It’s the shape of the 2017 BMW i3 that made me want to not like it. I like sleek, sporty cars — ones that with flat, pointy noses and windshields so raked back they slip right under wind resistance — and the i3 looks more like a brightly colored toaster. A fancy, $48,000 BMW-branded toaster from the Jetsons’ kitchen, sure, but it’s hardly racy.
I wasn’t expecting to have much fun, but getting behind the wheel changed my mind. Here are a few things about the range-extender equipped i3 that pleasantly surprised me.
1. The interior is absolutely stunning.
The cabin of the i3 looks like an office in a tony architecture firm where you could really get some great design work done. Bare eucalyptus wood grain flows in a wave over the i3’s dash and under the sharp, freestanding infotainment screen. Part of the dash closest to the windshield is covered in what looks like textured charcoal fabric, though it’s actually plastic. The doors and manually adjustable seats are covered in tweed with tan leather patches, like a seasoned English professor’s favorite sport jacket. (According to BMW, the leather is dyed via a natural process with olive-leaf extract at their most environmentally friendly auto plant.) The cabin looks like it belongs to a much more expensive vehicle, with similarities to the futuristic i8.
2. Mashing the throttle produces a sweet thrill.
The great thing about electric motors is that torque is immediate — and the i3 has 184 lb-ft of it. Step on the gas in Comfort mode and you’ll get pushed back in your seat. The surrounding traffic feels like it’s moving in slow motion, and you are a blur of color. Top speed is a reported 93 mph, though if you’re in EcoPro mode, speed is limited to 75 mph. The limit is fine, because EcoPro adds time to a charge, but unlike EcoPro Plus, you can still use the air-conditioner, radio, etc.
3. Charging is easy.
The charging pack comes with a 110-volt plug, so ordinary home sockets do the trick — slowly. It took me overnight to get a full charge. My sister in Phoenix, Arizona, has a 2016 i3 she uses as her daily commuter, for which her husband installed a quick charger in their garage. It takes her three to five hours to get a full charge from empty.
Fortunately, the i3 has impressive regenerative powers. It is possible to go shopping and out to lunch and return home with the same amount of range you had when you left. That’s not just due to braking — regeneration happens any time you’re moving, all the more when your foot is off the accelerator. I discovered that with enough space, the car will stop at a light without having to apply the brakes.
4. The range extender cures range anxiety.
I live 24 miles away from AUTOMOBILE HQ. In Los Angeles, that’s a lifetime. I spend about three hours a day commuting, most of it on Interstate 405, one of the most congested freeways in the U.S., and I live in fear of breaking down. The range extender, which converts the i3 from an EV to a PHEV, assuaged my worries. I knew that if I got close to the end of the line, I could cruise directly to a regular gas station.
The two-cylinder, gasoline-powered engine drinks from a fuel tank that holds 1.9 gallons and kicks on when the charge drops below 6 percent. It doesn’t directly power the car, but instead sends power to a generator, which delivers electricity to the motor and battery. The range extender means the i3 can go for 180 miles, an additional 66 over its 114-mile electric-only range. With recharging and the i3’s respectable regenerative powers, however, it’s possible to go a long time without the engine turning on.