BMW’s forsaken i3 was exceptional, underwhelming, and far too ahead of its time.
The BMW i3 has reached the end of the line. Two weeks ago, BMW confirmed that this is the last month the company will be making its quirky and often misunderstood electric vehicle for US customers. In doing so, the automaker acknowledged what many EV owners, enthusiasts, and observers have long believed: the company, which was once lauded as a leader in electrification, has squandered the last eight years.
I don’t say this lightly or without experience—I owned a 2014 BMW i3 for nearly five years. It was my first electric vehicle, and I loved it. Sometimes, I wish I hadn’t sold it. Other times, I’m glad I did. It wasn’t perfect, but it was unique and fun to drive, and it felt years ahead of its time.
The i3 was a polarizing car. Its upright, narrow body rolled on skinny tires, and its layered design was loved or loathed, depending on the customer. But no matter how you feel about the i3, it was a car made by a company with a clear vision of the future, pursued with tenacity and purpose. BMW pitched the i3 as the foundation of an entirely new line, and BMW could have seriously iterated on the design. There was talk in the early days of how easy it would be to simply drop a new carbon-fiber reinforced plastic body onto the brilliantly engineered aluminum chassis, creating a suite of models that would explore a wide range of electrified mobility.
But then BMW wavered and abandoned the i3 platform as an evolutionary dead end.
Come August, BMW won’t have a single EV for sale in the US market until next summer’s arrival of the i4, a conservative sedan based on a compromise platform that shares little of the clarity of purpose that defined the i3. The i4 may be a good car, or even a great one, but its late entry to a crowded field underlines just how much time BMW has wasted.
A car from the future
I still remember the first time I saw an i3 in real life. It was at the Boston auto show—a third-tier event—and even there, crowded among the other gleaming BMWs, it stood out. I didn’t immediately fall for its tall, rounded box exterior, but I did swoon over its interior. Here, available for purchase, was a concept car. The front doors swung wide, revealing suicide doors that made the rear seat surprisingly accessible. After I stepped over the carbon-fiber door sill and slid into the front seats, which were swathed in wool fabric and olive-tanned leather, my eyes were drawn to the wide infotainment screen floating over a curving swath of eucalyptus wood.
I had read about this car, but I wasn’t prepared for the impression it made in person.
Months later, over a bowl of cereal, I decided to buy an EV. I didn’t have the i3 in mind at first, but it quickly became a front-runner. This was February 2015, and most EVs at the time were short-range affairs. What made the i3 stand out was its range extender, a safety blanket that helped ease me into the idea of buying an EV as our household’s only car. BMW also offered something called the “Flexible Mobility Program,” which loaned fossil fuel-powered BMWs to i3 owners who needed to venture farther afield. Those features, plus a hefty discount and the appeal of driving a car from the future, sold me on it.
The car turned heads for the first year I owned it. Pedestrians would gape as I slipped silently by, and other drivers would pepper me with questions at stoplights. I grew addicted to its instant torque and the way it flipped my stomach when I punched the accelerator. If I saw an opening in traffic, I would picture myself in it and—boom—there I was. It wasn’t a Tesla Model S, but it was fast and responsive. Being rear-wheel drive, the i3 handled well around town, and it had an enviable turning radius. Parallel parking in the city was a breeze. The skinny tires made it dart a bit on highways, but I never found that issue problematic.
When BMW was designing the car, the range extender made sense. Lithium-ion batteries cost in the neighborhood of $1,300 per kWh, and most people drive around 30 miles per day or less, so at the time, it made sense to extend the range not by adding batteries but by adding an occasionally used internal combustion engine (ICE). BMW decided the car would operate best as a series hybrid with the engine only charging the battery, never driving the wheels. The company reached deep into its parts catalog, pulled out a 647 cc scooter engine, and tweaked it until it met automotive emissions standards.
The result was less than perfect. In the US, to meet California regulations for range-extended electric vehicles, the ICE only kicked in when the battery’s state of charge dropped below 6 percent. That’s fine if you’re cruising on flat terrain, but climbing mountains meant the range extender couldn’t keep up with demand, and the car quickly slipped into turtle mode.
Read more: ars TECHNICA