2014 BMW i3 eDrive Second Drive
Driving the Ultimate Futurists' Machine
It's a pity that it costs so much to launch a new automotive brand name, because e-Setta (an electric play on BMW's classic bubble-car Isetta) was reportedly considered, and might have proved an easier sell for BMW's new earth-hugging electrics. Instead, the 285 (of 340) BMW dealers signed up to sell the BMW i3 and other electric cars will need to work hard to dissuade folks from expecting to have their sustainable, baby-carbon-footprint cake and eat up twisty byways, too.
"But Mr. Technical Director," you're musing, "Why is that, when the i3 weighs just 2850 pounds, has a super-low center of gravity and a 50/50 weight distribution, is rear-drive, and comes standard with 19-inch rolling stock?" Admittedly, this technological moonshot seems 100 percent BMW on paper, but I have a hunch it's no Ultimate Driving Machine. But I can't say definitively, because the 150-mile driving event described in this report was held in the congested, bicycle-clogged, 7-million-strong megalopolis of Amsterdam.
Surely if the i3 did handle like a BMW they'd have found us at least one unimpeded S-curve somewhere along the route and/or allowed us to drive on the Zandvoort Grand Prix circuit instead of just setting up a micro slalom in its parking lot, right?
No, dear customers, you need to expect a vehicle designed for time travel, with its dial set to 2050, when 70 percent of Earth's unfathomable population will live in megacities without the luxury of rolling solo in 2-ton SUVs. We'll be car-sharing compacts designed to tread very lightly on Mother Earth from cradle to auto graveyard. BMW's i division kept this altruistic "tread lightly" objective uppermost in mind throughout the i3's design and development, often at the expense of selfish "driving fun" concerns.
A perfect example: While the feathery forged wheels are an impressive 19 inches in diameter, they're only 5.0 and 5.5 inches wide front and rear, shod with 155/70 and 175/65 tires to minimize frontal area and rolling resistance. These tires' total contact patch area is similar to that of a set of conventional tires, but the patches are long and narrow—great for traction under acceleration or braking, but crappy for lateral grip. Stiffer sidewalls make up for some of that, but make these tall-sidewall tires ride like low-profilers. (We felt the impact of lane-divider paint lines.) Range über alles!
The car itself is one element in a suite of mobility products and services BMW envisions offering, so the company has invested in DriveNow (a car sharing program), ParkAtMyHouse (land sharing), and MyCityWay (a location-aware city guide app). But let's focus on the car, which looks and feels about as futuristic as its carbon-fiber "Life module" body on aluminum "Drive module" rolling chassis design concept suggest. The gear selector is a rotary gizmo on the steering column. The main gauges are concentrated in a freestanding iPad Mini-like display ahead of the driver, while infotainment/nav/ConnectedDrive functions appear on a wider screen that hovers over an open stowage bin in the center of the dash. The forward dash and upper door panels are made from renewable kenaf plants (a hemp relative) and look like cheap trunkliner material that's rock-hard to the touch. The seat fabric made from recycled plastic bottles looks and feels like normal cloth, while optional leather is tanned using olive-tree extract. BMW i's heart is in the right place but it's hard not to roll your eyes a little at some of these details.
Down on the lower center console one finds the familiar BMW iDrive controller and a toggle switch for selecting the Comfort, EcoPro, and EcoPro+ drive modes. Comfort means "I'm comfortable enough with my remaining battery range to work the heat-pump climate control system, seat heaters, etc. at full strength and to accelerate aggressively." (It would be the Sport setting in normal BMWs.) EcoPro inserts a virtual rubber band in the throttle linkage and dials back all the energy-sapping devices. EcoPro+ turns off the climate control and imposes a 55-mph speed limiter (flooring the throttle lets you exceed it) to extend range by as much as 12 miles. Our three driving stints indicated the 22-kW-hr lithium-ion battery pack would take us between 70-90 miles. An optional ($3850) 647cc 34-hp I-2 range extender and 2.4-gallon tank promise 200 miles of total range, but add 265 pounds.
The motor's 184 lb-ft of torque launch the 2850-pound i3 briskly, and instead of the power tapering off above 3000-4000 rpm as in most permanent-magnet-motor EVs, this one charges on a bit stronger thanks to its patented combination of permanent and switched-reluctance electromagnetic fields. (This hybrid design also makes the motor small and light for its output.) BMW's 0-62-mph estimate of 7.2 seconds (7.9 with range extender) seems realistic and would rank the i3 ahead of all mainstream EVs we've tested except Teslas and Fiskers. Top speed is limited to 93 mph (55 mph in range-extending mode). Regenerative braking is strong enough to permit one-pedal driving in nearly all city conditions (bad news for those still mourning the loss of three-pedal driving), but careful ankle calibration is required for smoothness. The electric assist steering feels overly light, but it points the car accurately -- just get all your braking done before that sharp corner. Rear drive means there's no torque steer, and with no CV joints to protect, the turn circle is a bubble-car-like 32.3 feet.
Maybe the car manages its skinny-tire understeer really well, and the PR machine just doesn't want us focus on driving dynamics. One engineer who begged to remain nameless did admit that the i3 had run laps at the Nürburgring Nordschleife, logging times within minutes of the EV-record-setting Mini E racer. We'll get one out on real, bicycle-free roads closer to the May on-sale date, and let you know whether the whole package seems worth the anticipated $42,275 asking price (before tax credits) taking into account claims that operating costs (including insurance) will be two-thirds to one-half that of a 1-series. It'd be an easier call if it were badged eSetta…