First off, know that the electric vehicle is not for everyone, and it cannot be the only car in your family. With a fully-charged range of 80 miles, my new car scares the dickens out of my girlfriend. Her work commute is 20 miles. Without a charger in her parking lot she’d be worried all the time about running out of juice. And to be quite honest, driving this car, you do think about juice a lot. Do I have enough juice to go the whole day given all the errands I have to do? Can I make it to my meeting in a neighboring suburb? If you are one of those people who gets worried when their car is down to a quarter tank, the i3 (and all other electric cars – excepting the Tesla) is not for you. You will always be one-quarter tank from empty even when you have been charging all night.
Here are the main portions of this review:
- Overall Performance and Joy
- The Power – The Range – Am I Freaking Out About Juice Yet
- Special Features
- What I’d really like is…
Overall Performance and Joy
I can say without question, the i3 is my favorite car I’ve ever owned. And this is saying a lot since I’ve only had the car for three weeks. But there is nothing quite like the thrill of the super fast 0 – 30 acceleration and the ultra-quiet hum of the electric engine. I no longer have to go to a gas station, in this car, ever. The flip side is when you are low on juice, you have very limited options for repowering your ride away from your home.
The feel and polish of this car is amazing. It is BMW all the way through, albeit with a bit less focus on performance driving and a bit more on conscious consuming. I’m not going to bore you with all the details that you can get in other reviews, but the car is made of carbon fiber, recycled materials, and some exotic wood that pulls the entire cockpit together into somewhat of a futuristic bubble. The display panel and navigation panel are floating screens that hover above the huge dash and below the enormous front windshield. BMW did go for the exotic look in build this fun control system. And there’s a lot packed into the dash.
The car jumps into traffic with a racy feel. Merging with traffic will never be a concern. And that says something. This car does feel like a BMW with its pickup. The handling, with the top speed is just below 100 mph, is a bit more golf-cart-ish rather than Mini-ish. And at first I was missing the rev and bump of the 328 with its beefier stereo and 130 mph top speed, but then again… Who needs the tickets? And for urban driving, you rarely get a chance to open up your speedster anyway. For “around town” driving the i3 is actually fun to drive. I don’t hesitate when asked to go pick up some milk from the grocery store. Sure, I’ve only had the car three weeks, so maybe the thrill will wear off, but it’s a truly sporty and thrilling little rocket ship, that looks a bit more like Darth Vedar’s escape pod than a car. What you don’t love at the beginning, you will love eventually as the car grows on you.
The Power – The Range – Am I Freaking Out About Juice Yet
Okay, we’re going to have to spend a little time on this. I was worried about the car for the first week. My charger didn’t seem to be working fast enough when I’d pull into my garage during lunch and get an hour-or-so of charge. When you see the percentage go from 57% to 59% in an hour, you wonder, “Is that a few miles I just added back to my range?” You will think a lot about efficiency when you drive the i3. The car starts out in something called “Comfort” mode and you will most likely want to bump it down to Eco Pro mode every time you start it up. I’m almost certain I can change a setting somewhere to have the car always default to Eco Pro mode, but I’m not a manual reader. (This review will be 100% manual free.)
So in Eco Pro mode the car’s accelerator gets less aggressive, almost to being resistant to wanting to accelerate when you push the car above 55 mph. A quick jam of the pedal to the floor jumps it out of the “eco” mode and allows for better performance, but you will immediately notice the resistance breaking that is regenerating power every time you let off the gas. The Comfort mode has less drag when you let off the accelerator. There is also Eco Pro+ mode for when you’re afraid you really are about to run out of juice and you want to squeeze the last few miles out of the car. This one kills the AC and severely limits the acceleration above 55 mph. Again, you can punch it to make the car jump in its more spritely mode, but for the most part the “eco” means slower and with much more resistance. It’s a mode you’ll get used to, but you will be thinking about the AC temperature a lot more than you would in a normal car, because you can see the change in range when you adjust things like your driving behavior and the temperature of the AC.
The 80 mile range is not an issue in the course of a normal day. It’s when you deplete the car to 5% during the day and plug it in overnight only to achieve a 74% charge in the morning. THEN you are a bit worried about navigating your day. This can be solved with a level 2 (22o amp) charger, that will set you back an additional $500 plus installation for the heavier power requirements. I’m currently limping along with the included 110 amp charger, that I suppose I can take with me, if I had an electric outlet in my parking garage at work. And the first time my car was only 70% charged at the start of a day I was certain something was wrong with the car or the charger or something else. But it’s just a slow process to get that much power into the batteries with a level 1 charger.
And then there’s ChargePoint, a national service of charging stations that are likely to have a few charging stations in your town, depending on where you live. I live in Austin, Texas, a very progressive and green city, and we’ve got ChargePoint stations all over, at the airport, grocery stores, and public libraries. But make sure you get your charging card before you hit the road thinking you’re going to be able to pay at the pump, because these stations only take the pre-paid RFID card that you’ve got to order from ChargePoint.com. I just got my card yesterday and I haven’t been able to use it. But knowing I could do coffee at the library across town while jolting up the i3 on some 220 juice, well that does make things a bit more interesting. You will be eyeing the range all the time. And you will be calculating distances in your head with much more attention as you “plan” your day with your i3. It’s kind of like a game. The ChargePoint stations will make it a much more fun game, but you will be thinking about your juice/fuel constantly, because there is no “gas station” for your battery. And when these cars go dead, they don’t move. And only a tow truck will get them back to home base. Glad BMWs come with roadside assistance.
The stereo is adequate. It is limited to speakers at the front of the car so there is no immersive sound like there was in the 3-series I had before the i3. There is also no cd-changer. The car has a nice BlueTooth tethering function that my kids have become adept at, taking turns controlling our musical environment. And the stereo is okay, though I am looking into 3rd party options to give it a bit more muscle, but that will have to wait a few months.
The car also comes equipped with radar hazard detection in the front at back. And a nifty cruise control option to “follow the speed of the car in front of you.” Very cool. I think the car also has a “keep me a good bit ahead of the car behind me” option too, but I’ve not read the manual yet. And the normal cruise functions have a nice control cluster on your steering wheel where you can bump the speed + or – 5 mph with a single click.
The lighting inside and outside the car is excellent. The high-output LED headlamps have a purple cast to the top of the beam which looks pretty cool. The interior lighting goes bright blue when you first disable the alarm (Like the Mini) and then shifts to the normal white lights when you actually open a door.
There are sensors to alert you and stop the car should you get to close to someone in front of you, if you’re texting and driving, for example. It’s also watching behind you and there’s a nifty little button with a green ring around the car, on the dash, that signals all is right with the world. Again, this is probably a feature I need to read about, before I try and explain it.
The suicide doors for the rear seats take a bit of getting used to, but the first time you load an oversized item into the back seat you will “get it.” They make for very easy loading and unloading of gear and passengers. The trunk bed feels big and there are some nifty tie-downs on the base and sides to secure your groceries and things when in transit.
There’s a cool app for your phone, something BMW calls the s-drive. It’s always connected. The car can report to you how the charging is going, and you can set it to start itself in the morning and turn on the heater, you can even get it to flash the head lights in the parking lot, no matter how far from the car you might be. It’s truly a futuristic relationship to have your app controlling your car from space.
What I’d really like is…
I’d love to have a Harmon Kardon option on the stereo so that the tunes live up to the cool look and feel of the car. I’d love to have the i3 with the gas range-extender so I would be less concerned with the power and range limits. I’d like to get the windows tinted dark to give it the real Darth Vedar look.
Overall the i3 has lived up to my expectations and exceeded all but my overly demanding stereo system desires. There is very little I would change about the car, outside of giving it an unlimited or hydrogen-powered mode. I’ll look at the owner’s manual in the next few weeks and give you a rundown of what I discover as my journey with the i3 continues.
Go test drive one of these cars, if you can get your hands on one, you will never let it go. And yes, they loaned me a wonderful 435 twin-turbo with an amazing sound system for the day my car was in for diagnostics, and while I loved the raw power of the gas motor, I was quite pleased when my gas-free bubble car was back. I love this car. I can see myself hanging onto it until something more exciting comes along that runs on water or air.
Here is my initial review of the BMW i3 when I had a few things go wrong.