2017 BMW i3 with Range Extender new car reviews

BMW's i3 comes to try and prove that electric cars don't have to be soulless appliances. Our press car came with a gasoline range extender for peace of mind, too.

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Tom Suddard Tom Suddard
Digital Experience Director

Let me start with an ultimatum: I would never pay $54,295 for this car. But keep reading, please, because this isn’t the part where the review descends into a bunch of weird negativity about electric cars like so many others. So why wouldn’t I buy an i3? It’s not because electric cars are bad. It’s because the rest are so damn good.

See, I bought a Nissan LEAF a few weeks ago, so I couldn’t help but compare it to the BMW the entire time. I’m not going to say the BMW isn’t nicer than my LEAF–it is, at least on paper. It’s got adaptive cruise control, and it’s faster, and it has a longer range, and the interior has more expensive materials in it, and it has a range extender, and its sales literature includes the phrase “carbon-fiber rollerskate.”

But, for this car’s role in life, I don’t think much of that matters. Let’s start with my biggest pet peeve: the range extender, an optional feature that our test car carried. It sounds like a great idea–put a tiny gasoline engine in your electric car, and that way when your battery goes dead you can keep driving. Cars like the Chevy Volt have sold well with this arrangement, but while the technology is the same, the i3’s execution isn’t.

In order to meet the CARB standard to call the i3 a range-extended, battery-electric vehicle, the i3 can’t go further on gasoline than electricity. What’s that mean? The i3 only holds 1.9 gallons of gas, meaning you’re stopping at least every hour if you plan to take the i3 on a road trip. The range extender adds $3850 to the i3’s price, 273 pounds to its curb weight, 0.8 seconds to its 0-60 mph time (a still-respectable 8 seconds), and reduces the electric range thanks to the extra weight its hauling around.

Simply put, it’s not worth it, because you’re still not going to take your i3 on a road trip when you have to stop for gas so often. Plus, electric car quick chargers are prevalent enough at this point that it’s nearly as easy to road trip in a full electric as it is to do it in your i3 with a range extender. Plus, there’s the maintenance of a gas engine, which frankly doesn’t interest me. Yeah, I love my sports cars, but if you’re going to buy into advantages of an electric car, why saddle yourself with an annoying gas engine to haul around everywhere you go?

Okay, enough ranting about the i3’s engine. Let’s talk about how it drives. It drives like it looks, which is weird and awkward. Despite my best attempts, I never got used to the accelerator, which, when released, activates full-strength regenerative braking. This feature is good for range in the city, but means a jerky ride for you and your passengers. I eventually figured out exactly where to keep my foot if I wanted to coast, but I can’t say it ever felt natural or comfortable. I’m not sure if this or the blended braking system in my LEAF is a better answer for regen activation, but the i3 just felt awkward. It was darty, too–almost like it needed an alignment, and I struggled to keep it in its lane unless I was focusing like an autocrosser at the Solo Nationals. For a city car, it seemed to have oddly-heavy steering.

Was it fast? Absolutely. Electric cars always feel way quicker than their 0-60 times suggest, thanks to an instant rush of torque and a likelihood to be driven mostly on slower-speed roads in the city. I loved flooring it in the i3, and could easily embarrass some much louder cars driving around town.

Next I’ll focus on something that could easily get its own article: the i3’s weirdness. Every. Single. Part. Of. This. Car. Was. Weird. I don’t understand why BMW didn’t just make a 2-series lookalike with an electric motor, because this thing was just plain ugly. I hated the rear-hinged rear doors, which made loading passengers into the cramped back seat impossible, and every glance down at the “open-pore wood dash” made my just shake my head and ask “why.” The seats were some combination of tweed patched with organically-dyed leather, giving the whole interior a bit of a “sophomore year history professor” vibe. I know BMW’s point was to make the i3 stand out, but it feels like it’s from a time when electric cars were new and futuristic and “OMG WOW IT DOESN’T USE GAS.” Now they’re just, well, cars, and I’d rather have something more normal to drive to work in. Let’s talk about the front tires, too–155/70R19, which is just baffling. I’m pretty sure we’ll see i3s driving around on actual motorcycle tires in 20 years once Bridgestone stops making this awkward size.

Now, don’t get me wrong: The i3 does have some high points, like being easy to see out of, well-equipped, and exceedingly efficient–I averaged 5.2 miles/kwh driving around town without any hyper-miling. Do the math, and that means that I could have theoretically driven 171.6 miles on the i3’s 33 kWh battery. It’s also fast, like beat-an-old-V8-Mustang fast.

But if I had $54,000 to spend on an electric car, I’d buy a new Nissan LEAF, which seats 5 people, drives better (and about as far), has a great quick-charging network, and doesn’t look nearly as awkward. Plus, it’s less expensive–costing just $36,790 for a loaded SL model. In all fairness, a BMW i3 starts at $44,450 without leather or a range extender, but that’s still nearly $10,000 of savings you can use to buy an E36 track rat, or a second car for road trips.

Not willing to drive a Nissan? No problem. Buy a Chevy Bolt or a Tesla Model 3 instead, both of which cost much less and drive twice as far as an i3. And (and I don’t think I can say this enough), they aren’t awkward.

In my mind, the i3 was amazing and new and inspiring when it was unveiled in 2011, but that’s the same year everybody was walking around with iPhone 4s in their pockets. Time has moved on, and electric cars aren’t amazing and futuristic anymore–they’re just cars.

David S. Wallens David S. Wallens
Editorial Director

The year was 2011, and I was at the St. Pete Grand Prix. A friend from Honda asked if I’d like to try the FCX Clarity, their hydrogen fuel cell car. At the time, this was really the stuff of the future–and according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, only 46 units were leased in the U.S. If I remember correctly, they had to truck this car across the state just to fuel it.

Despite the super-high-tech powerplant, the FCX Clarity drove fairly normally. It felt like a gas-electric hybrid–like a Prius, the standard of the day. Plus the Honda looked conventional, too.

So fast forward a couple of years–a generation as far as alt-fuel vehicles are concerned–and we have the BMW i3. The i3 is totally unconventional in every way possible.

The looks: Yep, it’s weird. It’s wacky. It still retains the BMW kidneys, but it’s not going to blend into traffic. If you want the entire world to know that you’re gas-free, then this is the one.

The interior: Wood dash? Interesting. My 911 has wood in the floor, but that’s not nearly as hip. The butterfly rear doors are efficient, but having to open the front doors in order to open the rear doors does feel a bit low-rent. This is a $55,000 BMW, not a 20-year-old Saturn. (Okay, the RX-8 had them, too.) No power seat? I realize that adds weight but, again, we’re talking about a $55,000 BMW. I will give props to the controls. The column-mounted gear selector is unorthodox but it works and the detents are solid.

The tires: Standard rubber is 155/70R19 up front and 175/60R19 out back. Optional are 155/60R20 fronts and 175/55R20 rears. Will those oddball sizes still be available in 10 years, or will they go the way of a good 185/60R14? Despite the lack of footprint, I didn’t find the car to wander, though, even on the highway.

The plug: The BMW has its plug at the right-rear corner. How about a charging port at each end of the car so you don’t have to back into most parking spots and driveways? Yeah, that sounds like a whine, but this isn’t a bargain basement car.

The price: Our car stickered $54,295. That’s getting into premium price category. The forthcoming Tesla Model 3 i supposed to start at $35,000; with the long-range battery, it’s supposed to retail for $49,000. The little Tesla’s conventional looks and shape really appeal to me. Then there’s the tax credit for hybrids and plug-ins. It wasn’t supposed to last forever, but its future has gotten quite murky. How will losing that $7500 credit affect the market?

The drive: We’ve been driving hybrids and electric cars for years, and I know what regen feels like. On the i3, the regen resembles a boat anchor. Let off the gas, and the car quickly noses down. I realize that every electron is sacred, but expect some right foot calibration time. Fortunately the brake lights come on along with the regen, so those behind you know what’s up. As JG noted, you can go a long way without touching the brake pedal.

The big question: Is the i3 fun? It’s quick but it’s not going to stir the soul. It’s not a Miata, MR2 or M3. It’s an appliance although, at least in this case, one that fits in the BMW lineup. It feels a bit more upmarket than something from Nissan and Toyota. Basically, it’s the BMW of electric cars.

Going to BMW’s website shows how this is about emotion as much anything else: “Sustainability proves it can be both beautiful and luxurious. Hand-picked, recycled raw materials add to the sophistication of the interior, while sleek design elements underscore the aerodynamic exterior.”

I’m working at home today. The lights are off, I’m getting fresh air courtesy of an open door, and in a few minutes I’ll take a break to walk the recyclables out to the bin in the garage.

J.G. Pasterjak JG Pasterjak
Production/Art Director

I love the i3, which is to say I love that someone loaned it to us for a week and I didn’t have to buy my own. The i3 is a good car (but not great) electric car with the most serious drawback being a $55,000+ price tag. At that level—$25,000 or more above other electrics in the marketplace—it’s more of a novelty than an actual answer to your economic transportation needs.

As a car, its not half bad, though. Range is good—120+ miles on full battery packs—although charging at anything other than a high-end, high voltage charging station is an arduous, lengthy process. A 110v wall outlet takes close to 16 hours to top off the juice from dry.

The range extending generator is pretty cool I guess. With a two-gallon tank and another 80 miles of range it takes a way a lot of the range anxiety as it’s still far easier to find two gallons of gas than several kilowatts of electricity laying around. But it doesn’t really transform the i3 into a realistic road-trip machine. At best it turns a city-only car into something countryside-capable.

That’s fine, though, because the other big strike against the i3 is kind of lame highway manners. It’s floaty and wanders, most likely as a result of its insanely narrow tires designed to minimize rolling resistance. Unfortunately they also minimize directional stability.

Around town, though, the i3 is a joy. Tidy turning circle, great visibility, and enough torque to easily slice through traffic combine to make a great, but punitively pricey, city car.

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