Twenty years ago, if you had asked me what cars would be like in 2017, I’d probably tell you they’d be able capable of flight. I always had this image in my head, as a child, that cars be able to just hover and fly around by the time I was old enough to drive. Maybe I watched too many sci-fi movies as a kid but that was always my vision. Fast forward to today and the automobile is a lot less sci-fi than I had previously imagined. Eight-year old me would be crushed. However, if there was ever a car that could get close to my childhood dreams, it’s the BMW i3 and I just spent a week indulging my inner child’s imagination.
Before we talk about that, let’s take a quick look at what’s new about the i3. BMW launched the i3 2013, as a 2014 model, and back then it was absolutely state-of-the-art. It had almost 100 miles of range, which was about standard for the time, but it was made almost entirely of carbon fiber and had looks like something from Minority Report, both inside and out. So it shocked the world and put BMW on the EV map.
Since then, though, the i3’s charms have wained in the EV community. Other cars had surpassed the i3 in terms of electric range, such as the Chevy Bolt and updated Nissan Leaf. So BMW was forced to give its i3 an update of its own, bumping up its range to over the 100-mile mark, which seems to be the point where customers’ range anxiety becomes less of an issue. So BMW swapped the standard i3’s battery out for a larger, 94 Ah battery that packs a very solid 114 miles of total range. The Bavarians also added some new colors and “Worlds”, as well as some new options, such as a moonroof in North America (finally). And now, the BMW i3 is more competitive in its current market. Though, it still gets some flak for its range. But I’m here to tell you that none of that matters. At least not to eight-year old me.
When it’s parked, people take pictures of it at all angles, regardless of if anyone’s inside of it
Stepping into the i3 is an experience unlike anything else in the automotive world. Firstly, just look at it. Nothing else on the road looks even remotely as funky, futuristic or interesting as the i3. It looks like it’s from another world and my eight-year old self would go insane over it, especially in the new Protonic Blue paint color. I know this because kids love the i3. They point and jump around, trying to get their friends to notice what seems like a spaceship to them driving down the street. When it’s parked, people take pictures of it at all angles, regardless of if anyone’s inside of it. It’s a head-turner, like it or not.
So when you first get in, there’s the feeling of excitement, as if you’re about to get into something special and interesting. That feeling only increases once you’re in because the cabin is even more different than anything else on the road. It’s incredibly spacious for such a small car and it has such a wide-open greenhouse that it actually almost feels like an old BMW, back before thick pillars and tons of airbags. There’s just so much glass and it’s so easy to see out of that it feels incredibly futuristic…while feeling old…if that makes any sense.
In reality, 0-60 mph takes around 7 seconds, but it feels faster than that.
The entire cabin is adorned in exposed, unfinished CFRP (Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic), which reminds you that the entire passenger cell is made from one single piece of CFRP. Which reinforces the idea that this is something from the future. Then there’s the funky seats made out of recycled paper, the leather dyed from olive oil and bamboo trim, which are all funky and different. The i3’s cabin takes minimalism to a new level.
Thumb the starter button on the strange column-mounted gear lever and the BMW i3 turns on. The iDrive screen comes alive and so does the instrument panel but that’s about it. There’s no sound, no vibration and no traditional signs of a vehicle starting. Just the silence of electrons doing their thing. Obviously, this is how every electric car starts and technically isn’t special. Though, it just feels special in the i3’s funky cabin.
Twist that strange gear lever forward to “D” and press the accelerator (I had a hard time not saying ‘gas pedal’) and the i3 surges forward with a whir. There’s obviously no exhaust note, just the whir of the electric motor turning the rear wheels. But that’s not the surprising part, as every electric car feels like this. What surprises is the power the i3 seemingly has. While its electric motor only packs 170 hp, the fact that the i3 only weighs around 3,000 lbs makes it feel sports car quick to 30 or 40 mph. In reality, 0-60 mph takes around 7 seconds, but it feels faster than that.
Acceleration isn’t the only part that feels sports car like. The ride is firm but not harsh. Thanks to its ultra-low weight, BMW was able to fit firm suspension without giving it a harsh or uncomfortable ride while also having it handle like a BMW should. Over anything other than serious road imperfections or potholes, the ride is smooth and supple. However, the steering is quick, precise and sharp, with nice weighting and impressive accuracy. It’s completely numb, with no road feedback through the wheel, but without an engine over the front wheels and skinny little tires, the i3 bites hard and turns in far quicker than expected. It feels like a proper BMW should and it’s refreshing. I also personally like the spindly, two-spoke steering wheel that feels small, skinny and light in hand. It’s a genuinely enjoyable car to drive.
It’s also impressive quiet. BMW had to work hard to make such a lightweight car, with no engine or transmission, quiet. Typically, modern BMWs have tons of sound-deadening material and thick glass to keep outside noise out while also having an engine to drown out whatever noise does make its way in. The i3 has no engine and far less sound-deadening material than a typical car, so BMW had to rely on impressive aerodynamics and proper NVH engineering to make it quiet inside. And it’s worked because the i3 is whisper quiet at anything under 80 mph and even at high speed, tire noise is the only thing you hear.
If I were to bring the BMW i3, especially this Protonic Blue one, back in time to my eight-year old self, I’d be disappointed that it couldn’t fly
But the real question is, has BMW’s new battery increased the range enough to quell the fears of range-anxiety-riddled doubters? In a word, yes. The new BMW i3 94 Ah comes with around 114 miles of range on a full battery. The REx (Range Extender) model has a bit less, thanks to its extra weight, but it also gets about another 70 miles of range from the two-cylinder gasoline scooter engine in the trunk that can kick on to charge the battery. Our tester was a REx model but during my week of driving it, and driving it a lot, I used about two miles of REx-powered range.
To start my journey, I had to pick up the BMW i3 REx 94 Ah from BMW’s North American headquarters in Woodcliff Lake, NJ. I live about 80 miles away and had to drive home on the highway, where electric cars don’t do so well, range-wise. So needless to say I was curious if I’d make it back on one charge, when considering that 114 miles of range can become 80 miles with only brief stabs of the throttle. Adding to my dilemma was the fact that I have a very difficult time driving…let’s say slowly. So I genuinely felt that I’d be stopping off at a BMW dealer to recharge. However, I made it home in one shot, without driving like a snail and without having to stop off and charge. Not only that, but I still had about 20 miles left in the tank, ran some errands and still made it back with a mile or so left on the battery. That first trip completely rid my range anxiety and gave me full confidence in the new i3 to make it almost anywhere I would need to reasonably go on one charge.
Are there issues, things I don’t like about the i3? Of course, no car is perfect. The iDrive needs to be updated to BMW’s newer system, as the i3 is supposed to be a futuristic, tech-savvy car but it still uses an older BMW iDrive system that doesn’t seem slick anymore. Some of the interior ergonomics are a bit difficult, such as the HVAC controls, which can be difficult to see and use while driving. The glove box is laughably small and can barely fit the owner’s manual, which is frustrating if you want to store important items while parked, such as my wife’s wristlet. It also lacks some useful modern tech as-standard, such as blind-spot monitors, which feels a bit cheap on such a supposedly tech-savvy car. But these are minor quibbles and don’t change the feeling that you’re driving something special.
I know the BMW i3 gets flak for not having the range of the Tesla Model S, or even the Chevy Bolt, while not being easily affordable. But that’s nonsense. The i3 packs far more than enough range than almost any American can want. It also looks like nothing else, feels like nothing else and has a specialness that simply nothing else can match. This doesn’t bode well for Audi, as the brand’s current A3 e-tron is its only plug-in at the moment and it, unfortunately, lacks any of the specialness or quality of the i3. If I were to bring the BMW i3, especially this Protonic Blue one, back in time to my eight-year old self, I’d be disappointed that it couldn’t fly. But the moment I got in and was taken for a ride, that disappointment would fade because I’d feel like I was in the future. And that’s what makes the i3 special. It’s modern-day Sci-Fi and you can’t put a price tag on that.