First drive: Shocking 2014 BMW i3 electric

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While we outlined BMW's first electric vehicle last summer, we’ve finally had a chance to drive one briefly on the streets of downtown L.A. From this initial drive, it looks like the shocking i3 could turn out to be nearly the ideal urban runabout. (See our complete 2013 L.A. Auto Show coverage.)

The pure electric i3 version claims an 80-to-100-mile range. A range-extending version, with a small gas engine, could double that. Pricing starts at $41,350, but typically optioned, the i3 would probably scratch $50,000. It goes on sale in May.

Behind the wheel: The i3 feels quick and sprightly driving around town, and it can squeeze into traffic with nose-thumbing confidence. The electric motor's instant torque gives effortless punch. But the regenerative braking feel is pretty aggressive; just lift the throttle and you can come to a complete stop. It takes some practice to time the stop perfectly.

Handling is surprisingly sharp considering that the shape—a tall, narrow pod on skinny tires—doesn't look like it could maintain an even keel when cornering. This physics-challenge is probably helped because the heavy battery sits under the floor, where it lowers the center of gravity. Turns out, the i3 is eminently tossable, with quick turn-in response and BMW-grade manners. Without exaggeration, the i3 seems to have less body roll than the BMW Z4 roadster. Too bad that steering feel is on the vague side. But then, even gas-powered BMWs aren’t stellar on that count these days.

Ride comfort is commendable: taut yet supple and controlled. And the cabin stays nice and quiet with no extraneous whirs or whines from the electric drive.

Getting in and out is a cinch, thanks to the tall stance and large front doors. Two small rear-hinged doors reveal a somewhat usable rear seat. Visibility is quite good. The interior design is elegant yet reserved, like Scandinavian furniture. In this case, the austere décor features matte wood trim and black leather seats.

The vivid center screen is clearly legible and a familiar iDrive unified controller knob manages the screen menus. Range and electric consumption are prominently displayed. The battery was almost full with a range of 77 miles when I got in. Selecting Eco or Eco Pro driving modes can eke out a bit more range. Just don't expect a Sport mode in this BMW. A full charge takes three hours using a 240-volt supply, BMW says.

The BMW i3 won't displace the Tesla Model S, but it looks like an efficient-yet-funky city car that introduces a new breed of BMW. We look forward to buying our own in a few months and spending more time in this creative machine.

—Gabe Shenhar



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