A month ago, I had the opportunity to test drive a BMW i3, BMW’s new all electric vehicle. I’ve never driven an all electric vehicle before, but really wanted to see how the BMW feel would translate. At some point I’d like to drive a Tesla and a Nissan Leaf for comparison.
The vehicle I drove was part of a non-US spec fleet that has been touring the US for demonstration purposes. One of the features it has which will not be available in the US immediately is a sliding glass sunroof. It was explained to me that the US regulations require that the sunroof be directly connected to the metal roof of the vehicle, and the i3 has no metal in the roof of the vehicle. It’s all carbon fiber, and both stronger and lighter than the metal roof in most vehicles, but regulations were written without the future in mind.
I’ve seen pictures of this vehicle in the past and thought it sort of funny looking. The first thing about seeing it in person is that the parts I don’t like don’t stand out so much. I’m not enamored of the look directly from the front, but the side profile and back view I quite like. When the doors are opened they have the comforting and very solid BMW feel. The front doors don’t have upper window frames, so when the door is opened the window slides down a tiny bit, and then raises after the door has been closed, to provide a consistent seal. the back seat doors are suicide doors, meaning that they are hinged at the back. When both doors are open, there’s no center pillar, allowing for easy access to the back seats.
The dash board has two instrument pods, the smaller one with the speedometer directly visible through the steering wheel, and the larger central display. I did not like that the speedometer display could only display the speed using large digits. The electric motor is very responsive and it was quite easy to be over the speed limit in any situation. I believe that an analog dial in peripheral vision is much easier to recognize compared to a set of digits and with a computer display like this should at least be a user configurable option. The central console could display navigation options or details about how the car was operating. The car uses regenerative breaking. If you raise your foot completely off the accelerator pedal the engine would actively decelerate the car, producing power to put back into the battery pack. One of the modes on the central display would show the power usage of the vehicle. It was a really cool display, but very distracting when I really should have been paying attention to what was on the road.
I was not crazy about the texture of the dashboard and some of the trim panels. They were made of a fibrous board paneling, perhaps a type of carbon fiber. The salesman told me that it was both extremely light and extremely strong. He also indicated that my dislike might be a bit of a generational thing, and that people 15 years younger than me don’t associate the look with the same things. I can accept that, even though it’s not to my taste. I did like the curved eucalyptus wood panels on some of the flat parts of the dashboard.
Part of the driving loop I took had me accelerating onto the interstate. I don’t remember if I floored the accelerator or not, but I do know that it took off quite quickly, and I realized I was approaching 70mph, very soon after I’d signed the agreement that I’d not do anything illegal while drive the car. My first instinct was to take my foot completely off the pedal, which started the regenerating braking, as if I’d stepped on the brakes. Obviously it would take a little getting used to but I think it would probably happen extremely quickly. The example I’ve used when talking to people is driving a sport motorcycle with its huge power to weight ratio. In gear you get a feel for smoothly rolling off the throttle and holding at the speed you want to go. I was told that regenerative breaking encourages one pedal driving, in that you rarely use the brakes at all, and BMW is expecting the brakes to last over 100k miles, with the brake fluid needing service more than the pads. I don’t think I put my foot on the brakes even during the city portion of the drive. There are no gear changes, so both acceleration and deceleration are extremely smooth.
The i3 has an advertised driving range of 80 to 100 miles per charge, with the optional range extender motor version just under doubling the range. (for regulatory reasons the vehicle can’t drive farther using gasoline than it does under pure electric to qualify as an electric vehicle.)
I lifted the panel in the back hatch storage compartment and saw the electric motor offset to the left, and a large empty space to the right side. I was told that was where the range extender motor would fit, if the model was so equipped.
I don’t think I’ll be buying one of these any time soon, but it’s more because I’m happy with the 2002 X5 I am still driving after having ordered new from the factory with the configuration I wanted, than because of anything with the new vehicle. I use public transit or personal exercise for my daily commute, with my X5 being used for trips into the mountains for skiing, or longer distance drives closer to 500 miles each way that simply do not work with current electric vehicles. The fact that my X5 is paid for also makes the expense of a new vehicle a bit of a hurdle.