2014 BMW i3 quick drive review: Fully fleshed

2014 BMW i3

2014 BMW i3

In our review of the 2011 Nissan Leaf we called it “a wholly finished and fully fleshed out modern automobile that just happens not to be powered by internal combustion but a battery-electric.” So is the new BMW i3.

The easy way to make an electric car is to take an existing internal combustion model, pull the engine and replace it with an electric motor and then stash the batteries in the trunk or somewhere else that’s moderately inconvenient. But it’s not the best, which is to create a new design that’s configured around the batteries and electric motor.

The BMW i3 goes the Leaf a least one better by using more advanced (and expensive) materials. The i3’s passenger cell, called Life Module by BMW, is the first ever mass-produced carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) passenger cell. That’s mass-produced not in terms of a Chevy Malibu but more than the limited-production and tres expensive McLaren exotic sports cars, which have advanced carbon fiber used in automotive structure, though at a much higher price than the Bimmer, more about which later.

2014 BMW i3 interior

The 2014 BMW i3 interior is rife with recycled and sustainable materials. (click to enlarge)

Thanks to the use of CFRP, the passenger cell is a strong as steel but fifty percent lighter, and thirty percent lighter than if it were made of aluminum.

The Drive Module of the BMW i3, however, is 100 percent aluminum, and supports the 22 Kwh lithium-ion battery that weighs in at 450 lbs. The Drive module also serves as attachment points for the suspension along with structural crash and support elements.

Overall it brings the four-passenger BMW i3 to a curb weight of 2,700 lbs., which with 170 horsepower—but 184 lb-ft of torque as soon as it moves—the i3 is quick off the line and hits 60 mph in 7.2 seconds, per BMW. Top speed is limited to 93 mph, though that’s relatively moot.

BMW has the equivalent of one-foot operation, using what it capitalizes as Brake Energy Regeneration. At around-town speeds, the i3 uses regeneration braking to slow down. Rather than go into regen mode, however, at higher speeds the i3 will coast, which BMW says is more efficient.

Our test route, around BMW’s corporate campus in New Jersey, didn’t allow us to experience the coasting mode, but the braking effect at lower speeds is strong, literally much like applying the brakes. It’s startling at first but becomes more natural. BMW used the same system on its Mini e battery-electric development vehicle  and the “electronauts” who leased the Mini e liked it, so it was repeated with the BMW i3.

The Mini e, however, sounded like a high speed golf cart, full of electric drivetrain sounds. BMW tamed those noises, which weren’t as intrusive with the Mini e. The BMW i3 is much more of a silent runner.

The BMW i3 runs on special light alloy 19-inch wheels, mounted with an unusual 155/70/19 tire. Despite being relatively narrow, the tire has a contact patch about the same as a regular tire, according to BMW, and the tires’ width—or lack thereof–makes the 32.3-foot turning radius possible.

2014 BMW i3

2014 BMW i3 (click to enlarge)

BMW claims an 80 to 100 mile “real world” range for the i3, and with a 220v charger, a full recharge takes three hours. With SAE DC Combo charging, an 80 percent charge takes about 20 minutes, a full charge requires ten minutes more.  But for those who suffer from range anxiety, the BMW can be equipped with a two-cylinder gasoline-engine range extender that recharges the batteries, much like the integrated range-extending gas engine on the Chevrolet Volt. For the BMW i3, the range extended for another 300 miles.

Of course, a green car can’t be fully green without renewable components, and the BMW i3 is about as sustainable as the come, with the dashboard make from eucalyptus wood that’s been responsibly forested—without displacing any koalas, we presume. The kenaf plant from southern Asia is used elsewhere in the interior, the roof is made from leftover CFRP from other i3 manufacturing processes, and 25 percent of the interior trim comes from recycled materials. Water and wind power is used to power manufacturing, while olive-leaf extract is used to tan the leather used in the i3’s interior leather surfaces…no doubt from sustainable cows.

Deliveries of the BMW i3 have begun in the U.S., with select BMW dealers with a base price of $41,350, or $45,200 for the range extender model, and the i3 being a BMW, options and accessories will drive prices northward.

But when it comes to, as we mentioned, being fleshed out, while the Nissan Leaf is a Nissan, and a Chevrolet Volt a Chevrolet, the BMW i3 is a BMW, and that makes all the difference.

Basic dimensions

  • Wheelbase: 101.2 inches
  • Length: 157.4
  • Height: 62.1
  • Width: 69.9

Curb weight: 2,635 lbs; 2,899 lbs with range extender