By now, a lot of automotive journalists have test driven BMW’s new all-electric car—the i3—but not many of the rest of us have. So I was excited when I received an e-mail inviting me to a short test drive at Baron BMW, our local dealer here in the Kansas City area. It seems that BMW is sending small fleets of i3s to dealers for prospective customers to drive, in their marketing effort to generate sales of BMW’s greenest vehicle to date.
There was snow on the ground but the roads were clear when I showed up for the drive. I wondered if the 12°F temperature would adversely affect how the car operated. (It didn’t.) After checking in, my sales associate, Al, and I went out to the car. The first thing I noticed was, of course, the doors. The rear door opens—suicide style—to make it easier to get into the rear seat. Since I rarely spend time in the rear seat of any car, and since I was wearing a bulky winter coat, I passed on the chance to try the back seat on for size. It didn’t look that big, but at least it looked easy to enter and exit because of the doors.
The next obvious thing was the car’s higher stance. I was surprised that I didn’t sit down into the seat; but rather, just slid over onto it, much like a small SUV (or SAV if you prefer). The interior layout had a distinct BMW feel to it, although more noticeable were the environmentally friendly materials. The seat was firm and comfortable and it took a minute to adjust—longer than most other BMWs since the seat controls were manual. Saving on electricity, I suppose.
The mechanically adjustable, multi-functional steering wheel felt right, as did the overhead lights and BMW Assist button. The HVAC and audio controls were laid out in a flat, linear style that reminded me more of a Mercedes than a BMW driver-oriented cockpit. Above the audio controls was a good sized, non-folding 6.5-inch navigation and information screen. Using the familiar iDrive controller, I played with the navigation system, but did not use the controller’s touchpad feature.
Looking down I saw a flat floor all across the front cabin. There was a center console with storage compartment and two cup holders. One of the cup holders contained what at first looked like a drink tumbler, but on closer inspection was an ashtray. Come on, really? BMW’s most environmentally conscious car ever—with an ashtray? Well, some BMW owners still smoke, and it’s legal, so I guess BMW is covering all the bases.
What was missing from the center console was a shift lever. Since the shifter in the i3 no longer contributes to the car’s performance and once you’re moving forward, there are no gears to shift into, BMW put it where it wouldn’t get in the way of anything—hidden behind the steering wheel. Well, it actually kind of gets in the way of something—the start/stop button, which is hidden even further behind the steering wheel.
The main instrument panel is simplicity itself. The flat-screen display shows speed as a digital number, a battery-usage line reminiscent of the fuel milage indicator on a normal BMW dash, and remaining range as a sliding scale. Other bits of information and warnings can pop up, but they really didn’t play in this brief drive.
Seats adjusted (manually), side mirrors adjusted (electrically), all buckled up, and we’re ready to go. Foot on the brake, reach around or through the steering wheel to press the start button and…nothing. Well, not nothing. The instrument panel and nav screen lights come on. But there’s no sound—yet. Reach around the steering wheel again and flip the shifter (paddle, blade, toggle, whatever you want to call it), let off the brake and…we go. There’s still no noise other than that of the tires rolling and Al talking to me. Throughout the test drive, one constant was the lack of mechanical noises from the car. BMW’s have been really quiet cars for a long time, but this was almost supernatural. I remarked to Al that BMW’s quality control had better be extraordinarily good on the i3, because if the tiniest squeak or rattle shows up, you’re going to hear it.
We drive slowly out of the parking lot and onto the street. So far, so good. The car actually accelerates pretty quickly, not that I’m mashing the accelerator or anything. Lifting for a stoplight brings the first revelation. You know how in a normal car when you take your foot off the gas, especially when the car’s in a low gear, you get good engine braking? In the i3 it’s like that—only way more. BMW uses the deceleration energy to help charge the batteries. The result is the car slows down faster and depending on your speed and situation, you may not need to step on the brake pedal at all. Throughout the drive I found myself using the pedal less and less, mostly just to make that final tiny stop fifteen or twenty feet behind the car in front of me.
After a couple of blocks, we turned onto the interstate—for less than a half-mile. So I did get to mash the accelerator (can’t call it a “gas” pedal, can we?), for a couple of seconds. Acceleration was decent up to about 50 mph, which was all we could do because of traffic. Then we hit the exit and the rest of the trip was a square circuit on city streets back to the dealership. Al offered to back it into the parking spot for me, but I threw caution to the winds and did it myself, without even having a rear-view camera, although the Park Distance Control came in handy, as usual.
The test was over when I pushed the stop button and unbuckled. So, how was my first drive in an electric vehicle bigger than a golf cart? Pretty good, actually.
My most important concerns were addressed. Did it feel like driving a BMW? Yes. The driving position was excellent and sufficiently adjustable and visibility was great. The steering—although electro-mechanical with a slightly artifical feel—was tight and quick; however, the low speeds on relatively smooth city streets didn’t provide definitive test conditions. The brakes, when we actually used them, were fine. No sloppiness and no grab, but again, it was a short test not conducive to hard braking. Did it handle like a BMW? Yes—a BMW at 30 to 40 mph. It was tight and responsive and there was very little body roll, but once again, we were mostly on city streets.
It sounds like my assessment is clouded by references to doing all the driving on streets and not being able to let the car loose on an Autobahn, or on twisty country roads where a BMW can take advantage of its inherent BMW-ness, its sporty DNA, and its great-handling pedigree. But that’s just the point. The BMW i3 isn’t made to go there. It’s made to drive on city streets and urban freeways and in that environment, it’s really pretty good. It’s quick, it’s comfortable, it’s got plenty of gadgets, and the driver is in control. Just what I’d want if I lived within 30 miles of anywhere I needed to be on a daily basis, like work, store, theater, gym, friends, and family. Under those conditions, I really could see myself in a BMW i3. Unfortunately, I live on the edge of a large metropolitan area, where I can easily cover more than 100 miles in a day of running errands and driving to BMW club events. An 80-mile range just wouldn’t work for me.
I guess I’d have to get the i3 with the Range Extender.—Scott BlazeyBack to News