The BMW i3 is a compact, well-crafted little electric five-seater with nods towards both sustainable design and operation that speaks to the German make's dedication to clean motoring. The i3 sees some big changes for 2017 that, while it remains a bit of a niche vehicle for American buyers, will no doubt broaden its appeal.
When we first drove the BMW i3, it was the 22-kWh battery model, which was the only option until this year. Now, a larger 33-kWh battery has been added for longer range, with BMW calling the smaller option the 60 Ah model and the larger battery the 90 Ah model. The range-extended option is still available as well, and comes with the larger battery as standard.
The price premium for the larger battery is not steep, at about US$2,200. The 60 Ah model is rated for about 81 miles (130 km) per charge, the 90 Ah for about 120 miles (200 km), and the range-extended model is good for about 180 miles (290 km) with a full charge and a full tank of gasoline.
What must be made clear about the i3 is that it's primarily an urban and suburban vehicle. It is capable of highway speeds, but when doing so a significant amount of its range and some of the more disappointing aspects of the car will become apparent. For those whose commute is largely at freeway speeds, the BMW i3 is not likely to be the best choice. In our experience, this is something that is common with electric vehicles in general.
Knowing those caveats, though, the BMW i3 is otherwise a very well-made vehicle. It has more interior room than its footprint would indicate, it drives like a Bimmer should, and it has plenty of creature comforts and accommodations.
The exterior of the 2017 BMW i3 is designed to both give a large interior space and to make sure that anyone looking at the car knows it's not your ordinary gas-guzzler. BMW's blue detailing and the i3's somewhat futuristic body shaping come together for a unique look that can be polarizing, but one that is definitely not of the "me too" school.
The i3 makes extensive use of carbon fiber in its design. The body, frame, and, indeed, most of the car are made from the stuff. This gives it a lightweight build that allows the heavy batteries to dictate the i3's low and stable center of gravity. That creates the basis for a good drive dynamic for the car, despite its boxy shape.
Driving the i3 is fun. It has a fast pace to its road feel and a precision to its steering that is all BMW. The i3 won't win any races, mind you, but compared to many electrics we've piloted, it's a sprinter. We tried some 0-60 mph (0-92 km/h) runs and averaged about 7 seconds. The car slows at a similar rate.
Regenerative braking in the BMW i3 is in stages. The higher the car's speed, the less aggressive the slowing from regenerative braking. This means that it's possible to slow the car down incrementally without touching the brakes at all – even to a full stop. At lower speeds, when the regen is aggressive, the brake lights come on automatically so other cars know you're slowing. Smart engineering from BMW that results in a lot of energy return to the car's batteries.
Plugging into a 120V standard US household outlet will charge the 90 Ah model's batteries in about 17 hours. Charging is reduced to under 5 hours at 220V and to under an hour at 440V. Rated at 114 miles (183.5 km) of range by BMW, we learned that unless you are mostly driving at less than highway speeds, that's not very likely to be your return in the i3.
Interstate highway speeds here in Wyoming are 80 mph (128.7 km/h). Driving 50 miles (80 km) at that speed, then slowing down to city speeds for an additional 10 miles (16 km) of driving, then returning at that speed meant that the batteries were drained and the range extending engine was required to keep the i3 running for the last 10-12 miles. When the range extender is on and the batteries are largely depleted, the little i3 is limited to about 75 mph (120.7 km/h) in speed. This reduces further when going up a hill or when battling headwinds. For distance commuters, that's going to be an issue. The range extender is a 0.6-liter two-cylinder engine that acts only as a power generator – it is not physically linked to the i3's drive axle.
During our week with the car, we also found that when on the highway, the i3 becomes loud and it does not absorb the road as well. The i3's suspension is definitely tuned towards lower speeds and its hard tires are noise makers on high speed pavement.
Then there's the price tag. Compared to other electrics on the market – though direct comparisons are not really possible – the i3 is a relatively expensive vehicle. The base (60 Ah) model's price is about US$42,500 and the range extended version we drove was nearing US$50,000 with limited bells and whistles added. That's about the price of two Nissan LEAF electrics and well above the Chevrolet Bolt's price point.
All told, though, the 2017 BMW i3 is a great little car with the right mix of things to make sure that BMW fans will be happy with this electric commuter. If green driving and sustainable manufacturing are your concerns, the i3 fits perfectly – it's useful enough to be an everyday car and cool enough to turn heads when pulling into the lot. If highway driving is only an occasional concern for you, the i3 is an excellent choice. That fits a lot of lifestyles in the US but for those of us living in more rural settings, the technology isn't quite there yet.
Product Page: 2017 BMW i3