I drove the i4, BMW's new Tesla rival.
It's sporty, well-built, and approachable for first-time EV buyers.
But it lacks some of the special touches that make EVs interesting.
The great thing about electric vehicles getting more popular is that there's more choice on the market than ever.
Want a big, rugged SUV? A commuter hatchback? A spaceship-looking luxury sedan? All are available.
For buyers desiring an EV that's a bit more conventional than what's on offer from the flashiest startups, there's the BMW i4. It's a sporty and stylish car that doesn't break the mold too much. Whether that's a plus or a minus is up to you.
After spending a week with the i4, I came away with four main highs — and a couple of lows.
(For context, BMW lent me a $68,000 i4 eDrive40 with a generous list of optional features. The entry-level i4 eDrive35 will run you $52,200, and there are some pricier models too.)
Pro: It’s a BMW
By that I mean it feels sturdily built and cocoons you in high-quality materials. Just shut the door with a hefty thunk and you can tell this thing is made to last.
That's in contrast to a rival like the Tesla Model 3, which lacks the luxury and build quality of premium German brands.
Pro: It’s familiar
There's no huge touchscreen, minimalist atmosphere, or major learning curve to understanding how it works. For some people, an EV that just looks and feels like a regular car instead of a spaceship has got to be a big selling point.
Even so, the i4 serves up plenty of newfangled features to excite the more technologically-minded among us.
There's a large, curved display that's just as responsive as a smartphone. Above the steering wheel, there's a head-up display that projects some info onto the windshield. And BMW offers an excellent hands-free driving feature that works in highway traffic jams.
Pro: 'The ultimate driving machine'
BMW has never messed around when it comes to performance, and the i4 proves that that mission will endure into the electric era.
The sports sedan is riotously fun to flick around corners thanks to its planted handling, thrilling quickness, and agile steering. My rear-wheel-drive tester had 335 horsepower and claimed to hit 60 mph in 5.4 seconds. That may not blow you away on paper, but trust me when I say the i4 eDrive40's instantaneous torque is no joke.
Relatedly, the i4 serves up solid, anxiety-eliminating range. My test car was EPA-rated for 282 miles, and the sedan can return up to 307 depending on which model and wheel size you pick.
Pro: It’s a hatchback
If you want sedan styling and driving characteristics with extra practicality, the i4 is worth a look. Much like the Polestar 2 which it competes with, the i4 employs a hatch instead of a conventional trunk, meaning you get some bonus vertical room for bulky cargo.
Con: It’s missing some of the things people love about EVs
An emphasis on familiarity can be a double-edged sword. An accessible overall package means that the i4 misses out on some of the attributes that make EVs uniquely appealing.
For instance, BMW could have made room for a front trunk, since there's no engine under the hood. Rivals like the Polestar 2 and Tesla Model 3 offer handy storage up there. But BMW opted not to.
Similarly, EVs don't have bulky transmission tunnels like their gas counterparts, allowing some automakers to give their battery-powered cars flat floors and extra legroom. But in the i4, you get the same hump in the middle of the rear seats that gasoline cars have, which does no favors to its already compact back seat.
Con: Odd regenerative braking feature
I saved the most minor gripe for last.
The i4 offers an interesting feature that automatically adjusts its regenerative braking on the fly, depending on what's happening around you.
(Regenerative braking, as a reminder, is a feature in electric cars that slows the car down and feeds energy to the battery pack as the driver lifts off the throttle. When it's extra strong, you don't need to brake at all.)
If the feature is switched on and the i4 spots another vehicle in your vicinity, the car will slow more aggressively. If there's nobody around, it'll coast. If there's a turn coming up in the navigation, again, it'll amp up the regen.
It's a neat idea, but in practice, I think it's better to always know exactly how your car will slow down — rather than always be guessing.
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