I have reviewed a lot of cars over the years, but this one is one of the most unusual and complicated I have had, yet somehow it all comes together and works. This is the 2015 BMW i3, a small electric vehicle that somehow stays true to its BMW roots. For instance, this car is rear-wheel drive, which gives it much better handling and a more enjoyable driving experience than most of the other electric vehicles in production today.
My review vehicle has what is called a Range Extender, or REX as BMW calls it. Simply put, when the battery range gets down to 5 percent, a 34-horsepower, 2-cylinder motorcycle gas engine kicks on to serve as a generator to supply charging to the battery pack. The i3 is not designed to run on the range extender, but rather to relieve “range anxiety” and to get you to a charging station. When the range extender comes on, you pick up an additional 60 miles of range. Bear in mind, the gas generator does not drive the wheels, it only serves as a charging agent.
So is this a hybrid? Actually no, but is a form of one.
Hybrids, like the Toyota Prius, are designed to run on a gas engine once battery power is depleted. You could in fact go across the country with the Prius. The BMW i3 is intended to have a range of about 80-100 miles between charges. Going across the country could be done, but bear in mind, the generator gas tank is only 1.9 gallons, so you would be filling up roughly every 75 miles, which as you can imagine, would be annoying.
If you want to run on the generator to conserve battery power, you can switch over to gas and it will preserve your battery levels where they are. You will notice a drone sound from the gas generator, but it is not overly annoying.
Like most electric cars, acceleration is actually very good, with the battery pack supplying 170 horses and 184 pound-feet of torque. The i3 clocks a 7 second flat time from 0-to-60, and has a single-speed automatic transmission.
There are 3 driving modes you can choose; Comfort, Eco Pro, and Eco Pro Plus. Eco Pro Plus conserves the most battery life, but turns off the air conditioning and limits you to 56 miles per hour.
The looks of the i3 are certainly unusual on the outside, with a full carbon fiber body, and rear hinged suicide doors. 20” alloy wheels that are moved to the corners of the car look great, but it is noticeable how skinny the tires are. They almost look like motorcycle tires.
The hood, top, and rear hatch are painted black and you notice the beltline of the car is different. The beltline drops dramatically at the rear doors, then raises again toward the rear hatchback. BMW makes it appear that the roof and body are not connected. The front dual grills are unmistakably BMW.
As you open the door, you notice a very clean interior that looks nothing like anything you have ever seen before. Unusual materials, including a cotton derivative provides lightweight, soft to the touch feel, and it is also sound absorbing. It almost looks unfinished. You also immediately notice the use of eucalyptus wood on the dash panels.
There are two screens you use, one that gives you speed, and combined mileage range that sits above the steering wheel.
In the middle of the dash, you get the typical BMW infotainment controls with navigation system, Bluetooth, satellite radio, etc. One really strange thing about this car is it does not have an AM radio band. I don’t think I have ever seen this before.
The i3 comes in three trim levels. The base trim is called Mega World, from there you go up to Giga World, then the top-of-the-line is Tera World, which is what I am reviewing. Tera World gives you a full leather interior and comes at a cost of $2500.
You also get in the package heated front seats, automatic climate controlled air conditioning, an alarm system, LED headlights, and keyless entry.
My tester has two option packages. One is the Parking Assist package, which gives you parking sensors, a rearview camera, and it will parallel park itself.
It also has the Tech and Driving Assist package, which gives you stop & go driving assistant, navigation system, access to BMW apps on your phone, and real-time traffic.
Cargo area in the rear is better than I expected, often with electric cars the battery pack takes up a lot of space, but not in the i3. In fact, it raises the floorboard some to give you a better view of the road from behind the wheel. The back seats fold down, and you get additional storage in the front where you would normally find the engine. In the case of the i3, the gas-powered generator is under the rear bumper.
The BMW i3 handles really well with a low center of gravity and well-balanced weight distribution. Like most electrics, the absence of an engine makes the car super quiet.
The accelerator on the i3 definitely takes some getting used to. Because friction from the brakes supply additional charging to the batteries, when you let off the gas pedal, the car starts to brake. At around 30 miles per hour or so, when you let off the gas, the car will come to a complete and fairly quick stop. There is no coasting with i3 unless you kick it into neutral from the more than weird shift knob.
For most people plugging in at home, charging time will take 26 hours with a standard 8 AMP electrical plug. If you have a 16 AMP, you can cut that to 16 hours, or you can install a $750 Wallbox Pro that will get you an 80% charge in under 3 hours. Of course you can use public charging stations, and the navigation system will locate those for you.
Using the Government’s electric car estimates, the i3 gets the equivalent of 117 miles per gallon combined, when only running on the gas generator, combined mileage dropped to 39.
MSRP is $54,545 and the car is eligible for the $7500 Federal Tax credit. If you are in California, there is another $2500 available, and of course, you can drive in the HOV lanes.
All in all, this is a technological marvel of a car, and if you can stay within battery range, never going to a gas station again is very appealing.
What I liked most: Fuel economy and how well it drives and handles.
What I would change: The automatic braking system is annoying.
MSRP: Base price $46,250, as equipped $54,545.
Fuel Economy: EPA rated at 117 Combined on battery, 39 combined on gas.
Fuel Tank: 1.9 gallons.
Dimensions: 157” long/70” wide/62” high.
Weight: 2799 Pounds
2015 BMW i3 in a few words: A technological marvel of a car!
Trailer Towing: N/A
Warranty: 4-year/50,000 mile bumper-to-bumper with roadside assistance, 8-year/100,000 miles on the battery system.
Car Pro Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars.
Miles When Tested: 3200
Manufacturer’s website: BMW