It looks like a prop from a science fiction movie. It’s the oddest vehicle built with a BMW badge since the company stopped making Isetta bubble cars in 1962. But the 2014 BMW i3 electric car revealed today rolls out as the most technically advanced effort by an automaker to make electric cars viable.
Like all major automakers, BMW has to build electric vehicles to meet regulations around the world, especially in California, which requires automakers to either sell their own EVs or pay their competitors who do so. BMW had experimented with an electric version of its 3-Series sedan, but chose to build a custom-designed EV meant to serve as an urban commuter in the world’s increasingly crowded cities — one meant to maximize its environmental credentials.
"We are at the starting blocks of a new era, the era of sustainable mobility," said BMW Chairman Norbert Reithofer. "The BMW i3 is more than an evolutionary step. It's a great leap forward."
It’s inevitable that the i3 would draw comparisons with Tesla’s Model S, but outside of how they turn their wheels, the two cars have little in common. Tesla designed the Model S to look like a typical sedan on purpose, to make car buyers already wary of electric power feel more at ease. The i3 advertises its singularity, with a tall cabin and short nose wrapped in swooping thermoplastic bodywork. The i3 rides on tall but narrow 19-inch wheels in a tire size found usually on space-saving spares. There’s no pillar between the doors; the rear half-doors open suicide-style, and with no transmission or exhaust tunnel BMW claims it’s easy to slide out either side.
By designing for electric power from scratch, BMW solved many typical EV shortcomings while adding a few new benefits. The i3 has as much interior room as a 3-Series midsize sedan in the footprint of a compact car. BMW's biggest breakthrough for the i3 may be its carbon-fiber frame, the first in a mass-produced vehicle, which cuts the i3 weight to 2,700 lbs., about 500 less than the Nissan Leaf.
BMW claims that weight savings means the i3 does not sacrifice the company’s reputation for handling or performance in the name of environmental benefits. The electric motor powering the rear wheels generate 170 hp and 184 lb.-ft. of torque, enough to carry the i3 to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds. Like all BMWs, the i3’s weight sits balanced evenly between front and back, with the 450-lb. lithium-ion battery pack over the rear wheels for better traction.
The basic i3 can travel 80 to 100 miles on a charge, with several software settings that can attempt to maximize that distance through steps such as more aggressive energy recapture from braking. For those buyers who simply don’t trust battery power alone, the i3 will offer a gas-powered range extender — a small two-cylinder engine borrowed from its motorcycle division mounted in the rear that recharges the batteries and roughly doubles the i3’s range. (Owners will also be able to borrow a gas-powered BMW for a few weeks a year.)
The interior carries over the sci-fi theme, with a waving dash and seats combining LED lighting, touch screens and “responsibly forested” eucalyptus. It’s indicative of the lengths BMW has gone to give the i3 an environmentally beneficial aura: The interior leather was tanned with olive leaf extract, the Washington factory that makes the carbon fiber for the chassis uses hydroelectric power, and even the key fob is made from renewable materials — namely pressed castor seeds.
At $42,275 before incentives, the i3’s sticker price is high but not outlandish for a BMW showroom, and BMW will likely offer a lease deal when the i3 arrives in U.S. dealerships about a year from now. BMW hasn't talked yet about sales targets for the i3, but given its global ambitions, investments in new technology and BMW's drive for profits, the i3 clearly wasn't meant to be just another sci-fi prop.