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2015 BMW i3

The ultimate head turning machine.

By: Anthony Fongaro | June 2015

In the last few years, electric vehicles have gone from hideous boxes to machines that resemble what the general public would consider “car-like”. Some people want to drive around in these quiet, no gasoline machines without having every person, animal, and tree look at them and acknowledge them for their organic loving, save the polar bears lifestyle. A number of companies have already tried it:  Nissan tried it with the Leaf; Tesla with the Model S; Ford is trying it with the Focus Electric.

BMW was going to do this, but then decided to buy a bratwurst and hit the bar. Everyone else left except BMW’s electric/hybrid division, who may have been sneaking a few shots at their desks. What was created was the i3, an entry-level luxury electric car. Basically everything about the i3 is different or unfamiliar for BMW fans. After driving the i3 for a few days a few questions arise:  is it worth the price tag and what is life like in a luxury electric car?

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Brake pedal? That’s so 2012.

The first thing that’s different about the i3 is how you drive it. You can technically drive the i3 with only the accelerator. That’s because when you lift off the accelerator, the i3 initiates its regenerative braking to extend the battery range. The feeling is similar to driving a larger SUV. When you aren’t pushing on the gas, you can feel the car beginning to slow down.  

The i3’s braking recreates that feeling, but it’s strong enough to stop the car completely. It’s a very weird feeling and not something you’d want to get used to if you have passengers who don’t want to lose their lunch or experience flashbacks to teaching a 16 year old how to drive.

You can still use the brake pedal and because I’m used to driving “old school” cars, I would lift off the accelerator to touch the brakes which isn’t necessary. The accelerator basically feels like an on/off switch. Surprisingly…I didn’t like it!  And speaking of the accelerator…

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Deceptive performance.

That’s right. This thing is quick and handles much better than you would think. The electric motor will get you from 0 to 60 mph in 7.0 seconds which is actually slow for BMW standards but quite fast for “save the polar bears” electric cars. BMW knew that weight is the problem for all electric cars, so it used carbon fiber along with other materials to make the i3 light.

Any owner of a BMW will love how the i3 feels like any other BMW in terms of handling. Being rear-wheel drive helps the i3 take corners into a corporate parking lot with ease. Compared to a regular luxury car, the i3 is at the top of the charts because it is quick and quiet.

But at the end of the day, this is an electric car so the problem still stands about range.

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What’s the range?

Well, you’re not going from Chicago to Milwaukee in one trip. BMW claims the range is 80 to 100 miles. If you only drive the i3 to and from work, you’ll be fine. If not, there is the option of purchasing a range-extending gasoline engine for $4,000! Speaking of large numbers, if you use the standard 100-volt charger to charge your i3, it will take a whopping 20 hours to recharge. Needless to say, spend the extra $1,000 for the 220-volt BMW I Charging Station to reduce the recharging time down to three hours. There are charging points you can use (surprisingly, Walgreens has them), but at least in Illinois there aren’t enough.

While driving, there are three driving modes you can select. “Comfort” is the default setting and would be considered the “gas/electric guzzling setting” since you can have your heated seats and climate control on high. “Eco Pro” cuts back on the electric motors’ power and “Eco Pro +” cuts back even more on the motor’s power, disables the air conditioning and limits the top speed to 56mph. Since I was constantly around 20-25 miles of range, Eco Pro + was my friend throughout my test. How did the different levels affect mileage?

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I live on Tera World.

Being quirky and unique, BMW’s “i” vehicles have “Worlds”. The most expensive World is the $2,500 Tera World which adds different wheels, full leather, some gaudy wood, and satellite radio. My test car also had the $1,000 Parking Assistant Package which gives you many sensors and a rear view camera, and the $2,500 Technology + Driving Assistant Package which gives you upgraded navigation, real-time traffic information, and Active Driving Assistant. Both are very nice upgrades.

The sensors and rear view camera comes in handy since, like basically everything with a hatch these days, rear visibility is the size of an iPad. The Technology Package gives you a bigger screen and BMW Apps! It will take you days, maybe weeks, to figure out every gadget that’s controlled on the iDrive infotainment screen. The base price for an i3 is $42,000 and the model I tested was $50,000.

Ok, you waited long enough. I covered basically everything else. So…that shape. Those lines on the body. Well, it’s…

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It’s…different.

Different isn’t always bad. The interior of the i3 is different. The lights on the i3 are different. And the exterior is… different.  Fair warning: if you buy an i3, everyone will look at you and think “that person must be the biggest dork”. Never mind that you bought a $50,000 BMW and are saving the polar bears, the i3 is as subtle as a ninja that wears orange.

This is a four-door vehicle that has rear suicide-doors like you would get in a pick-up. However, the glass on the front door, the rear door (which can’t be rolled down), and the rear portion don’t line up. BMW obviously did this on purpose, and everyone has an opinion about it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a BMW fan, a car-enthusiast, or any other human with eyes, the general consensus is…it’s ugly.

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Fun with flaws

You’re probably thinking “Anthony probably hates the i3”, and I can understand why. So quick recap: the styling is embarrassing, you can’t go more than 100 miles without filling it with electricity, it takes an entire day to charge it to 100%, the rear windows can’t be rolled down, and the brake pedal is essentially useless.

And yet…I respect the i3. I doubt I’d ever buy one and if I did I would get the range-extending gas engine, but I’m glad BMW made it. I’m also glad BMW made it so different. Did I hate driving it? No. Does it have a ways to go in terms of looks and range? Oh yes. Now, I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s terrible, but $50,000 can buy you many other hybrids.

Final verdict:

Exterior: 4.5/10

While I don’t think it’s ugly, why couldn’t this look like…a regular BMW?

Interior: 8:10

Many gadgets, comfortable front seats, nice small steering wheel, and it feels big on the inside.

Performance: 7.5/10

The i3 is decently quick, handles quite well, and is lightweight.

Fuel economy: 0/10? 10/10?

Wait, it doesn’t use fuel. Um…

Range: 4.5/10

80-100 miles just doesn’t cut it anymore. You don’t want to drive in Eco Pro + all the time.

Value: 5.5/10

A lot of tech, not a lot of range, and a ton of…looks.

Total: 6/10

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BMW’s i division has a lot going for it. Just like the first generation Prius or any other first generation hybrid or electric car, the i3 has potential. Before you buy or lease one, take an extended test-drive that BMW offers.   

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