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2014 BMW i3 First Drive

There are a million bicycles in Amsterdam, and the people pedal upright, full-fender Omafiet roadsters at a stately pace as they travel around the city on the old cobblestone streets. It's an alternate universe of transportation, clean and green and friendly. It's the perfect place to drive the 2014 BMW i3 for the first time.

Amsterdam is the city of tomorrow, when futurists say that 70 percent of the worldwide population will live in dense metropolitan areas like this. Here the questions of renewable energy, sustainability and affordable personal mobility are serious ones. That's why this city has a highly developed infrastructure designed to support electric vehicles.

It's not too likely that any city in the U.S. will resemble Amsterdam any time soon, but the big change is only a couple decades away. And this is what the 2014 BMW i3 is about. When it goes on sale in the U.S. next spring, it will be a genuine look into the future, a vision of a cultural shift that will make EVs practical on a daily basis.

Let's Build an EV in the Old Barn!
Of course, the 2014 BMW i3 has been a long time arriving, since the project began at BMW in 2007. A team of the best and the brightest was assembled, most of whom probably thought that their careers were being thoughtlessly derailed. And finally everyone had to come together and invent a car that is neither made of conventional materials nor even assembled in a conventional way.

As it turns out, the i project has created a kind a cultural shift within BMW, as if it were a combination of the NASA space program and a community theater project in the old barn. As such projects go, it has been big, it has been expensive, and no one really knows how it will all turn out. It's a new car company, not just a new car.

So far, things look good for the BMW i3's introduction into Europe this fall, since there are 8000 pre-orders. (BMW dealers in the U.S. will begin taking orders in November.)

Not Grandmother's Bicycle
The 2014 BMW i3 looks the part of the future, since the BMW stylists self-consciously pursued a design strategy that made the car look like a science experiment, not just a conventional car with an battery-powered electric drivetrain like the 2009 Mini E and the 2012 BMW Active-E.

While it looks a bit shocking to Americans raised within the confines of the typical, homogeneous residential suburb, the i3 seems perfectly at home in a European city like Amsterdam, where there are dramatic expressions of hyper-intensive design everywhere you look - the colorful, plastic-y forms of the modernist housing along the shores of the inland lakes and canals, the small, city-friendly cars, and even the street signs. The BMW i3 looks like a plastic tool that you might find in a bin at Ikea, and we mean that in a good way.

From the outside, this 2635-pound, rear-wheel-drive car looks substantial, though it measures only 157.4 inches long, 69.9 inches wide and 62.1 inches tall on a wheelbase of 101.2 inches. A range of six colors, four trim levels and four different wheels ensure that the car has a strong streak of individuality.

Meanwhile, the interior materials look premium, despite the fact that most have been chosen for sustainability. A 6.5-inch electronic screen furnishes instrumentation in front of the driver, while a 10.2-inch screen displays audio, navigation and the usual iDrive functions. The front seats have slim profiles, yet prove very comfortable, while the rattle-free clamshell doors provide easy access to the 2-passenger bench seat in the rear. The step-in height is just a smidgen tall because of the 96 lithium-ion batteries packaged beneath the aluminum platform (made with Coca-Cola cans from America!) beneath your feet.

Built from a fabricated aluminum platform that supports a carbon-fiber superstructure, the BMW i3 is a lightweight, structurally rigid, airbag-equipped automobile, not a cheap transportation pod.

Quick, Tell Woody Allen That His Car Is Here
Driving the BMW i3 is utterly remarkable. Remarkable. It expresses the all the characteristic driving traits of a BMW, only in an EV context.

The interior is as hushed as an office in BMW's famous headquarters building in Munich, yet it's also far from the inert, noiseless environment that passes for quietness at some car companies. Once you start the car with the button on the right-hand control stalk and then twist the end of the stalk to engage Drive, the car quickly moves forward as you'd expect, yet the takeoff is surprisingly seamless, even for an EV. There's no transmission funny business since one gear ratio does all the work, while the suspension action is very carefully managed to minimize fore-and-aft rocking motion and both firmly and predictably manage side-to-side roll. This car never bobs around, even on rough cobblestone streets or the narrow bridges across the old canals.

Just like the Mini E and BMW Active-E, the i3's acceleration pedal will trigger lots of regenerative braking when you lift off, so you typically drive the car largely with the right pedal, using the brakes only to make a complete stop. The smooth action of the electric-assist power steering is superior to what we've experienced in BMW's conventional cars. The ride from the tall, narrow 155/70R-19 tires is resilient (tall tires roll more easily over bumps), the wide track ensures predictable cornering grip, and the astonishing turning circle of just 32.3 feet means you can thread the car easily through crowded streets. And even at motorway speed, heavy crosswinds don't affect the BMW i3.

The BMW i3 gets to 100 km/hr (62 mph) in 7.2 seconds on the way to an electronically limited top speed of 93 mph. The combination of a 22 kW/hr battery pack and an innovative, hybrid synchronous electric motor delivers a cruising range of 80 - 100 miles. If you need more range, an optional 34-hp, 650cc two-cylinder engine will charge the batteries sufficiently to get you 185 mi.

If Woody Allen were re-making Sleeper, his classic comic movie about the future, the BMW i3 would combine the coolness of his electric hovercraft and the practicality of his VW Beetle.

But Wait, There's More
In a way, all this is to be expected. The Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf and Toyota Prius PHEV got to the party some time ago, after all. But what is unexpected is the way that BMW has carefully considered the EV ownership experience and figured out a way to help make it practical for ordinary people. The result is a combination of electronic connectivity and ownership mobility services that directly addresses the lingering qualms about EVs, and also happens to create a little industry of EV services that could become a profit center for BMW (or even any car company).

Worried about recharging? There's an on-board charger that gives you a full charge from a wall socket in 8 hours or a full allotment of juice from a quick-charge unit in 30 minutes. Need to find a recharging station? BMW connectivity connects you the network of public chargers and allows you to reserve recharging time.

Worried about getting to grandma's distant house for the holiday celebration? BMW connectivity can formulate a long-distance trip across several different transportation platforms (bus, tram, railroad, or airplane) to get you there in time for dinner. Want to go to Paris for the weekend? Drive the i3 to your BMW dealer, where he will rent you a conventional car (probably a BMW diesel) for the trip.

Want to figure out the true cost of ownership? BMW can fiddle with the calculus with the skill of the sneaky F&I guy at the nearby car dealership, but at least you'll figure out that while the purchase price is high, fuel and maintenance costs are low, plus the hardware is unlikely to wear out anytime soon (the battery pack carries a warranty of 8 yrs/62,000 miles). And this means that the BMW i3's efficiency will eventually cover the expense of purchase and ownership.

Maybe It's a Dream
Of course, it's easy to talk about connectivity to the EV infrastructure in Amsterdam, but such an infrastructure isn't coming to America any time soon.

But the larger point here is that BMW has thought hard about the whole EV thing and come up with a plan that will support a BMW i3 owner through the whole EV experience. This is to say, BMW wants to be your partner in EV ownership, not just a hardware supplier. This is a new thought, and it's just the future-oriented thing that we expect from BMW. Just as important, BMW has created a business plan that should enable it to earn enough money to stay in the EV business, which is another entirely new thing.

When the 2014 BMW i3 goes on sale in the U.S. in May 2014 at an MSRP of $41,350, there will be no magical flowering of electric recharging stations on every street corner. But we think many people will be persuaded that an EV with a range of 80 miles can be a part of the way they live, and this is probably a good thing for everybody. Moreover, we can get the EV conversation away from both the EV purists who think every EV should have a 500-mile range like a conventional car (and damn the expense of the batteries), and also refute the BMW purists who assert that any car that departs from their fossilized ideas of BMW tradition is heresy.

The BMW i3 is a car that is modern, one that embraces the future. Isn't this what a BMW is supposed to be about?

2014 BMW i3

  • On Sale: May 2014
  • Base Price: $42,275 (est. )
  • Motor: hybrid synchronous electric; 22-kW/hr battery pack
  • Power: 125 kW (170 hp); 184 lb-ft of torque
  • Cruising Range: 80 – 100 miles
  • Drive: Rear-wheel
  • Curb Weight: 2635 lbs

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