Let’s just get this out on the table: I’m a BMW fan. I’ve owned a couple of them over the years. There are multiple BMW-branded articles of clothing in my closet. I’ve written treatises on the misappropriation of the company’s emblems. Hell, my Twitter handle is an homage to the slogan of BMW’s Motorsport division, “M Power.”
You might say that I take BMW seriously. So when I had an opportunity to go on a multi-hour drive of the curious, all-electric i3 at CES last week, I was happy to do so — but I had my reservations. The i3 doesn’t look like a BMW. It doesn’t sound like a BMW. It doesn’t suck BMW gasoline into a BMW engine. Could it possibly drive like a BMW?
Perhaps I was asking the wrong question.
The i3 is the first production model in the BMW i series — a range of vehicles that, in BMW’s words, exhibits a "new understanding of premium that is strongly defined by sustainability." In plain English, that means that i vehicles are intended to give BMW flexibility to do weird, cutting-edge things with materials and power plants that would be frowned upon in the company’s established portfolio of top-selling cars like the 3, 5, and 7 series. The i3 is really about saving the planet with Earth-friendly materials and alternative powerplants, and the uncomfortable truth is that good ecological karma can occasionally be at odds with tradition in this industry. The demographics aren’t necessarily the same — at least, not yet — and at a glance, the i3 appears to be a tacit acknowledgement of that.
As I walk around the car with Jose Guerrero, BMW i’s US product manager, he tells me that the car’s black, glossy rear end and swoopy lick of glass wrapping continuously from side to back are designed to evoke a modern smartphone. I probably would’ve never made that connection had he not said anything, but I see it now: the decklid looks a bit like an iPhone with the display turned off. The futuristic taillights are concealed underneath, becoming visible only when lit.
Guerrero also notes that i models have their own headlight style, defined in part by a U-shaped line of illumination that runs along the bottom of the lens. Just a cursory glance around the car and you can see that the i3 has already blown up two long-running BMW traditions: the twin-bulb headlight, and the so-called Hofmeister kink — a slanted line defining the lower rear corner of the side window on practically every BMW since the 1960s. This car also features rear suicide doors ("coach doors," as BMW would prefer you call them), which open backwards. You’re not going to find that anywhere else in the company’s lineup. When all four doors are open, there’s no B-pillar — the beam normally found between the front and rear doors of a car — which makes it feel enormously open and accessible.
By the time I’m done acquainting myself with the i3, I conclude that the iconic kidney grille is just about the only aspect of its design that makes it a BMW by sight alone. Adherence to tradition is extraordinarily hard to come by on this car. And, of course, that rebellious attitude continues under the hood: the i3 is driven not by internal combustion, but by a 170-horsepower electric motor. You won’t find one of BMW’s trademark inline sixes here, though you can spring for an extra-cost "range extender" — basically a two-cylinder gasoline engine just powerful enough to keep the battery at a constant 5 percent change so you can’t run out of juice on the road. Unlike a traditional hybrid (the Prius, for instance), the range extender engine can’t drive the wheels — it’s strictly a generator. Both the electric and range extender models qualify for the federal $7,500 plug-in vehicle credit, which helps take the sting out of the base price just north of $40,000. That can climb beyond $50,000 if you option it out with goodies like leather seats, navigation, and Parking Assistant, which will parallel park the car for you.
BMW's bog-standard iDrive is present and accounted for
Once you open the door, you’re greeted with a few more subtle hints that the i3 is, in fact, a BMW: for instance, the door frame shows exposed carbon fiber, a nod to the car’s all-carbon skeleton. 15 years ago, carbon fiber was the exclusive domain of racing teams — but BMW’s been working to perfect the manufacturing methods needed to mass produce it since then, gradually bringing it in small doses to more production cars like the last-generation M6 and M3. In the i3’s case, an enormous amount of carbon is used, more than any other BMW currently on the road, in an effort to reduce weight and extend range. It tips the scale around 2,700 pounds; by contrast, the more conventionally constructed Nissan Leaf weighs 3,300.
The i3 also employs BMW’s bog-standard iDrive system mounted between the front seats. In its current incarnation, iDrive consists of a jog dial that can be twisted, pushed in cardinal directions, pressed downward, or drawn on — the entire top of the dial is a touchpad that can be used to enter characters for finding navigation destinations. I found the character recognition to be practically useless, particularly at speed when it’s difficult to keep your finger from bouncing around, but twisting the dial to select letters is easy enough anyway. iDrive has never fully recovered from the terrible reputation it developed when it debuted on the last-generation 7-Series over a decade ago, but don’t fear it: it’s actually quite good in an auto industry still dominated by mediocre, fussy electronics. If you’ve tried to use the byzantine navigation system in a Chevy Volt, it’s night and day.
On the i3, iDrive is paired to an 8.8-inch display (if you select the Technology Package option, which I imagine most i3 buyers will) that serves as the interface for practically all of the car’s controls. It’s bright, attractive, and readable in the relentless desert sun where I tested it. It’s the centerpiece of a really unusual interior, which diverges strongly from traditional BMWs — from the driver’s perspective, the display appears to float above a flowing eucalyptus veneer, complete with a storage area to dump your phone and sunglasses. I suspect BMW’s goal here was to appeal to a different demographic than a 3-Series buyer; the list of differences between these two cars’ design elements is far longer than the list of similarities. Both are attractive and modern, but nothing alike.
On the road, I might describe the i3 as the yang to Tesla’s yin. Both cars ooze luxury and quality, but mashing the i3’s "gas" pedal doesn’t melt your face the same way a Model S Performance Plus will. This compact, curvy, BMW-of-the-future feels like a family hauler — a well-constructed family hauler, mind you, but a family hauler nonetheless. It doesn’t really fit with BMW’s long-running English tagline, "The Ultimate Driving Machine." The car feels efficient and utilitarian, but I was never really overtaken with a desire to hit a highway or a curvy stretch of road the same way I might be in a 335i or an M5. I never felt like I was riding some meticulously crafted wave of driving perfection out into the desert.
This isn't your grandfather's BMW
By the same token, you could make an argument that BMW’s German tagline, "Freude am Fahren" — "Joy in Driving" — is appropriate. There’s something inherently entertaining about driving an electric vehicle: the high-tech whir of the motor spooling up as you pull away from a light, the math and science of monitoring your range and maximizing the drivetrain’s efficiency through careful braking and acceleration. It’s possible that entertainment will fade as EVs become standard fare, but for the moment, it puts a smile on my face.
Of course, not all EVs are created equal. There’s a huge difference in range: BMW’s been coy about exact numbers so far and I didn’t have enough time with the car to do a proper range test, but you can expect somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 to 120 miles on a charge depending on the efficiency mode you choose. (BMW describes the i3 as a "city car.") Meanwhile, the Tesla Model S can get well over 200 miles between electronic fill-ups. The wildcard is the i3’s optional range extender, which adds about 100 miles to the range — and when you deplete it, you just pull into a gas station and refill the tiny 2.4-gallon tank. I tested the electric-only i3, but if I were to buy it, there’s no question I’d tack on the range extender; EV chargers still aren’t ubiquitous enough to plug in everywhere you go, and range anxiety is a very real phenomenon (just watch my Model S video from last year). When you do plug in, the i3 supports DC fast charging, which can refill 80 percent of the battery in 20 minutes; unfortunately, it’s a totally different standard than Tesla’s growing Supercharger network. EV charger fragmentation is a terrible, terrible thing — especially for an industry this young.
Then again, with the i3, BMW isn’t trying to go head-to-head with the Model S — there’s a $20,000 difference in the base price. If anything, it sits in a relatively empty space between the Nissan Leaf and Tesla’s large sedan. For pure EVs like these, it’s still the Wild West. Whether there’s actually money to be made in this particular segment — a luxurious "city car" that only very lightly grips BMW’s marque and its many automotive traditions — is a question we probably won’t be able to answer for a year or two.
By the time I pulled the i3 back into the bustling parking lot of the Las Vegas Convention Center, I wasn’t asking whether it "drove like a BMW" anymore. Partly because I wasn’t sure — I’d like to have the car for a few days to take it through the twisties, load it with groceries, and judge range and charging performance — but also because I’d felt like this car is obscuring what it means to "drive like a BMW." For now, that’s fine; the i range is safely segmented off to the side, a billion-dollar experiment, leaving Munich’s bread-and-butter models effectively untouched. But fossil fuels are eventually going away — that’s not an opinion, it’s an inevitability. And when that day comes, BMW is going to need to decide what it wants to be.
Update: The story originally identified the dashboard veneer as bamboo, but it is eucalyptus. BMW also clarified that the i3 can reach 80 percent charge in 20 minutes using DC fast charging.