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The BMW i3 electric car promises to be the ultimate recharging machine

Published: July 30, 2013 04:00 PM

The much-hyped BMW i3 four-seat hatchback was unveiled yesterday New York City, where we got up close and personal with this promising electric car. Among other things, the i3 is distinguished by being offered with a small, motorcycle engine that acts as a generator to extend the range. When it goes on sale next May, the price will start at $41,350 for the pure electric version and $45,200 for the one equipped with the range extender.

Unlike BMW’s experimental EV, the Mini E, and the 1-series Active E, the i3 is an electric car from the ground up, not a conversion. BMW emphasized the use of aluminum space frame and carbon-fiber structure in an effort to reduce weight. The carbon fiber will be sourced from Washington state, but the i3 will be built in Germany.

BMW claims the range to be between 80 and 100 miles. If you get the Range Extender (REX) version, the total range becomes 160 to 180 miles—still far short of the Tesla Model S, let alone the Chevrolet Volt. REX uses a 34-hp, 650 cc two-cylinder motorcycle engine that acts as a generator to keep the battery at a 20 percent state of charge. Unlike the Volt, or Toyota Prius Plug-In, you won’t be able to preserve the electric drive for later use. The 2.4 gallon gas tank is apparently small enough that the car still benefits from the full $7,500 EV federal tax credit, as well as the additional $2,500 break for Californians.

This rear-wheel-drive hatchback sits on a flat 22-kWh lithium ion battery that’s tucked under the floor between the axles. Charge times are said to be 3 hours on 240-volt circuit through the 7.4-kWh onboard charger. A fast DC charging port will be optional and enable the car to be charged to 80 percent in 20 minutes. The battery alone weighs 450 pounds and the i3, at least in European specs, weighs a mere 2,700 pounds (same as a Mini Cooper) and just over 3,000 pounds for the REX—less than a BMW Z4. Despite the car’s tall stance, the center of gravity should be low thanks to the battery pack placement. BMW reps that have driven it attest that handling is super agile, something that allowed the choice of tall, narrow and more aerodynamic tires (195/60R20 on the top trim). The electric drive produces the equivalent of 170 horsepower and the 0-60 mph acceleration time is claimed to be 7.2 seconds—a full three seconds quicker than a Nissan Leaf. We couldn't confirm that because the event did not include test drives.

The car has four doors, with the second-row doors hinged to the rear. (This arrangement is commonly referred to as “suicide doors,” although the rear door cannot open until the front door opens.) Thanks to a flat floor and the elevated roof height, there is more room in the back than the pictures show. Tall stance, large front doors and no B-pillar afford easy access, although step-in height is a bit high due to the battery placement.

Interior fit and finish follows BMW’s high standard with some emphasis given to the sustainability theme in the form of visible fiber at the door sill and matte wood finish. A large flat screen houses the navigation system, which can point you to nearby public charging station, as well as display a radius of how far you can go based on your current range.

Three trim levels will be offered: Mega, Giga, and Tera. The Mega is well equipped but you have to opt for the Giga for sunroof and full leather comes only in the Tera. As such, it’s easy to see the price hovering around the $50,000 mark before incentives for popularly equipped examples. All three trim levels will be available for the EV, as well as the REX. BMW expects about 60 percent of the i3s sold to have the range-extending capability.

The i3 is undoubtedly distinctive and will be seared in the public perception as BMW’s electric car. Before driving it, our concerns revolve around the EV range which doesn’t up the game over existing EVs and the car’s distinct appearance. Is a tall Euro-centric hatchback with narrow tires sexy enough to command such a price premium? Will most eco-lux buyers be drawn to the i3 if parked against the sleek Cadillac ELR?

Share your thoughts in our forums.

Regardless, we will buy our own i3 when the time comes and see it this is the ultimate recharging machine.

—Gabe Shenhar

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