Driving, redefined

Our first drive in the all-electric i3 reveals a new kind of Ultimate Driving Machine, one that’s as well suited to big-city driving as an M3 is to a deserted backroad. Oh, and it’s not exactly slow ’round the Nürburgring, either!

Photo: Driving, redefined 1
January 9, 2014

Look at the i3’s carbon fiber and aluminum structure and you might think it’s a performance car. It’s certainly light enough, weighing just 2,635 lbs. With 170 hp on tap, that yields zero to 60 mph times close to 7.0 seconds, about what a base MINI Cooper will run. But where the MINI wears its sporting pretensions on its sleeve, the i3 has a much more serious role within the BMW Group. Its mission is to shift the whole culture surrounding the idea of the automobile.

That’s a big job for any car, let alone one that’s 14.8 inches shorter than a BMW 1 Series. Fortunately, this small car has more interior space than the company’s bread and butter 3 Series, thanks in large part to the flat floor made possible by the i3’s electric powertrain. The i3 is a bundle of contradictions; indeed, contradiction is one of the keys to the car’s existence. The i3 breaks apart the conventions and preconceptions of what a car is and what it should do, in the process creating a new model for sustainable transportation. [See Bimmer #119 for more about the i3’s conceptual basis.—Ed.]

All of that says something about what the i3 is, but not much about how it drives. For that, we’ve flown to Amsterdam to get behind the wheel of this all-electric BMW at its world driving premiere.

Spacious and simple

The first thing you notice when you sit down and slide the driver’s seat back is the almost comical amount of legroom that is available to the driver. It’s as if the Project i design team had been made up of moonlighting professional basketball players. At maximum extension, front legroom comes at the expense of rear seat passengers, but the good news is that six-foot tall drivers can carry six-foot tall rear sear passengers. Those rear seats are easily accessible through rear-hinged doors that engage the front doors without the obstruction of a B-pillar—score one for the advantages of the super-stiff passenger compartment made from carbon fiber.

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Having found a comfortable seating position, the driver activates the i3 by pressing the “Start” button atop the stylish dash. As long as you have the key somewhere inside the car, the i3 will allow you to proceed.

As with most electric cars, pressing Start wakes everything up but doesn’t involve much drama. Two rectangular screens light up: a 10.2-inch screen in the center of the dashboard for vehicle navigation and information and a smaller 6.5-inch display that seems to float directly ahead of the driver and provides the usual driving information like vehicle speed and whether your left blinker is on. The usual BMW iDrive controller rests between the seats.

To begin actually motoring requires the driver to rotate a large knob next to the steering wheel to “D” for Drive or “R” for Reverse. This control seems vaguely retro, the sort of thing one would find on a 1950s American car with an automatic transmission. But hey, it’s simple!

Many electric cars include creep in their driveline, simulating the forward rolling motion that occurs when you take your foot off the brake on a combustion-engine car with an automatic transmission. None of that for the i3. You don’t start moving until you tip into the throttle, and then you move away smoothly and almost silently.

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The i3 is remarkably quiet inside—even rear seat passengers can contribute to front seat conversations at normal volume levels. You might hear an occasional whirring from the motor, particularly when accelerating hard, and the whirring is slightly louder in the rear seats than in the front, but it never becomes annoying.

Solid steering on skinny tires

The steering of BMW’s new electric car has electric assist, naturally, and the system used here is a dramatic improvement over some of the electrically assisted steering fitted to other recent BMWs. It is precise and provides good feedback, in part due to the long contact patch that results from the i3’s relatively skinny and large-diameter Bridgestone tires (155/70R-19). The tire size was chosen primarily to lower aerodynamic drag (Cd is a commendable 0.29) and reduce rolling resistance, but the long tire footprint gives the added benefit of good directional stability and the kind of steering feel that is often lost with wide, low-profile tires. Parenthetically, heavy crosswinds don’t have much effect on the direction of the i3.

The front suspension is by MacPherson struts—long a mainstay for BMW—and provides a geometry that allows an extremely tight 32.3-foot turning circle for optimum urban agility and parking in tight spaces. Ride comfort is reasonable, though minor road roughness does find its way into the cabin as a result of the high rear tire inflation pressure (again set for reduced rolling resistance). A five-link rear suspension is packaged tightly alongside the rear-mounted electric motor and provides good comfort over larger bumps. Interestingly, the i3’s chief suspension engineer came to the project from the M division, having previously been responsible for the suspension on the E90 M3.

The narrow tires do generate less ultimate lateral grip on dry surfaces than would wider low profile tires, but they’re perfectly capable in ordinary and even spirited driving. The 50/50 weight distribution gives the i3 a reasonable balance, and in any case the usual suite of BMW driver’s aids like Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), Dynamic Traction Control (DTC) and Cornering Brake Control (CBC) intervene before the driver finds the vehicle’s limits. BMW engineers report that winter testing in Arjeplog, Sweden proved that fitting Bridgestone’s winter tires makes the car acceptable for use in colder climates.

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Until now, all of that could be true for almost any car built by BMW. The difference, of course, is that the i3 is an electric vehicle, powered by a synchronous electric motor developed in-house at BMW.

The motor differs from typical electric motors in the way its magnetic iron components are configured to take advantage of the changing field produced when the motor spins. The patented configuration allows the 50-kg (110-lb.) motor to maintain high levels of torque up to its maximum speed of 11,400 rpm. The motor is connected to the rear wheels through a differential—as with most electrics, the i3 has just one forward gear. Top speed is electronically limited to 93 mph, although with such a low coefficient of drag and significant horsepower, the i3 should be capable of significantly higher speeds. (Tuners, are you listening?)

Rolling away from a stop is as easy as pressing lightly on the throttle pedal. This control is amazingly precise in its action, something you appreciate even more when slowing down or coming to a stop. When BMW tested its electric drivetrain in the electric MINI E, it found that customers liked a large amount of regenerative braking.

When the vehicle slows, the motor acts as a generator and pushes energy back into the battery pack. Depending upon how much regenerative braking the engineers dial in, the car can coast for a long time or slow significantly, as if the brakes have been applied. BMW chose the latter strategy, and it is possible to drive the i3 in stop-and-go traffic without ever touching the brake pedal. Incidentally, the brake lights come on if the amount that the vehicle slows by regenerative braking is similar to the amount that would occur by pressing the brake pedal.

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After just a few miles of driving, it is quite entertaining to time your deceleration so that the i3 coasts gently to a stop just feet from the vehicle in front of you. The only downside is that if you have stopped on a slight uphill, the i3 will roll backwards unless you apply a small amount of throttle to hold it in place or put your foot on the brake. The idea of a “hill-holder” similar to that used on other BMWs was discussed, but the Project i team decided not to incorporate that function, at least for the time being.

When you are not slowing down with regenerative braking, the i3, at least in city traffic, is quick enough to be entertaining. It squirts into gaps and out-accelerates ordinary vehicles across intersections, all while producing almost no noise. There are three separate driving modes: COMFORT, which allows full power but reduces the range; ECO PRO, which dials back some of the performance to add 12 miles to the range; and ECO PRO+, which turns off the climate control, reduces top speed to 55 mph and enhances coasting, adding another 12 miles of range. Around town, there isn’t much difference between COMFORT and ECO PRO, although when pulling onto a crowded freeway, you probably want the extra urge provided by COMFORT mode.

Range, extended or otherwise

Range is, of course, the big issue with the i3 and every electric car. The i3 battery is mounted below the floor and weighs around 450 pounds. It consists of eight modules, each with 12 prismatic lithium-ion cells that together produce 360 volts and generate 22 kilowatt-hours, of which about 18.8 kilowatt-hours can be used before the system shuts itself off to avoid damaging the batteries. The battery pack is designed to last the life of the vehicle, and BMW’s battery warranty runs for eight years or 62,000 miles.

The batteries can be charged in a variety of ways: Home charging or standard public charging will take about five to eight hours, while 50-kilowatt public fast charging will take only about 30 minutes to reach 80% of battery capacity.

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How far you can go on a charge depends on many factors. An engineer who asked not to be named told me sotto voce that, in testing at the Nürburgring, the i3 could lap the 12.9-mile Nordschleife circuit in a very respectable 10 minutes, and that it was capable of two laps at that pace before the batteries were fully depleted. Normal driving range in COMFORT mode is probably 80-100 miles, while ECO PRO+ pushes that to 100-120 miles.

The BMW i3 is also the first vehicle in the world to have an optional range extender gasoline engine. [The Chevy Volt’s is standard, not optional.—Ed.] This 647cc two-cylinder engine uses the same basic design found in BMW’s new C650 and C600 scooters. It will mount in the space next to the electric drive motor above the rear axle and produce 25 kilowatts or 34 horsepower.

With its front-mounted 9-liter (2.4 gallon) fuel tank and assorted hardware, the range extender adds 265 pounds to vehicle weight. Strangely, the $3,850 range extender does not charge the i3’s batteries when in use but instead acts as a generator to directly power the electric motor, boosting the electric-plus-gasoline range to around 180-200 miles but limiting top speed to 55 mph when driving with the range extender. The gasoline engine only comes online when the batteries are fully depleted and cannot be turned on at will by the driver.

The reason the gasoline engine doesn’t charge the batteries has everything to do with California’s regulatory definition of a range extender and how the i3 still counts as a zero-emission vehicle when running on gasoline. Contrary to what you would expect, most customers are probably better off without the range extender.

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The Ultimate Driving Machine?
For some, yes

During the worldwide media launch for the i3 in Amsterdam, the assembled motoring press kept asking, “Is it a real BMW?” Well, the blue and white spinning propeller badge on the front says yes, of course it is. But because BMW has spent decades promoting itself as the builder of “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” the question is more complicated. Can a car that is limited to a top speed of 93 mph and whose skinny tires limit maximum lateral grip really be labeled “ultimate?”

Just as the M3 is brilliant on the racetrack, the i3 is brilliant when operated within the environment for which it was designed. This is a city car—one that is much better adapted to the crowded realities of an Amsterdam, New York or Beijing than anything else on the BMW roster. Its place in the lineup seems odd only to those who live in places where megacity sprawl and the nightmares of urban parking are not yet a reality. To those for whom megacities are already the norm, the i3 is a car that makes sense, and it already qualifies as “The Ultimate Driving Machine.”

For the rest of us, it is only a matter of time.

Second opinion: A mobile oasis for city driving

We knew it would be quick, and it is. Anyone who relishes the changing of a traffic light from red to green will be delighted by the i3’s acceleration: It’s unlikely you’ll ever lose a stoplight drag race in a 2,635-lb. car with 184 lb-ft of torque accessible from the moment you hit the “gas.”

We knew it would be agile, too, and it is. Not only does its unique architecture permit a 32.3-foot turning radius, about 15% smaller than the typical BMW’s 38-foot radius, but it’s more eager to change direction, too. Its tires have a section width of just 155mm, about 70mm or 2.75 inches narrower than the 225mm tires used on the front of its conventional stablemates.

All of that makes it predictably fun for city driving, perfect for the cut-and-thrust required to get across town with speed and efficiency.

BMW tends to get the engineering details right, so it’s no surprise that they’d meet their objectives with respect to the car’s performance. What I didn’t anticipate was how well they’d reach their goal with regard to the feeling of the cockpit. BMW’s designers had stated that they wanted to create a calm, relaxing environment for the car’s occupants, but I had no idea how they planned to achieve that—or whether they even could—until I drove the i3 for myself. Quick and agile as it is, the car also functions like automotive chamomile tea, putting its driver in a blissfully unbothered state that can neutralize even the worst city driving conditions. I’ve driven in downtown Los Angeles countless times, but I’d never felt relaxed in that situation until I did so in the i3. Such a strange feeling, and not at all unpleasant.

Whether it’s the silent operation of the electric motor, the gentle curves of the matte-finish wood on the dash or something BMW is piping into the HVAC system I have no idea, but I like it. (The last time I felt so untroubled by the cares of the outside world, I was being driven around Amelia Island in a Rolls-Royce Phantom, shielded within its 6,000 lbs. of steel, leather and English oak.)

The i3 may not be a car for all seasons, but few of us have just one car for every purpose anyway. You’d never pick the i3 for a drive across the country or even California, but it’s perfect in its element, making city driving not just efficient but downright enjoyable and fun. As anyone who’s ever driven across Manhattan or urban Los Angeles knows, that’s nothing short of a miracle.—Jackie Jouret

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