I recently test drove the BMW i3, a quirky addition to the expanding variety of electric vehicles (EVs) hitting showrooms across the U.S. and was impressed at the i3’s ability to handle city driving. But is the i3 the “ultimate driving experience?” Read on to find out.
Overall : 3.5 out of 5.0 Bunsen burners
The first thing I noticed about the i3 is its styling. It sort of reminds me of the Brave Little Toaster, but with wheels…and a eucalyptus dashboard. Whether cars should look like oversized electric toasters is a matter of personal taste, but all cars should probably drive like toasters because the i3 was a delight to pilot.
Nimble handling paired with excellent visibility made a couple laps around Five Points, Atlanta fun, quick, and safe, and an experience I would gladly replicate on my daily commute. I drove an all-electric 170-hp model powered by an 18.8 kWh lithium-ion battery that did not include the gasoline “range extender.” This version of the i3 had plenty of pep and range (81 miles) for city driving, and can be charged to 80 percent in as little as 20 minutes using a DC fast charger, or up to 100 percent in around 3 hours using a 240 volt level 2 charger (here’s a primer on the difference in charging options). The i3 also utilizes advanced lightweight materials like carbon fiber reinforced plastic to give the i3 roughly the same range as a Nissan LEAF but with a 150 lb lighter battery.
I drove the fully upgraded “tera world” trim model, which includes the aforementioned eucalyptus wood grain dashboard, heated leather seats, and other fancy doodads that I didn’t really notice. Much like the i3 exterior, the interior design is unique. A minimalist design helps the driver focus on driving instead of the media / navigation screen, and makes the cabin seem bigger by not overcrowding the interior space with buttons, dials, and levers.
The i3 is keen to let you know if you’re driving efficiently, conserving battery power and maximizing the potential 81 mile range. It does this, in part, by giving drivers access to a wealth of data. The i3 center console displays graph reports to show you how economically you are driving. If you’re only getting a 40 mile range, for example, the vehicle will show you where you’re going wrong – perhaps accelerating too fast, or using the brake pedal instead of letting the regenerative braking decelerate the vehicle. All of this data can be overwhelming, and it’s tough to resist the urge to explore the plethora of menu options when driving, but I found that it helped adapt my driving style to maximize fuel efficiency.
Is the i3 right for me?
Overall, the i3 is an excellent choice for urban dwellers. The folding rear seats give the i3 adequate cargo space and the vehicle range and driving performance make it easy to zip in and out of daily traffic. It’s therefore no surprise that the i3 recently joined a London-based car sharing service. However, the i3 was not built to meet everyone’s driving needs, and lacks the space needed to haul lots of gear or passengers on a daily basis. The stylizing can also be pretty polarizing and the range extender has gotten mixed reviews. So I deducted a couple points off the Bunsen burner scale, but the i3 meets an important niche in today’s urban EV marketplace – where many early EV adopters can be found – and will remain an option for any driver looking to save money on fuel, reduce emissions, and look super suave for decades to come.