BMW i3 Review: Expectations are Everything

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The BMW i3 is just a car in the same way that an iPhone is just a phone. It does the job, but it’s really about so much more than basic functionality. It is a techy gadget on wheels, and it’s as much a personal brand statement as it is a mode of transportation.

As a new age city car, a Toyota Prius C will do the exact same functional job as the BMW i3 for less than half the price. But you could say the same for any other BMW as well, compared to a normal car. BMWs are pure luxury items, just like an Apple products, so we need to look at the car in that way.

As a car reviewer, I have my experience driving the car for a few minutes, hours or days, and then I give the car back. Owners have to live with the car, day-in and day-out for extended time. Consequently, our two experiences can often wind up pretty different.

The BMW i3 is one such car. I had my experience driving it, and I developed my initial opinion based on that. But then I looked around online to see what actual customers were saying, and I found much more I needed to consider before rendering my verdict. I think a lot comes down to how you approach the BMW i3, and how you intend to use the car.

Here is my take from both my drive in the car as well as from further research I’ve done.

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The BMW i3 works very well in theory and delivers a great first impression

The i3 I drove had the mid-range “Giga World” trim with the optional range extender motor. It had plenty of battery power for most of my drive but the range extender kicked on near the end.

I think BMW absolutely nailed the futuristic styling of the i3. It turns heads everywhere in a “wow that’s cool” sort of way.

I also think they nailed it with the car’s interior, which is largely made of recycled and renewable materials. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it helps legitimize the i3’s green appeal (full leather is available with the Mega World trim). BMW did a good job of making the i3’s cabin feel high quality enough for the brand, despite the use of non-traditional luxury materials.

In terms of the i3’s practicality, it’s a very decent local driver, but not really a cruiser for long trips. The back seat is livable for two adults, and the hatchback design grants ample space for your needs. It also has suicide doors, just like a Rolls Royce, so I guess that makes it “fancy.”

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The i3 drives like you’d think a “BMW Prius” would

As you might expect, BMW has put a driver-focused touch on their electric city car. It’s way more fun to drive than a Toyota Prius, Nissan Leaf or a Chevy Volt.

First off, the BMW i3 is a lightweight, around 2,800lbs with the range extender fitted, and around 2,600lbs without it. It accomplishes this using BMW’s cutting edge construction, made of carbon fiber reinforced plastic. For comparison, a Toyota Prius weighs around 3,000lbs, a Chevy Volt weighs around 3,500lbs, and a Nissan Leaf weighs around 3,300 lbs. So the i3’s weight savings are pretty significant.

As a result of its lighter weight, and some BMW handling treatment, the i3 feels more nimble on the road than any of its rivals. It also has something the others don’t that really helps the “fun to drive” factor, and that’s rear-wheel-drive. The BMW i3 is very much the “sports car” of the green city car segment.

In addition to handling better and being lighter, the BMW i3 also has more power than all of its rivals. While 170hp surely won’t make even a scratch on the performance of a Tesla Model S, the i3 has a way more guts than the other green city cars. 0-60 comes in the 7 second range, which isn’t bad for a car like this at all.

The BMW i3 is a zippy little city car that’s more fun than its rivals, but that’s not a surprise. So far the i3 is everything you’d expect it to be, and this is where a typical customer test drive would end. At this point most people would gladly sign the papers, but here comes the catch…

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The i3 is a lot of nice fluff, but it’s not much more of an electric car than a Nissan Leaf

Sure, the BMW i3 may be fun and stylish, but at the end of the day it’s still an electric car that has range anxiety, yes even with the range extender.

You see, BMW did not design the i3 to be like a Chevrolet Volt, which is able to drive using its gasoline generator for extended periods without being plugged in. In the BMW i3, the dinky little 2 cylinder range extender was really just supposed to limp you to the nearest charging station, and that’s all. It’s essentially just a safety net that will keep you from needing a tow truck. It was not meant to drive the car for hundreds of miles on its own, and that’s part of why it only has a 1.9 gallon fuel tank.

Many owners who have tried to rely on the generator report a significant drop in performance on the highway or when climbing hills. BMW has released a “fix,” but it’s really just a warning that lets the driver know that performance may drop off when the battery isn’t well charged. There are also some 3rd party software mods out there that allow you to turn the generator on or off manually.  You’ll be risking the loss of your warranty if you “jailbreak” the i3’s system, though.

What all of this means is that you cannot approach a BMW i3 like you would a Chevy Volt or a Toyota Prius. The i3 is much closer to the Nissan Leaf. You should treat it like a full electric car, even if you buy the range extender (which I’d still recommend because why risk getting stuck on the side of the road?).

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Have the right expectations

Don’t buy a BMW i3 if you need to take extended trips. It is very much a local driver, one that is ideal for a city or town. If you intend to use the i3 within its full-electric range, then it’s a splendid way to zip around your area. 80 miles is a decent amount of range for local driving, surely enough for most daily commutes and errands.

Changes for 2017

BMW will be making some improvements to the i3 for the 2017 model year. Most notably, they will be increasing the car’s electric range by 50% to around 120 miles. I’m hoping they also fit a more robust gas generator, or at least better software, so they can make the car more useable when range runs out. A bigger fuel tank wouldn’t hurt either.

I get that BMW wanted the generator to be a safety net, but with the precedent set by the Chevy Volt, I think buyers really want to be able to drive the car without plugging it in if they need to. If you’re going to offer the range extender, why not make it fully functional?

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Dollars and Sense

The BMW i3 starts at $43,000 and can get up to around $60,000 loaded, before government incentives. But remember, this is a BMW electric car, so I don’t think the pricing is bad at all.

The BMW i3 is way cheaper than a Tesla Model S, but also way nicer, more fun and more stylish than a Toyota Prius or a Nissan Leaf. I think the i3’s most comparable competitor has to be the new Chevrolet Volt. The Chevy isn’t quite the futuristic luxury item that the BMW is, but it’s able to drive long distances without any range anxiety.

Which is better? I think it comes down to how you’d be using the car. If you want to be able to drive longer trips with ease, the Volt is the way to go. But, if you’re staying local, there’s no denying that the BMW i3 is pretty sweet.

Buyer beware, though. If you do want a BMW i3, I strongly urge you to buy a used one because the depreciation has been very steep. You can find i3s for well under $30,000 right now, with just a few thousand miles on them. Even Giga and Mega World models are in the low-mid $30k range. This is not a smart way to spend $50-60k at all. If you really want a brand new i3, you should at least wait for the updated 2017 models to come out.

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Verdict

The BMW i3 is a cool, funky electric car with a futuristic appeal. It drives great and it’s practical, but underneath it’s still a fairly conventional electric car, not much different than a Nissan Leaf. That’s not really a bad thing, though, because the world has room for a posh electric city car. Just be sure you buy into the i3 knowing that, and also be sure to factor in the steep depreciation.

I think a used BMW i3 is a great buy for $30,000. A new one isn’t bad either, provided you don’t mind flushing money down the toilet.

Overall, I think the i3 is a great start for BMW’s i-Division, and I look forward to what comes next. There’s a lot to improve, but they also gave us a lot to love.

-Nick Walker

MoM Score: BMW i3 Range Extender

Primary Function: MPG: 1
Secondary Functions: Luxury(2) Practicality(2): 2
Visual Appeal: 2
Build Quality: 2
Value for Money: 1

Final Score: 8 /10

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