Plugged in to our new quick-and-quirky BMW i3 electric car

Futuristic, extended-range car reveals a whole different side to the German automaker

Last updated: August 29, 2014 12:00 PM

After a nine-month wait, we’ve just taken delivery of the futuristic-looking BMW i3, a tall, rear-drive, electric-powered hatchback. This is a quick-and-quirky little car with a driving experience quite unlike anything else, for better and worse.

While the base car is a pure EV, the i3 is also available with a range-extending gasoline engine meant to eliminate range anxiety. As with the Chevrolet Volt, the gas engine is only used to generate electricity. The engine only kicks in when the 22-kWh lithium-ion battery is near depletion.

The electric drive produces 170 hp and the REX adds a 34-hp, 650cc two-cylinder motorcycle engine. We opted for the REX in midtrim Giga World version. The EPA rates the electric range at 72 miles, and it estimates that the gas engine will supply another 78, for a combined 150-mile range. The starting price for the gas-assisted car is $45,200, but with options such as heated seats and navigation, our car came in at $50,450. Thankfully, it qualifies for a $7,500 federal tax credit.

The i3’s novel lightweight architecture uses carbon-fiber body structure and roof, plastic body panels, and earth-friendly plastics in the cabin. The leather bits are even "tanned" with olive tree extracts.

We took a brief stint behind the wheel of an i3 in Los Angeles in November but now we’re experiencing it on our home turf, in anticipation of a full test once the break-in miles are complete.

First impressions

The two-cylinder engine kicks in imperceptibly if you’re at cruising speeds, but when you’re tooling around at about 15 mph, you hear a rather rough thrum emanating from the back. The engine-powered generator maintains about a 20-percent battery charge and ensures uniform performance and instant takeoff, typical of electric cars. The tiny gas tank holds only 1.9 gallons.

Handling is surprisingly agile for a pod as tall as this one. You sit up high, as in a small SUV, but there’s very little body lean when cornering. But the ride is rather stiff. And other than the not-so-pleasant engine noise at low speeds, the cabin remains quiet.

Slowing down or stopping takes getting used to. The regenerative braking system activates as soon as you let your foot off the gas pedal, decelerating the car quite aggressively. It’s entirely possible to come to a dead stop without applying the brakes at all. Uninitiated drivers may not like that very much.

The cabin feels surprisingly spacious, and the flowing matte wood trim evokes nothing so much as a Swedish furniture store. The rear-hinged rear doors swing out to reveal a decent-sized two-person backseat. Controls such as the start button and the shifter have an unusual design, but once we got acclimated, we found them elegantly simple. BMW’s familiar iDrive controller includes a power-source display diagram here, and the navigation system records all the places where the car was charged.

In order to keep the weight down, no sunroof or power seats are offered.

The i3 seems like a perfect urban runabout for the socially conscious and environmentally correct, at least those with money to invest in the cause. Given its price, Playmobil toy shape, and still limited range, it’s natural to be skeptical about the i3’s chances. But judging from the looks and thumbs-ups we’ve been getting, it’s certainly piquing the interest of passersby. We’ll have more details including electric range and charge times as we pile on the miles.

Gabe Shenhar

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