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Review of: 2017 BMW i3 4dr HB w/Range Extender
2017 BMW i3: Slow down and smell the flowers
By Mark Richardson
Sep. 23, 2016
BMW’s i3 is the “affordable” end of its pure-electric brand. It’s intended as a sub-compact city car, with easy accessibility, a tight turning radius and trouble-free driving. Take that, Smart!
After two years of sales, the 2017 model comes with a larger battery for 50 per cent more electric driving range, and a larger gas tank for its optional “range extender.” This is a small gasoline engine that kicks in when the battery is almost flat, and which powers a generator that creates enough power to charge the electric motor. In theory, you can drive across the country with the range-extender engine powering the motor but you probably won’t want to do so – the tank may be larger but it still only holds nine litres of fuel. It’s enough to give you an extra 100 kilometres or so of range if you want it, between each gas fill-up.
So is the i3 a practical future of transportation, or a costly gimmick? After all, you can buy a very nicely equipped 3 Series or 4 Series for the same money. Ultimately, it all depends what you do with it.
Pros & Cons
- + Great fun to drive
- + Interior materials
- + Attention-getting styling
- - Highway driving range
- - Unsupportive front seats
- - Attention-getting styling
There’s nothing wrong with the quality of the i3 – it’s very good – but the looks are polarizing. Several friends and acquaintances declared it the ugliest car on the road. It’s supposed to look like a BMW, with a double-kidney grille, but also to look quite different, to differentiate it as an entirely new line. It certainly succeeds in that.
There’s a small storage area under the front hood, which is a good place to keep the power cord and probably an extension, too. It’s not weather-tight, so it’s not really a place for anything that isn’t fairly rugged.
New this year is the large sunroof, optional for an extra $1,200, which flips up for some breeze if you want it. Unlike a Tardis, it’s actually smaller on the inside than the outside because of a thick ceiling bar that runs longitudinally through its centre, effectively dividing it into two. It probably needs this to not affect the strength of the carbon-fibre frame that surrounds the cabin.
The biggest draw, however, is the doors, which open conventionally for the front row but as rear-hinged half-doors at the back. According to BMW, this design is possible because the small carbon-fibre tub is stronger than steel and does not need a B-pillar for adequate rigidity. It’s a useful feature that makes rear-seat access simple, and it would be easy to adjust a child seat in the back row.
The real reason for the funky doors, though, is surely because they look cool, and an electric car really needs cool doors. Why else did BMW put gullwing doors on the i8? And why else is Tesla putting itself through hoops to make the gullwing doors work properly on its electric Model X?
So yes, the i3 is cool and funky and different and you probably think it’s ugly, too, despite the $895 optional metallic paint of the tester. Can’t be helped.
The funkiness doesn’t tone down when you step inside – the interior of the i3 looks like an automotive Ikea catalogue. Even the trim levels sound “alternative”: Atelier, Loft, Lodge and Suite. The tester was in Lodge trim, which means it came with Eucalyptus wood on the front parcel shelf, and Carum leather on the edges of the seats and doors. The eucalyptus is quickly renewable and grown close to the Leipzig assembly plant; the leather is treated with olive oil, not harmful chemicals. All very Environmentally Correct.
The seats aren’t that comfortable for long periods, being fairly hard and limited in their adjustment. There’s not much legroom in the back row, either. All this is forgivable, though, when you remember you’re unlikely to spend long periods of time in the car, and the access with those dual doors is exceptional.
There’s no centre driveshaft tunnel, so the floor is flat and there’s even space between the feet of the front-seat passengers for a bag, if needed – though its strap could get caught in the pedals. Everything is at the back, after all, beneath the cargo space. That area is surprisingly roomy, too, with 260 litres of space behind the rear seats and 1,100 litres when those seat backs are folded flat.
The whole ambience is of space and air, like an uncluttered Ikea room. The windows are all especially large and the visibility for the driver is excellent. The centre console has space for the iDrive controller and two coffee cup holders, though the second holder is beneath the armrest and not really that practical.
Where to begin? The i3 is an electric car, but it’s a lot more than a glorified golf cart. It has a realistic battery range now of 160 km, and a realistic gas range of an additional 100 km. This brings it in line with the promised 260 km electric range of the latest generation Nissan Leaf.
BMW Canada says at least 80 per cent of buyers here opt for the range extender engine, which bumps the base cost from $46,900 to $51,500. It’s a 650 cc, twin cylinder engine that kicks in to charge a generator, which in turn charges the electric motor and keeps the car running. It’s small because it needs to be light in order to not overly affect the battery range, and also because it’s only supposed to be there to alleviate range anxiety. You can keep topping it up if you need to, quickly and conveniently at any gas station, but that’s not really the point.
The lithium-ion battery is now a 94 Ah unit, up from the previous 60 Ah. This means it has a capacity of 33 kilowatt hours compared to the old 22 kWh, though it’s still the same physical size as the previous unit. If anything should go wrong with it, its eight modules (each with 12 storage cells) can be exchanged individually, rather than throwing out the whole thing.
Other technology is top-notch, of course, though you pay for it. The high-definition rear-view camera and navigation system is part of the premium package, which costs an extra $3,000. Active cruise control and automatic emergency braking and BMW concierge services are part of the $2,750 technology package, which also connects the car to your smartphone and upgrades the sound system.
The i3 is a pleasure to drive in the city. In fact, it’s a hoot. All electric cars create maximum torque right from standstill – there’s no revving required for power, or even possible – so it’s quick off the lights if there’s a reasonable charge. The electric motor creates 170 hp and 184 lbs.-ft. of torque. BMW claims just over 7 seconds to reach 100 km/h from standstill, but add an extra second to that if you have the 120 kg range extender. Better than that is the 5.1 seconds that BMW claims for accelerating from 80 to 120 km/h, which is great for passing and quicker than most conventional cars.
But when power drops, so does response. If stored electricity is drained and the fuel tank is low, the car becomes quite sluggish. Driving with the range extender on the highway and with the cruise set at 120 km/h, the i3 dropped to little more than 100 km/h on any kind of uphill incline. Better to get you there slowly than not at all. As well, the air-conditioning didn’t work at speed once fuel was low – I had to drop to 105 km/h for the cooling to be effective, and all that glass lets in a lot of heat on a warm day.
It’s frustrating that there is no switch to select all-electric or gasoline use, as there is on any plug-in hybrid. If there was, then the gas tank could be drained on the country highway when you can estimate distance to the next open fuel station and are not so concerned to be emissions-free, and the all-electric drive can be saved for the city. But no – California EPA regulations apparently insist the electric motor must be drained before the gas engine can kick in, to prevent juicing the statistics.
This creates a strange situation, where you’re high-fiving that there’s 100 km of fuel in the tank. Normally, you’re looking for a gas station at this point. I took the i3 for a 350-kilometre one-way drive and there was no way to pause long enough to recharge the electric battery from an outlet. This meant that once the battery was drained, I was driving 100 km at a stretch between gas stations, filling up for $5 each time. There was no point stopping more frequently because the quantities were so small, but I was driving the car to literally within 5 kilometres of totally empty.
There are three selectable drive modes: regular, eco pro, and eco pro +. Those eco settings dull the power response to conserve charge, as well as turn off the air-conditioning and some of the electrical drain. The plus setting limits top speed to 90 km/h. They can add 20 or 30 km to the total range, but don’t really affect the range once the i3 is driving on power from the range extender.
BMW is very quick to point out the i3 qualifies for a provincial subsidy in Ontario of $13,000, which is perhaps the most generous rebate in North America. Only Quebec and B.C. also offer subsidies in Canada, and only 13 of the 50 American states. Some states ran out of money and cancelled their programs, but Ontario has a renewed commitment, as well as a just-announced $20 million program to install several hundred new charging stations across the province. There are currently 5,400 electric cars registered in Ontario, apparently – compared to a handful in the provinces that don’t offer subsidies.
So right now, an electric car is very good value for money if you buy it in Ontario. Subsidies on vehicles like the Nissan Leaf, Ford Fusion and Prius Plug-in help bring them down to around the same price as conventional or hybrid cars, with the added cost savings of using very little gas. This will probably be offset by the resale value, however: used buyers will know there was a subsidy and they also know the market is small, and the battery will be old. In the short-term, they’re good value, but in the long-term, it’s best not to count on it.
Is the i3 better value than those other electric cars? Not really, because it’s a Premium car to begin with. It’ll cost about the same as a reasonably equipped 3 or 4 Series with the Ontario subsidy, and a loaded 3 Series or 4 Series without it. You won’t save a lot of money on gasoline either, especially if you’re the ideal demographic who wants a car in the city more for convenience than necessity, because you wouldn’t have had that large a gas bill anyway.
This all means that as a car – as transportation – then the i3 is a costly proposition and not very good value for money at all. As a caring, sharing vehicle that does not pollute the environment and offers you a happy place to travel to and fro in comfort, then it’s probably very good value, especially with the range extender, but you’ll still be paying a premium over the competition.
If you want an electric car, and you want a premium BMW, and you don’t think the i3 is ugly, then go for it. There’s really no other choice. You’ll be happy if you can afford it, and it’s a hoot to drive when the battery is charged. With the range extender, you can even take it on a long trip if you need to, but it’s best not to be in a hurry. You won’t go far between fuel stops. All the more reason to slow down and smell the flowers.