The BMW i3 premiered in the US last week at the LA Auto Show. BMW gave Bimmerfest the opportunity to drive the i3 on a winding 40 mile loop through LA, up the iconic Mulholland drive and then to the LA convention center where the i3s would be available for public test drives (Read Bimmerfest member reviews here and here) during the LA Auto Show.
Bimmerfest LA Auto Show Coverage
The winding course was a blast to drive but did not represent typical mega city driving. The supplied loop would be better suited for testing the legs of an M6 Gran Coupe, not an all electric city car. BMW picked the route to show that the i3 is indeed an Ultimate Driving Machine with driving dynamics that live up the the Munich name. Besides, who wants to test drive a car by sitting in traffic for an hour like a typical LA resident does on their daily grind? Seriously, LA has the worst traffic.
We picked up our test i3 at the beautiful Jamaica Bay Inn right on Marina del Rey. All of the i3s BMW brought to LA were Solar Orange metallic, which is a love it or hate it color. In the sun the orange is a sparkly but with too much brown in it, in the shade it is muted and flat. Clearly I am in the 'hate it' camp for Solar Orange but understand why BMW brought the color for the LA Auto Show demos. Driving around LA it turned heads and garnered attention which is exactly what BMW needs for their new sub brand.
The Solar Orange covers the main exterior panels of the i3, which are made out of thermoplastic. This gives the i3 the ability to shrug off fender benders, shopping carts and bumper car parallel parkers. Saturn tried this same thermoplastic body approach in the 90s with disastrous fit and finish on the body work. The i3 lines are sharp and the panels fit almost also as tight as BMW's sheet metal. There are a few places that feel flimsy as a result of this material choice but overall it is a great idea. With aluminum and carbon fiber making up the rest of the car, it is basically rust proof.
Read more about the BMW i3
Slide into the surprisingly comfortable naturally tanned leather seat and you're greeted with an elegant and simple dashboard, I love it. All the plastics are from recycled sources such as plastic bottles, the fabrics are hemp, and the wood is sustainability farmed eucalyptus. THere is no keyboard of buttons or an overly designed dash trying desperately to hide cheap materials. The controls are where they should be; it is simple and intuitive. It reminds me of my E46 3 series, when a car was made for driving and not for pushing a thousand buttons. Unlike my E46, the i3 interior is packed with technology that is hidden in the menus of the standard iDrive/navigation screen on the dash. Two gripes with the interior is the depth of the dash (it goes on forever, which is of course a result of the design) and the iDrive controller location. The iDrive controller is set down low, below the arm rest almost like it was intentionally tucked out of the way. This would be fine if you didn't need to use it constantly to access everything.
Being electric there is no traditional key slot or start button. The process of setting off feels very foreign at first. To get started you turn the car on, which doesn't feel like it does anything. Once the car is 'running' you select go, I mean drive, from the steering column mounted switch, apply the gas and you're off. There is no transmission in the i3, the motor is directly coupled to the rear differential, so putting it in drive simply tells the computer which way to spin the motor. As a result there is no feeling of engaging a gear; the i3 lacks all traditional feedback that the car is now ready to depart. There is a distinctly electric golf cart feeling to the simplicity of the controls. It is a refreshing change from the sometimes convoluted series of safety interlocks one must defeat to get in gear in a traditional car. The simplicity does leave you wondering the first time, is it really going to go when I press the gas pedal?
It does go, and it goes quickly! Shockingly the i3 will hold its own against a E92 M3 in a 0-60mph drag race. The i3 performance numbers aren't amazing with just 170 horsepower and 184 pound feet of torque. What is important to understand about an electric motor is that it can provide 100% of the available torque from 0 RPMs. Additionally the M3 is sporting 900 lbs more weight, which from a dead stop is a lot to get moving. The i3 isn't intended to be a sports car, it is a city car, but BMW has built in plenty of punch. Jumping off the line, cut off a taxi and making a lane change, typical city driving, is no problem.
Punching it off the line is notably the most fun you have with the i3. At speed when horsepower, not torque, matters the i3 is flat . The power delivery of the electric motor is identical to a diesel, it rockets off the line and then peters out. Highway speed acceleration is passable but misses the excitement of the off the line acceleration. What is also missing is any sound, driving the i3 is eerily quite and robs you of a sense of speed. It was entirely too easy to be 20 mph over the speed limit with no idea. Driving the i3 you realize how your sense of speed comes from engine and exhaust noise. My immediate thought was that this makes the i3 an excellent stealth speeding machine. Without the loud exhaust the chances of a city copy looking your way with a radar gun are minimal, well maybe if your i3 isn't in Solar Orange.
Around the corners the i3 steering is precise and gives you an excellent sense of vehicle placement. Like so many electronic power steering (EPS) systems the feedback is devoid of a real sense of what is happening on the rubber side but it is considerably better then the EPS on the F30 3 series. The ratio is incredibly direct for fast lane changes and a 33 foot turning diameter making for quick illegal u turns. For more relaxed suburban driving the steering ratio is too quick and requires attention to your inputs. It was all too easy to dart into another lane while talking with your hands or attending to something else in the car. The steering boost levels were spot on, if BMW can figure out how to add some feedback this would be the best steering feel BMW has made recently.
With narrow 155 width tires on 20 inch rims the tires remind you of a bicycle tire more then a car tire. With a narrow but long contact patch you're not going rave about the grip, but it is built as an urban car. If you're driving in a mega city which the i3 was designed for, you don't need grip to sit in traffic. When coming from BMWs that also makes a handy track car it is important to remind yourselves that the i3 was built to be the best urban car, not a track capable sporty daily driver.
My biggest gripe with the i3 is the exterior, it is ugly. It appears that BMW sat down, wrote out all the requirements for a great urban car: compact, great interior space, electric rear wheel drive, innovative materials, etc. and then built a car without considering what it would look like. Realizing that it was basically a box on wheels they attempted to disguised it with a two tone paint color and some kinks in the window belt line. As a final touch they slapped some kidney grills, that aren't really grills, on the front, put a roundel above that and called it done. The design feels like they kept going back to tweak it more and more until it was over done. It also smacks of the "Prius effect" or "conspicuous conservation" (Smug alert for South Park fans) where drivers of EVs want everyone to know that they are indeed environmentally conscious. Why not make it look like the Concept Active Tourer? It has the same general shape and size but looks like a traditional BMW. Or as traditional as you can get with a box on wheels. I know they were working with a lot of design constraints to make a great urban car, I just thing they could have done better.
Looks aside the BMW i3 is without a doubt a great car. BMW built it from the ground up as an EV, something very few automakers can claim. They also support owners with their 360º Electric program that gives i3 owners the BMW ecosystem to draw on, including car rentals for long trips. The i3 drives like a proper BMW, the power is quick and from the rear wheels, it steers in the front and has short overhangs and a low center of gravity. The interior is purposeful and a comfortable place to enjoy you commute. BMW executed their entrance into the EV market perfectly and with a truly innovated vehicle, manufacturing process and support network. EVs do not fit everyone's transportation needs but if your daily driving is the typical 30 miles or less take the new BMW i3 for a spin next spring at your local dealer. I think you'll be surprised, and you might just surprise yourselves and go home with an i3 as your next vehicle.
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