EV about town

It’s no sports car, but BMW’s all-electric i3 is quick as well as quirky about town, and it has some distinct advantages over gasoline-powered cars under the right circumstances.

September 1, 2016
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It does make you smile, this cute BMW with the cartoon face. People look but do not point; it is still an infrequent sight in the ’burbs that satellite the Big Apple. Even Teslas are spotted more frequently than the i3 in my New Jersey town of Montclair. If you desire green cred, rarity and a high-tech chassis, this could be your automotive answer.

It is not, however, the answer to a driving enthusiast’s automotive quest: When I picked up my press i3 at BMW NA for the 15-mile ride home, I barely made it due to a solid case of carsickness. It took a few days to learn how to engage the regenerative braking mode smoothly. It takes effect as soon as the go-pedal is lifted, and proper modulation takes practice. Deceleration is rather abrupt, and one can coast to a stop without touching the brake. Interestingly, the brake lights are activated when one lifts suddenly (as measured by the accelerometer; deceleration has to exceed 0.13 g), but they won’t come on at all if you roll to a gentle stop, which might surprise the car behind you.

In addition to adapting to the i3’s quirky deceleration, I also had to come to terms with its handling, which has little of the Ultimate Driving Machine’s DNA once you leave the urban environment for which it’s designed.

At village speeds, the i3 feels composed and eager. Go faster, however, and the expected BMW aplomb and handling prowess is felt wanting. At highway speeds, this tall, skinny-tired conveyance is easily pushed around by winds of the natural kind or those produced by big semis. Most passengers would be digging their fingernails into the open-pore eucalyptus wood dash if we took them on a test ride.

While the center of gravity is low thanks to the skateboard-like placement of heavy parts like the battery and motors, the seating position is paradoxically high, turning one’s head into a pendulum during spirited driving. The i3 leans too much, the skinny tires (155/70R-19s) protest too much and too early and it doesn’t feel connected to the tarmac. The steering is rather fast and a bit nervous at 2.6 turns, lock to lock, requiring a firm hand at the tiller—as well as a bit of imagination given the lack of texture to the steering feedback.

Display an irrationally exuberant driving style and the undefeatable stability control will curtail your fun. With about 45% of its weight on the front axle, the default mode is a mild and benign understeer. The front suspension is the conventional (and simple) MacPherson strut-type, while the rear has a more sophisticated multi-link set up.

The acceleration is the best part: This cute box has plenty of zip, and it can embarrass quite a number of cars at a stoplight. Car and Driver has measured its performance in the 0-60 sprint at 7.0 seconds, but the electric motor’s high torque and instant response make it feel even quicker, especially to 30 mph.

Also from Issue 142

  • Classic BMW's M235i Racing
  • 2016 640i xDrive Gran Coupe road test
  • Comparison: Alpina B3 vs. D3
  • Interview: Board member Oliver Zipse
  • Buyer’s Guide: E39 5 Series
  • John Burnham's 2001 E46 M3
  • Ron Perry's 1980 E12 528i
  • Driver training: Car Control Clinic
  • History: Alex von Falkenhausen
  • Technology: Racing wheelchair
  • Event: SE Sharkfest 2016
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