Few new cars are truly new. Usually, engines, infotainment systems, even entire chassis carry over from previous models. Usually, new is a relative term.
The BMW i3 is not the usual fare. From its carbon fiber and aluminum chassis to its recycled plant dashboard, BMW’s first all-electric production vehicle is about as new as they come.
Maybe that’s why it’s taken so long to get here. Car spotters will recognize the i3 from its debut two years ago at the Frankfurt Motor Show as a concept car, and from numerous articles on this site and others. The genuine article was finally unveiled in New York City on Monday.
So what does BMW’s paradigm-shifting EV look like? Remarkably like a small city car. Oliver Walter, Head of Product Management for the i3, said the car was a response to urbanization.
“We quickly realized that people are moving toward the cities,” Walter said of a BMW effort to divine the future of motoring that dates back to 2006. That’s why BMW chose to enter the EV market with this car and not a more traditional luxury vehicle.
Expect the unexpected
The result is a car brimming with the unexpected. The i3 is the first car to be built on BMW’s LifeDrive architecture, consisting of a carbon fiber-reinforced plastic Life Module that acts as a safety cage for the occupants, and an aluminum Drive Module that holds the rear-mounted electric motor and the suspension.
In proper BMW fashion, that motor drives the rear wheels. It’s good for 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. The 22-kWh lithium-ion battery pack, mounted under the floor, provides a range of 80 to 100 miles and an unofficial 0 to 60 mph time of 7.0 seconds.
It’s that need to package an electric powertrain in a new type of chassis that led BMW design chief Adrian van Hooydonk to call the i3 a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”
In photos, the i3 looks like an elongated Mini with a BMW grille. In reality, the i3 appears much taller and wider than the average micro car. It also rides on 20-inch wheels, but they are incredibly narrow to reduce frontal area.
Other notable styling cues include rear-hinger suicide doors, which create a jagged line running across the car in profile view, a rear valance with LED taillights that van Hooydonk said was inspired by smartphone screens, and BMW’s signature “twin kidney” grille, albeit non-functional.
However, things get really strange when you step inside. One of the primary materials is something that looks like trunk liner, but is Kenaf, a new type of eco-friendly fiber. Even the wood trim is processed without chemicals, giving it look that is more Ikea than BMW.
Even if eco-friendly interior trimmings don’t become a fashion statement, i3 buyers will still be pleasantly surprised by the amount of interior space.
Even with a considerable amount of real estate taken up by the dashboard, which forms a broad, table-like surface necessary to meet the steeply-raked windshield, there’s plenty of room for average-sized drivers. The rear seats, however, are not that spacious.
The driving position is also pretty high, which should reassure people who cling to crossovers for their commanding views.
Coping with range anxiety
Like all carmakers fielding EVs, BMW has had to confront range anxiety. It’s approach can best be described as “all of the above.”
BMW might have to… convince buyers that they don’t need to drive more than 100 miles in a day, and that interiors made from recycled plants and plastic are cool.
Starting with the obvious, BMW is offering a home charger installation service. The car’s onboard 7.3-kW charger can recharge a fully drained battery in three hours. An optional DC Fast Charger is compatible with the popular public charging stations, and can impart an 80 percent charge in 20 minutes.
To help drivers find those public stations, BMW is equipping the i3 with a navigation system specially programmed to find them. i3 drivers will even be able to reserve certain spots ahead of time. The navigation system can also chose an “eco” route to stretch those electrons.
Taking a page from General Motors’ playbook, BMW will also offer apps that allow i3 owners to monitor their battery level, and update them on charging status.
Finally, the i3 will be offered with an optional range-extending gasoline engine, making it the only production car to be both a plug-in hybrid and a straight EV, or at least a close cousin to the Chevy Volt, which includes a gas-powered generating engine as standard. The engine in question is a 650cc twin with 34 hp, sourced from BMW’s motorcycle division. It’s mounted next to the electric motor under the i3’s trunk floor, but isn’t connected to the wheels.
Is it a BMW?
It’s easy to praise a car for being brazen and radical, but will BMW’s traditional buyers really consider a small hatchback like the i3?
“It’s a BMW, full stop,” said i3 product management chief Walter. He is confident that the i3’s emphasis on premium design will attract buyers.
Still, as with previous EVs and plug-in hybrids from other brands, BMW might have to engage in some customer education. It will have to convince buyers that they don’t need to drive more than 100 miles in a day, and that interiors made from recycled plants and plastic are cool.
“It was a learning process for us,” Walter said, “and it will be for the customer as well.”
The i3 will certainly carry a premium price. The base i3 Mega will start at $41,350, or $45,200 with the range extender. Pricier Giga and Terra trim levels will follow.
The i3 goes on sale in Europe this fall and in the United States by spring 2014. When it does, there really won’t be anything else like it on the road.