Way back in 2014, we spent a week with BMW’s then-new i3 electric vehicle. Charged with the day-to-day grind of traffic and chores, the carbon-fiber and aluminum EV worked like a charm. But even with the optional range extender—a two-cylinder motorbike engine that charged the battery—its range was too little and its price too much.
Since then, BMW has given the i3 a little bump, using more energy-dense lithium-ion cells to give the i3′s battery a 50-percent boost: 33kWh compared to 22kWh. Also since then, the Chevrolet Bolt: a car with a similar mission that’s both cheaper and much longer-legged. So a second look at this quirky city vehicle was in order.
Back in the UK, they have a term for cars like the i3: Marmite. Like the delicious goop (made from leftover beer stuff), you either love it or hate it, and I fall into the first camp. The i3 has the same narrow-and-tall proportion to it as the Audi A2, another car that may have been too clever for its time—or perhaps too expensive. If the design of a thing is something that interests you, there’s plenty of the i3 that’s interesting. The carbon fiber-reinforced plastic passenger cell, for instance, is naked and on display for the world to see every time you open a door. Or those not-quite suicide doors, which do a better job at rear-seat entry than a conventional three-door hatchback. I’m also a particular fan of the way the “Giga World” interior looks with those eucalyptus wood inserts.
We covered the technology of the i3 in some depth the first time around, but to recap briefly, it consists of two main parts: the CFRP passenger cell (LifeModule in i-speak) that sits atop an aluminum skateboard chassis (or DriveModule). A 127kW (170hp), 250Nm (184ft-lb) electric motor-generator unit (MGU) sits between the rear wheels, fed by that now-denser battery pack. It’s the result of BMW and Samsung working on the cells, tweaking the electrolyte levels and so on until they were good for 94Ah per cell instead of 60Ah.
But kWh are the more useful indicator of a battery when we’re talking about EV applications. In this regard, the upgraded battery pack is now 33kWh—although only 27.2kWh is actually available to use. (A bit like a Formula E car, but we don’t know how to unlock the fan boost.) For comparison, the old 60Ah pack was 22kWh gross, 19kWh net.
Range anxiety? More like charger anxiety.
Once again, our test car was the range-extended version: a 650cc, 25kW (38hp) two-cylinder engine borrowed from BMW’s motorcycle division that can recharge the battery when you’re on the go. BMW has also bumped the size of the range extender’s gas tank—it’s now a whole 2.4 gallons (9L) instead of 1.9 gallons (7.2L). Together with some mid-life optimization—like better MGU management software and tires with even lower rolling resistance—all this means a useful improvement to the i3′s range: 180 miles (290km) in total, or 114 miles (183kM) on batteries alone. That’s still not on the same level as the cheaper Chevrolet Bolt or the Tesla Model 3, but, for a city dweller, it does a lot to ameliorate range anxiety.
In fact—providing you’ve got somewhere to plug it in at night (or during the day) and last-minute cross-country dashes to relocate the occasional grandfather clock aren’t part of your driving diet—the i3′s small battery ought not to prove much of a problem. Working from home with a car that needs reviewing means coming up with plenty of excuses to drive it; any opportunity to run an errand or ferry someone around is an opportunity to be snatched. When the review car is an EV and you don’t have a place to plug it in at home, these trips also often involve using a public charger.
BMW says that the 33kWh battery will fully charge after 4.5 hours on a level 2 charger. Meanwhile, a DC Fast charger will take it to 80-percent capacity in “under 40 minutes.” Unhelpfully, the only DC Fast charger convenient to me happened to be broken, so I have no idea if this figure is true. I can say that the odd half-hour here or there when running an errand was usually more than enough to leave me with a few more percent charge than I would arrive with, and not once did the range extender burst into life.
One thing the i3 really has going for it compared to pretty much every other EV on the market is an extremely low curb weight. Thanks to all that CFRP, aluminum, and BMW’s attitude toward weight saving, the range extender still only tips the scales at 3,234lbs (1,466kg). Acceleration is brisk rather than outlandish, but, suffice it to say, the i3 is more than adequate for city streets and suburban carriageways. Sitting up above the batteries gives an SUV-like view of the world outside, without the attendant body roll thanks to their effect on the i3′s center of gravity. If you hustle, the car feels like a BMW, but that always seems beside the point when driving an i3. For the record, my four days with the car (and about 100 miles) didn’t budge its 2,500-mile average of 3.8miles/kWh.
BMW has gone for a very aggressive take on the idea of “one pedal driving” with this car, one that feels more pronounced this time around. As you lift off the throttle pedal, there’s a short zone where the car will coast along in neutral; the rest of its travel adds ever-increasing amounts of deceleration provided by the MGU recapturing otherwise-wasted joules at the rear wheels. Whether BMW has recalibrated the pedal mapping, or I’ve just driven too many other EVs since 2014′s review, this time I had trouble judging the sweet spot to let me coast along rather than overslowing (and then having to speed up a little again). On balance, I think I prefer Chevrolet’s method, as used in the Bolt and Volt, which use a regenerate-on-demand paddle on the steering wheel as an alternative to setting the drivetrain to automatically regen heavily as you lift off the throttle pedal.
Have you seen how cheap they are used?
And now, back to the elephant in the room. Yes, it’s true I really like the BMW i3, and it makes me happy to see them on the roads as proof that (some) people will go for something different, something a little more thoughtful than the normal, at least sometimes. But there’s no escaping the fact that a brand-new BMW i3 is expensive. The pure battery EV version starts at $44,450, and the range extender at $48,300. Our test car was just shy of $55,000, and it’s hard to make the case that you’re getting good value for money when compared to those other purpose-built EVs, the Bolt and Model 3. BMW’s sales numbers help confirm that, for it has sold fewer than 19,000 here in the US since launching in mid-2014, even if BMW says sales are looking up for this year.
The clever lightweight construction and interesting design has done little for resale values either. A quick look online reveals hundreds and hundreds of ex-lease i3s on the market, plenty of which can be had for between $15,000 and $16,000. Suddenly, at less than a third MSRP, the i3 starts looking an awful lot more attractive.
Back when BMW first announced it was bumping the car’s range, we reported that it said retrofitting the newer cells into older i3s was totally doable. That was over a year ago, and at the time BMW in the US (and also UK) seemed reticent to do anything of the sort. But in June, BMW North America decided to give it a shot, retrofitting 10 ex-lease i3s as an experiment. Where the option is offered in Europe, it’s an $8,230 (€7,000) upgrade. (BMW guarantees the batteries for seven years or 100,000 miles.) Should the company decide it’s going to offer battery upgrades here in the US, those cheap i3s start looking even more appealing…
Listing image by Jonathan Gitlin