Auto Review: BMW i3

The distinctive design of this electric vehicle belies its luxury branding.

If it weren’t for the unique grille and familiar blue-and-white hood emblem, one might never guess that BMW is behind the i3 electric vehicle. Its stubby style has been called both “distinctive” and “the dorkiest-looking thing on four wheels.” The minimalist interior is a complete departure, too, and during my week with the car, it generated frequent comments from baristas working the drive-thru lines at Starbucks.

The i3 (the model I drove sells for about $54,500) is clearly made for city driving. Fully charged, it will go about 80 miles, with the gasoline-fueled range-extender adding another 70 miles. Those numbers may trump other EVs on the road, but for someone like me, an apartment dweller with a long commute, keeping the i3 going was a hassle. 

At charging stations, which have become a kind of water-cooler hangout for EV owners, most of the drivers I met owned Nissan Leafs, which can charge at “Level 3” in about 30 minutes. The i3 had only Level 1 (standard home outlet) or Level 2 options, so the fastest charge I could get took four long hours. 

What I loved: The i3 is super fast (zero to 60 in 6.5 seconds), quiet, and fun to drive. Its regenerative braking system means you can pretty much stick to one pedal, as lifting off the accelerator causes the vehicle to slow as if you were braking. (Energy created by the turning wheels feeds back into the battery.) It takes a while to learn to finesse, but it was fun to see how long I could go without actually using the brake.

The four-door hatchback is also surprisingly roomy. The slide-through style of the front seats gives the option of departing on the passenger side, and the rear-hinged back doors made it easy for my lanky son and a buddy to climb into the back. The rear seats fold down, too, providing extra room for cargo.

I also loved the car’s luxurious feel—something that has long attracted drivers to the BMW brand. Judy Pesek, regional managing principal for Gensler, drove BMW’s 535d model for about a year. “I loved the design and the beautiful interiors,” she says. “And I loved how it handled.”  

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