The most radical vehicle to emerge from any automaker in the past year — and likely the past decade — the BMW i3 looks and drives like nothing else on the road. You may call it a hatchback hit with an ugly stick or an an expensive way to travel 80 miles on a charge, but you’ll still miss the point of why we named it our 2015 Green Vehicle of the Year.
We’ve written before about the lengths BMW went to build a lightweight electric vehicle that would have unimpeachable green credentials. The carbon-fiber frame, narrow tires and drive system so wired to recover energy in coasting you really need only one pedal in everyday driving combine into a vehicle that’s more efficient at traveling a mile than any other available, including the Tesla Model S.
Driving the i3 — ours came with the 650-cc, two-cylinder range-extender engine that adds an addtional 80 miles of reach — is to revel in parsimony and goodness, and like the houses that hand out toothbrushes on Halloween, a bit of a buzzkill. The torque does arrive instantly, and the low center of gravity adds some fun in the chassis, but the tiny contact patch and suspension keeps such joy bottled up. The interior of open-pore eucalyptus and recycled plastic-fiber cloth looks inviting and jarring at first — as open and sporty as a fair-trade coffeehouse.
“No matter how funky and modern BMW makes its lights and window graphics,” said contributing editor Steve Siler, “it’s hard to get excited about a box with ultra-skinny wheels.”
Yet the panel of editors came to see the strategy behind the i3. The world has lived with automobiles for over 100 years, more than long enough for them to evolve into signifiers of our personalities. We expect form to follow function in even our wildest cars, from the spoilers and hood scoops on the Dodge Challenger Hellcat to the engine vents on the Alfa Romeo 4C’s rear decklid. But few automakers has ever been so enthralled by electric cars, so ready to embrace a low-carbon future, that they were willing to engineer a car that acts as a rolling billboard for saving energy. The BMW i3 was the first of this century, but it won’t be the last.