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
Director of Marketing & Digital Assets

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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Comments
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mcompact
mcompact None
11/21/17 10:40 p.m.

I assumed a dirt-cheap lease of a fully optioned i3 from a BMW employee so price isn't an issue. My wife loves it as her DD and I think that it is kind of fun to drive in a suburban environment. I haven't noticed a problem with straight line stability and I usually drive it 20-30 miles per week at 70 mph or more on limited access highways. In any case, it cut our gasoline bill by $250/month and allows me to save my M235i for longer and more involving drives.

stuart in mn
stuart in mn UltimaDork
11/21/17 10:56 p.m.

My neighbor across the alley just got an I3 to replace the Volt he's been driving for a few years.  Don't know if it has the range extender or not, though.  I did notice as he was parking it the other day that it seems to have a really tight turning radius.

nderwater
nderwater UltimaDork
11/22/17 10:39 a.m.

When it was introduced, i3 was the fastest and most fun to drive EV this side of a Tesla. And the idea of a carbon safety cell on an aluminum roller skate chassis really appeals to the geek in me.

But so much about this car seems like it was engineered for the novelty value -- the exterior styling, the interior materials, the micro 'dash' and other controls -- that the car's utility is compromised in all sorts of ways that you wouldn't expect in a small hatchback. It's essentially like BMW made a daily driver out of a concept car with little regard to what owners would actually want.

If you are a trendy single or couple in an urban environment, this may be the car for you. If you have kids and are looking for an EV to replace your VW Golf, the i3 is probably not the car for you.

cdeforrest
cdeforrest New Reader
6/6/19 12:37 p.m.

Eh, I have one kid and the i3 Rex's my only 'real' car.  Daily commute is 70 miles round trip & I charge at work.
A road trip for me is 200miles tops, which is just about what the full range is when depleting the battery & gas tank. 

For $50k its ridiculous.. They're crazy cheap used, so for a 3 yr old model, you're looking at $20k.

nderwater
nderwater UltimaDork
6/6/19 1:56 p.m.

On the used market $20K will also get you a newer-generation EV with much longer range (Leaf, Bolt, Ionic) or a newer plug-in hybrid that is not nearly as compromised as the i3 REx (Volt, Insight, Ioniq, etc).

spacecadet
spacecadet GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
6/10/19 9:35 a.m.
nderwater said:

On the used market $20K will also get you a newer-generation EV with much longer range (Leaf, Bolt, Ionic) or a newer plug-in hybrid that is not nearly as compromised as the i3 REx (Volt, Insight, Ioniq, etc).

This^^^ The i3 was built to a very specific market.. 

pointofdeparture
pointofdeparture PowerDork
6/10/19 1:13 p.m.

I have seen a few dip into the $13-14k range but they go fast at that price. Depending on your family situation and vehicle needs they are an interesting boutique commuter for that kind of money.

I would trust an i3 over an Ioniq. The Hyundai/Kia hybrids with the DCT trans instead of the conventional auto have NOT been holding up well from what I hear.

cdeforrest
cdeforrest New Reader
6/10/19 1:31 p.m.

For me, the 1g Volt, Bolt & Leaf felt like penalty boxes compared to the mid-grade i3.   It really does have a premium feel inside.

I wouldn't touch a Kia/Hyundai mostly because of their dealers..but also..Kia/Hyundai.   

My Fiat 500e lease experience was positively awful because of the lousy FCA dealers that disavowed any knowledge of the car. It didn't help that most Fiat dealers near me shuttered.  At least I know the BMW will be supported for a while and the dealers/support system isn't going anywhere.  That's another concern for Tesla..after the warranty's up, good luck!

 

Vigo
Vigo MegaDork
6/10/19 4:16 p.m.

My Fiat 500e lease experience was positively awful because of the lousy FCA dealers that disavowed any knowledge of the car.

So you're saying it actually needed service?  

cdeforrest
cdeforrest New Reader
6/10/19 5:57 p.m.

In reply to Vigo :

Believe it or not, when I wasn’t bashing the living hell out of the front struts (replaced 2x) or in for a software update, it didn’t. Crazy, right?

 The real fun began when it was time to return the car to its maker. Regular Chrysler dealers wouldn’t take it back. The place I leased it from folded. This is in SF Bay Area, mind you. I had to tow it 90 miles to a sympathetic FCA dealer in Concord. And after all that, Corporate has the gall to charge me full price for lease disposition. We eventually worked something out but not before many screw ups and bad feels. 

Not to mention, I had to drive a Dodge Journey when the Fiat was in for service. Nobody should have to live through that. Nobody. 

When the i3 goes in (which it hasn’t for the last 20k) I get something like a 330e and am treated like a human being. 

cdeforrest
cdeforrest New Reader
6/10/19 6:16 p.m.

I don’t have a single bad thing to say about the 500e, aside from it’s limited range (say 75mi). More fun to drive than the i3 but a bit more spartan. It’s Everything ppl like about the Abarth, minus the noise. 

Shame about the lousy dealers 

mad_machine
mad_machine GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
6/11/19 11:18 a.m.
cdeforrest said:

For me, the 1g Volt, Bolt & Leaf felt like penalty boxes compared to the mid-grade i3.   It really does have a premium feel inside.

I wouldn't touch a Kia/Hyundai mostly because of their dealers..but also..Kia/Hyundai.   

My Fiat 500e lease experience was positively awful because of the lousy FCA dealers that disavowed any knowledge of the car. It didn't help that most Fiat dealers near me shuttered.  At least I know the BMW will be supported for a while and the dealers/support system isn't going anywhere.  That's another concern for Tesla..after the warranty's up, good luck!

 

I looked for an E before buying my Abarth. Besides how fun the Abarth is, the real reason I did not get an E was due to lack of places to get it serviced. I have an FCA dealer not two miles away.. to say they disavowed knowledge of it is an understatement. The shop guy told me flat out they had nobody there to work on them

dherr
dherr HalfDork
6/11/19 11:56 a.m.

So here is my question. What work is needed on an electric car. I thought one of the big advantages was there was little to no maintenance other than brakes, tires and probably software updates. Especially on a new one, should be almost no cost until the battery pack ages, or am I missing something?

nderwater
nderwater UltimaDork
6/11/19 12:41 p.m.

My Soul EV developed a charging fault that would interrupt overnight charging at random. I lived with it for a year because it rarely interfered with my commute, but when I finally took it for service the entire charging unit had replaced which required a special technician to come to my area to install.  The part itself had to be shipped from Korea, so I was in a loaner car for nearly three weeks.  Recall items and software updates also had to be scheduled so that a trained tech could come to the dealership to perform the work.

My local dealership was terrific to work with and close to my home, and all of the service performed on my EV was always covered under warrantee, but based on my experience I wouldn't call EV's absolutely "maintenance free."  Heck, just ask any long-term Tesla owner...

Karacticus
Karacticus GRM+ Memberand Dork
6/11/19 1:06 p.m.

In reply to dherr :

I've needed the following work done on the i3 Rex in the past 15,000 miles, all done on warranty--

  • Fuel tank pressure sensor failed, requiring manual cable unlock of gas flap.  Recall item.
  • Actuator that locks the charging cable to the car while car is locked and charging failed.  Having the vehicle and charging port exposed during an ice storm probably didn't do it any favors.  At some point, car needs to go back, because the manual release cable wasn't properly reassembled.
  • Front strut dust boots were replaced.  It appears they were made of paper mache.  

I've also done an oil and filter change on the car, flushed brake fluid, changed the cabin air filter and replaced some interior trim bits that I felt the prior owner was a bit hard on.  Refurbished one rim the prior owner curbed as well.

So, two of those items are peculiar to an electric car.

mad_machine
mad_machine GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
6/11/19 11:36 p.m.
dherr said:

So here is my question. What work is needed on an electric car. I thought one of the big advantages was there was little to no maintenance other than brakes, tires and probably software updates. Especially on a new one, should be almost no cost until the battery pack ages, or am I missing something?

while the drivetrain is mostly maintenance free.. it's still a car. the FCA dealer near me wouldn't touch an E to ANY work to it. Electric cars can be troublesome compared to their ICE powered sisters due to the differing electronics to optimize the battery run time and range.

cdeforrest
cdeforrest New Reader
6/11/19 11:46 p.m.

My only out of pocket maint costs for either the fiat or i3 have been tires. Lots of tires. I did 45k on the fiat and the brakes were fine due to heavy regenerative braking - I definitely did not treat it gently. 

The bmw’s ready for brakes and an oil change but it’s common Mini/bmw parts so no big whoop. 

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