a special 240v charging box and will install it in your house. This charger can charge the i3 from flat to 100% in 3.5 hours, fastest in the business at 240v. There is also a range extender model (which I didn't get to test) which adds a small gasoline engine and generator, to recharge the battery when it goes flat, which will add an additional 60 miles and can be filled up at any gas station to rid the range anxiety a bit. It's also worth mentioning that owners of the i3 will be given access to a program that lets them swap their i3 for a different BMW for predetermined long journeys. So if you own an i3 and want to take a cross country trip next summer, let BMW know and you can borrow something else for that trip and get your i3 back when you return.
The BMW i3 starts at $41,350 and goes up to $45,200 for the range extender. The cost of the Fast Charger to be installed in your home is around $6,500. So for the standard model plus the Fast Charger, your looking at a good $48,000. That may seem steep, but in comparison with the Nissan Leaf, whose price starts at $29,000, but whose Fast Charger costs $15,500, the i3 seems like a pretty good deal. Especially considering the i3 has a carbon fiber chassis, the same rage yet far more power, more cargo space and is infinitely more advanced.
I'm not one for electric cars (I have a car blog for crying out loud, I like V8's), but the i3 has charmed me unlike any other car I've driven. Sure, it has a bit of range anxiety and it's not the cheapest car in the world, but it has so much character for the kind of car that is usually so lifeless. It's quirky and different and weird. That's what makes it so special. It's thinking that hasn't been done before, with using the CFRP structure and funky interior. The i3 is a car for the future. It changes the way you look at the automobile. Like I said before, there are other electric vehicles on the market, but they are all just electrified versions of standard cars. The i3 is something totally different, a clean-sheet design like nothing else I've ever driven before. And more importantly, it has character. I just feels so funky and strange and lovely. It's a car I could drive everyday with a smile on my face, just laughing at it's absurd genius.
I will be a sad man the day the internal combustion engine dies, but if cars like the i3 are what replace it, I will find solace in the fact that fun and creativity will not die with it.