Driving the 2014 BMW i3 in the Real World
Driving a modern electric car usually requires a host of usernames and passwords if you want to take advantage of the latest integrated smartphone apps. But those same usernames and passwords can make the high-tech tools impractical -- even unusable -- during a casual press-car drive. We tend not to have such electric cars long enough to try all the connectivity features. To overcome this, I recently spent a week in a friend's 2014 BMW i3 Range Extender (REx), complete with login credentials for all the extras, so I could immerse myself as an "owner" of the quirky electron-powered hatchback.
Charging at Home
The 2014 BMW i3 comes with a 120-volt vehicle charger, called the Occasional Use Cable (OUC), which plugs into a standard household outlet and fully charges the i3 in 20 hours. Most any long-term owner should install a 240-volt fast charger, which can fully recharge the i3 in about 3.5 hours. The price of the quick charger will depend on the aesthetic appeal of the charger's case, as well as the length of the charging cable. Your local BMW dealer will sell you the swanky-looking BMW i Charging Station for a rather pricey $1,080, while a basic unit with a shorter cable from Amazon costs as little as $500.
Pick up a 30-amp unit with the longer, 25-foot cable to handle other electric cars with different charging port locations. Installation costs for a 240-volt unit vary. If you buy the original-equipment Bosch Automotive Service Solutions fast charger, BMW dealer setup is included, and you can fold the cost of the charger port into the car's monthly payments. Some local power companies offer rebates to cover both the purchase and installation of a fast charger. Another big advantage of a 240-volt charger is that you can set the i3 to fully charge during the electrical grid's cheaper off-peak periods.
I don't own a fast charger, so during my week with the 2014 BMW i3, I had to recharge the car with the slow OUC setup. As long as I didn't drive it more than about 20 miles in a day, the OUC sufficiently recharged the i3 overnight. On days when I drove it much farther, it took nearly 20 hours to get a full charge. I also had to be diligent about plugging the car into the OUC each time I was home, even if only for a short time. This is the drawback of any short-term car test -- any smart BMW i3 owner will install a fast charger and rarely use the OUC.
Charging Out in the World
As electric car popularity grows, so does the charging infrastructure. More public charging stations are popping up in downtown areas, shopping centers, and parking garages. BMW has partnered with ChargePoint, which has a network of nearly 20,000 chargers across the U.S. and Canada. A new 2014 BMW i3 comes with a pair of ChargePoint cards you activate online and pay for the stations that are not free.
An even cooler ChargePoint smartphone (Apple or Android) app searches for charging stations, displays which stations are unoccupied, and manages your account. You can check how long your i3 has been taking on juice, once the charging cable is connected to the car. Most of ChargePoint's infrastructure are "Level 2" stations, which can add up to 25 miles of range for each hour of charging (like a 240-volt home charger). You can also search for charging locations from the i3's navigation system.
The ChargePoint app worked great and helped find locations to replenish the BMW i3. The only quirk was when my iPhone couldn't get a GPS signal and cellular network connection in the basement of a parking garage. I didn't have a ChargePoint card with me, so I walked to the street level to get a signal and unlock the charging station. It was frustrating and added about 10 minutes to the process, but I eventually charged the car.
BMW also offers a $700 SAE DC Fast Charging option for the i3. It fits an additional connector to the car's charging port and recharges the battery pack by up to 80 percent in just 20 to 30 minutes. The infrastructure for the Fast Charging option is very limited, with fewer than 40 on the ChargePoint network in the United States, 27 of them in electric-car-friendly California.
Last July, BMW North America said it's "working with our partners [read: ChargePoint] to install hundreds of BMW i DC Combo fast chargers in convenient locations across the U.S." This network has nothing to do with Tesla's Supercharger infrastructure, which uses a connector that works only with Tesla's cars. BMW sells its i DC Fast Charger for $6,548 (plus installation) but that's a "subsidized price for BMW Centers (dealerships) and authorized partners" and it's really designed for commercial and public use. I can't imagine any i3 owners needing this type of charger at home.
The BMW i Remote App
This remote app also is available for both Android and Apple phones. There's some overlap with the ChargePoint app -- specifically the ability to search for public charging stations -- but the BMW app adds a ton of other features. You can precondition the 2014 BMW i3 -- warm the interior on a cold day or cool down the passenger compartment in the summer -- with only a few simple swipes of your smartphone. As long as you are connected to a charger during preconditioning, this increases the driving range, because the heater or air conditioner won't have to work as hard on battery power after you unplug. Additionally, you can lock and unlock the car or flash the headlights and honk the horn via the app, and you can check the car's charging status and remotely set up off-peak charging. The BMW i Remote App even overlays a "range bubble" over a map, showing you approximately what locations you're able to reach on the present state of charge. The navigation system on the i3 has this same useful feature.
The Range Extender Experience
The standard BMW i3 BEV is a pure electric. For another $3,850, the BMW i3 Range Extender, the model I drove, adds a 647-cc two-cylinder engine, a 1.9-gallon fuel tank, and about 300 pounds to the car's weight, and it extends the estimated range to 150 miles. Once the battery pack depletes to about 5 percent of available power, the gasoline engine fires up. The 38-hp BMW scooter motor never directly drives the i3 or actually charges the i3; it's designed to maintain the battery level.
The REx option does not turn the i3 into a conventional car. You have to mind the way you drive once the gas engine fires up. I was cruising down the highway at 80 mph with the small twin-cylinder engine purring away behind the rear seats when the car started losing power. My max speed suddenly became 73 mph (versus BMW's quoted top speed of 93 mph). Think of the REx setup for exactly what it is: a range extender to get you back to a battery charger and full performance.
The EPA rates the i3 REx's battery-only range at 72 miles versus 81 miles for the lighter, pure-electric i3 BEV. I ran the i3 REx in the winter, driving it like a normal car with little regard for efficiency, and I traveled 45 to 50 miles before the REx engine kicked in. Better use of the electron-saving Eco Pro and Eco Pro Plus drive modes, combined with consistent preheating, would surely improve that range. But the torque of the i3 is just so much fun that you find yourself rocketing away from every traffic light. That's not a good practice if you're looking to maximize range.
I really like the 2014 BMW i3 REx and enjoyed my time with it. Sure, it lacks the outright dynamics of a traditional BMW, the ride is rather stiff, and the car is rather expensive. My fully loaded loaner had a sticker price of $54,725 before the $7,500 federal tax credit. But the i3 is funky fun and full of connectivity options that help you live with the hatchback on a day-to-day basis. It has plenty of room for four adults, and rear access is easy via the clamshell door, though rear cargo space is a bit tight. The i3 would make an excellent second car for a smaller family, and it is perfect for many daily commutes.