LOS ANGELES, Nov. 4, 2015 — Mega. Giga. Tera. Yes, those really are the trim level brand names of the mean yet cute-looking all-electric “megacity” mini vehicle from BMW, the ubiquitous zero emissions i3. But how does it drive and is the technology in the i3 as good as BMW claims? What about charging and that “range extender” thing? Is the i3’s cool-looking, yet expensive technology package really worth the price? Here’s what happened when we took an all-electric 2015 BMW i3 on a road test through LA’s gritty and glamorous gridlock.
BMW’s “sustainable” i3 launched as a 2013 model in Europe, and little has changed for the 2015 model year except for one notable addition: a “direct current” fast charging intake valve has been added as standard equipment. In addition, all 2015 models now come with satellite radio and heated front seats. BMW says details of its 2016 model are coming soon, but auto insiders don’t expect many changes to the already well-equipped i3.
Built from the ground up as an EV, one of the best things about choosing BMW i3 is that it can be equipped with an optional “range extender.” That means that you can purchase an all-electric i3 for a base MSRP of $43,350 (includes $950 destination and handling charge) or you can purchase a never-stop i3 with “range extender” for $47,200 (base MSRP).
Without the range extender, the 2015 i3 can travel 80-100 miles on a single charge. BMW also engineered the i3 to drive in two energy-saving modes for better efficiency. Put the i3 in “eco pro” mode and battery efficiency increases by 12 percent while the “eco pro+” mode doubles that for a 24 percent increase. The range-extending 34 hp two-cylinder motor may only hold 1.9 gallons of gas, but it at least guarantees the i3 won’t stop when the battery is utterly depleted.
What about charging? The i3 can completely recharge in just three hours using a 220-volt (Level 2) outlet (most public charging units are Level 2). Using direct current (DC) fast charging, the i3 recharges in about 30 minutes, so claims BMW. On our very LA road test, we charged the i3 using a 220-volt public charger in the EV-friendly city of West Hollywood and we were impressed with its ability to charge quickly and easily. The addition of a standard DC fast charger intake valve in the 2015 i3 model makes the first gen 2014 model rather obsolete and that’s a very good thing as fast charging is the way of the future when it comes to EVs and plug-ins.
Breaking away from the design heritage of BMW’s slick sedans, the i3’s two-toned exterior is laughably tall and squat at the same time. From the front, the i3 looks almost like a mad face with its nostril-like dual air inlets, fierce-looking LED headlights and sculpted all-black hood. Designed more for aerodynamics than head turning, the i3’s oddly-shaped side windows give off an eerie spaceship vibe, especially when painted in glossy white. Thankfully, the rear view may be the i3’s best silhouette
BMW titles the interior of its i3 as “life architecture” and likens it to the passenger cabin as a “greenhouse.” While that description is certainly a stretch, the i3’s ultramodern interior is definitely airy, roomy, comfortable and different in a very good way.
First, parts of the i3’s interior were made from “sustainable” sources including a brand new “bio-polymer,” which was manufactured from castor oil. In fact, BMW claims that 25 percent of the interior and exterior plastics “are made from either recycled or renewable sources.”
Second, unlike gas-powered cars with transmissions, the i3 does not have what designers in the car biz call a center “tunnel.” This gives the cabin that “greenhouse” look and feel as the center of the car is accessible to all passengers. That’s right, the driver can “slide” to the back and exit via the easy-opening “coach” doors (to avoid exiting on a busy city street). We tried out what we called the “i3 slide move” and it worked rather well even for this tall and rather creaky reviewer.
Third and perhaps most important, this reviewer was pleasantly surprised at the i3’s seat (10 percent of which is made from south Asian natural plant fibers) comfort and control placement. The upright front (as well as second row) seats have that BMW high-quality look and feel and are exceedingly cozy on the back and thighs.
As in most BMWs, the central console is highly minimalist. The starkly rigid wood (“responsibly” sourced from European eucalyptus) dash brings whimsy, panache and even utility (great place to set a smartphone or keys) to the cabin.
The most surprisingly utilitarian element of the cockpit was the “freestanding steering column.” Found to the right and in back of the steering column, this component was at first very offputting. How the hell can you put the start/stop button behind the wheel? But after a few days of driving the i3 around LA, this steering column-mounted on/off and shifting system became rather handy and I reveled each time when pushing its smooth all-thumbs shifting and instrument cluster information mechanism. Hopefully, BMW engineers will place the i3’s start button in a handier spot in future generations.
Another great thing about the i3’s interior is the view. The large windows wrap around and the squat stance make the driver very aware of everything happening on the streets and sidewalks, which is extremely helpful in ever-crowded LA.
My road test i3 was equipped with the optional technology package. The car’s widescreen was bathed in shiny black piano plastic and gleams just like an expensive TV or tablet screen. Sitting atop the warm eucalyptus dash, this huge and incredibly crisp infotainment screen is absolutely fantastic and makes your drive seem more like you are sitting in your very own living room.
BMW calls it the “BMW I urban lifestyle.” An embedded SIM card “unlocks” the subscription-only BMW ConnectedDrive services on the big screen. Some of these features include find-a-nearby-charging-station navigation, real-time traffic, emergency services, iPhone capabilities, a personal concierge (really!), maps, music and oh-so many apps.
It was hard, given a three-day tour in the 2015 i3, to get a grasp on all the technological goodies available in this eco wondercar. A long-term test on a BMW lease or outright ownership would surely open anyone’s mind to the marvelous marriage of EVs and in-car digital technology. Needless to say, the dual screens on the dash work together well enough (it was even distracting at times) to create a nimble driving beast with a virtual hotspot on wheels. And who doesn’t love and need that in LA? In fact, the i3 would make the perfect vehicle for Uber drivers and passengers with its “slide” through interior and surprisingly large cargo hatch (if you have access to a private charging oulet).
Road Tested: 2015 Mercedes-Benz B Class Electric Drive
All three trim levels can also add “driving assistant plus” for advanced safety systems such as collision warning, active cruise control, parking assist, traffic jam assist and a speed limit information system.
Now here comes the best part. How does the i3 drive? FAST.
I’ve driven all every production EV on the market, and I must almost reluctantly admit that driving the i3 — even in hectic Hollywood — was truly thrilling. EVs have torque all the time, so the BMW engineering really shows up in the “hybrid synchronous” electric motor’s warp speed acceleration going 0-30 mph in 3.5 seconds (and 0-60 mpg in 7.2 seconds). The i3 is so fun to drive and so fast that I happily found myself edging to the outside third lane on LA’s chic La Brea Boulevard just so I could easily whiz past the second-lane cars to overtake them and get in the front spot at the next intersection.
Steering and handling in the i3 were definitely what one would expect from hard-driving Bimmers. However, the suspension was a bit soft and made for a bouncy ride on LA’s streets riddled with cracks, potholes and speed bumps. The tiny turning radius (32.3 feet) is another plus in the city as the i3 can handle just about any turn without having to do the annoying three-point pullout dance.
What makes driving the i3 truly different is the braking. Again, in a thorough road test of all production EVs, I have tested and critiqued every regenerative (gives energy back to the battery) system out there and the i3 is utterly unique in what turns out to be a cool way.
The i3s regen braking is at first shocking. As soon as I would lift my foot off the brake, the car practically stopped. Whoa. But after a day or so, I began to see the EV light.
I carpool my almost teen to middle school every day through the back streets of Hollywood, where stop signs are plentiful and stopping seems to happen more than starting. So after some practice, I began to realize that I barely even needed to lift my left foot to use the brake as I could eventually gauge when the car would coast to a perfect stop. Not only does this feed lots of energy back into the battery, but it is less work for your leg and foot and, therefore, makes for a more relaxing (and more fuel-efficient!) ride in highly urban environments.
The 2015 BMW i3 comes in three trim levels: Mega, Giga and Tera. The base Mega model is equipped with a long list of standard features including wood grain dash accents, “Sensatec sustainable” cloth with leather trim, 19-inch forged aluminum wheels, navigation, BMW’s “connected drive” with “eCall” and “iRemote,” a 7.4 kW on-board charger and LED headlamps and rear tail lights.
The Giga trim adds unique 19-inch wheels and a leather-and-wool-wrapped interior as well as a universal garage door opener, a sunroof and satellite radio. The top-of-the-line Tera features its own unique 19-inch wheels, anthracite floor mats, full leather and contrasting stitching.
All three models can add the “technology and driving assist” and “parking assist” packages. The technology package includes the aforementioned widescreen “navigational professional,” which displays everything from real-time traffic to “traffic jam assist” to Bluetooth to apps via BMW’s “Connected Drive” to “pedestrian protections” to “city collision mitigation.” The parking assist package features a rearview camera and “front auto park distance control.”
It’s a very good thing BMW built this sustainable superhero as an eco-friendly electric vehicle from the ground up because BMW’s most innovative i3 may be one of the most connected and most fun-to-own-and-drive vehicles on today’s increasingly congested and polluted city streets.