In the i3, BMW Gets It Right
I couldn’t help but notice how big it was as I walked up to the demo car. Our local BMW dealer had a half dozen i3’s trucked in for a day to give test rides for those of us that signed up for it a while back, and I was ecstatic to get an appointment to play with one. The two grey, two orange and two white i3’s sitting in front of me were German ‘spec’ cars but I was told the US version was identical (except that the US should have the REVERSE beeper so you don’t back over unsuspecting Wal-Mart patrons).
Only a few other brave souls showed up to drive the demo cars while I was there; a yuppie and an older couple from Vietnam, so I didn’t have to wait 2 seconds after registration to hop in one. And I didn’t. They wanted to send me out alone but I asked for factory rep to ride along so I could grill him while I scared him.
I have had the same car insurance company since I bought my first car in ’78 and according to them I have owned 46 different cars and trucks that they know of (I put my motorcycles on a different carrier so there’s another 20+ they don’t know about). Of those cars I have had a few repeats; I’m currently driving our third VW Golf TDI. Which brings me to the point of this review: IMHO BMW finally got it right.
I choose the TDI because it’s the only Golf you can buy in the US that’s still 100% German manufactured. Despite what JD Powers may say come award time, there is something about the German quality that is made to last and I am willing to pay out the nose for it. I was told by the factory rep that except for the carbon/graphite frame components the i3 is 100% German. I liked that.
If asked whether I would choose a Nissan Leaf or a Chevy Volt I would choose the Leaf because I don’t need a 2-door sedan as an everyday car. I, like the millions of other drivers who consistently make the Golf VW’s most popular car ever (sorry Bug), want to drive a larger-than-a-go-kart vehicle that not only looks like a usable vehicle but actually IS a usable vehicle. Of all the cars I’ve owned, everything from Porsches to DeLoreans, from Subarus to VW’s, from 280Z Turbos to Chevy Lumina vans, from Mustangs to Camaros, from Suzuki [Chevy] Sprints to Ford F350s turbo diesels, I have reached the inevitable conclusion that a medium size, 4-seat hatch back with fold-down rear seats is the only kind of car to have if you only want to have one car.
Presenting the first BEV that I would own as my only car: BMW i3
I would like to tell you some of the technical aspects of it but not even the handsome factory rep or the pretty event coordinators knew more about that I had gleaned from a quick search on the web, so asking them for particulars was a waste of time. If you want to trust the hype that BMW had in their sales brochure (of which they only had one copy so I couldn’t take it home with me) just go to the BMW website. Besides, it has better pictures. I will, however, tell you about my test ride and why BMW sold me on what they believe an electric car should drive like.
The interior controls are simple, understandable, under-stated and neatly tucked away to make you feel like you are sitting in a full-size SUV and not a compact one. (I would still feign to call it compact though; it’s a substantially large SUV. I likened it to about the size of some of the first Ford Escapes or earlier/smaller Broncos). They are the most appropriate controls for an EV that I have had the pleasure to drive in. (Did I mention I was one of the myriad of engineers living in So Cal that actually worked on the EV1 back in the early 90’s and driven every EV produced to date [except a Chevy Volt]?) If you want to sit in a fighter jet’s cockpit this isn’t the car for you; go buy a Dodge Challenger. If you want to see what all EVs will come to look like from the interior point of view, sit in an i3. I liked it. A lot. But that’s just me.
In order to keep the weight to less than 2,700 lbs the interior uses a lot of space-saving, lightweight aluminum construction. Which brings me to the test drive: with a thrust-to-weight ratio better than anything out there; this car can scoot with the best of them. It doesn’t need a lot of motor to get to speed, hence the above-average city and highway range (80-100 miles if you believe the literature). After I drove it around for 20 minutes or so, my drivable range indicator went from 83 to 82 miles still showing a 7/8th charge. I believe I could count on an honest 100 miles around town if I kept it in the Eco Plus+ mode.
For me 100 miles is about 3 days driving. For me 100 TDI city miles cost me $12 in diesel (and I drive a manual so you know I am getting the best mpg on the market) and the 20-30 minutes per week of my life I will never get back from standing at the gas pump. For me 100 i3 miles would cost about $2-$3.
Did I mention no more routine service visits or the $1,000’s I spend on a 40/80/120/160K mile service call? Did I mention no more service at all (except tires and wipers)? Did I mention the 100K mile, modular replaceable battery pack (that will only get cheaper in time)?
I won’t bore you with all of the ‘thrill of the test drive’ crap that typically accompanies my test drive reports (did I mention that I use to do test drives and write articles for a magazine?). How exciting can driving a beefed up Golf be? But I will tell you that BMW got the slowing-down part of the ride down cold. When you completely let up on the throttle [go-pedal] the car goes into a fairly aggressive, full re-generative braking mode. It’s about like letting up on the gas on an automatic and simultaneously dropping the transmission from D down to 2 or 1 as you come up to the stop sign. It’s so aggressive that part of the rear brake lighting system comes on to let those behind you know that you are not coasting to a stop (the rest of the brakes lights come on if you actually have to hit the brakes). It’s so aggressive that if you never touch the brake at all it will still bring you to a complete stop.
In the old EV1 (and like many other EVs) if you didn’t want such aggressive re-gen you could set the amount from the controls. But you had to manually reset it every time your driving changed from city to highway, from hills to flats. In the i3 you just don’t let up on the pedal as much and it coasts to a stop based on how fast you want to re-gen for that stop. The next stop may be different but you don’t have to reset the re-gen, you just have to let up the pedal at a different pace. It took a few stops for me to get used to, but after my joy-ride was up I had it down pat; and I LOVED that part of this EV. As a degreed mech/aero engineer it made the most sense of any EV driving algorithm that I have ever driven.
There you have it: a soccer-mom’s SUV that weighs less than a Nissan Leaf, has more room interior room than my 2013 Golf TDI (and weighs less!) and has all the quality of what you would expect from a BMW. What’s not to love? The price? It is higher than hoped but at about $41K feature-for-feature it lower than what you would expect for an ICE BMW. The range? They do offer a version with a small, 650cc gas engine/generator ‘range extender’ for another $4K more. I’m not interested in it though. (If I wanted to grab the kids and/or the grandkids and drive someplace for an overnight or weekend stay I would just rent a full-size car for $150 and save myself the agony of cramming 4 adults and luggage in my Golf for 500+ miles.)
I bought my 2013 Golf TDI thinking it would last me at least 10+ years & 150K+ miles, still have a decent paint job, intact interior and run like a Swiss watch like my last ones. I bought my TDI thinking it would be the last car I needed to buy if I only wanted to own one car for the next 20 years knowing that [if I didn’t get in a wreck] it would probably last that long and still be in great shape. 18 months into it I now want to sell it and by an i3.
Now I just have to wait until they show up for sale at the dealer. June or July…maybe? Crap. Now I feel like a kid just after Thanksgiving knowing that Christmas is still a month away.
Mike Brace, is a graduate of the US Air Force Academy, a former US Marine Corp fighter pilot who holds a mechanical engineering degree from Oregon State University. In addition to acting as EV World's technology editor, he is serving as the interim Chief Technology Officer for ePEDALER International, LLC.
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