BMW i3 Test Drive Review (In Depth)

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Originally published on GM-Volt.

So, as I’ve posted in this sub-forum, BMW has been carting a number of i3s around to their dealerships and doing test drive “events”. The events for the Dallas/Ft. Worth area dealers were all this week. I signed both my wife and myself up for the event at Autobahn BMW about a month ago and the event took place this morning. And now for one of my classic novella length reviews:

The event itself and road course
They had 4 or 5 of them on hand. They were all “European” spec cars (i.e. some had sunroofs, interior trim options did not match exterior wheel options, etc.). None had the range extender engine of course (if you’ve followed any of the i3 events, you understand that’s just the way it is for now). I purposely chose Autobahn BMW in Ft. Worth because they have really bad roads around that dealership (we bought our SUV next door at Autobahn Volvo) – this would allow me to gauge the ride quality of the car which some reviewers have noted as being a bit harsh. The course consisted of a 2.1 mile loop with nothing but right turns (did have three roundabouts in there). They gave us a 30 second introduction to the car, we hopped in and drove off on our own…no chaperon (which is always nice). No pressure. I drove first, then my wife took a turn and after climbing in, and around the one on display, I asked if I could have another drive – no problem.  – There were two of us in the car for each test drive, and of course NO FREEWAY driving.

My History (I’ll just cut-and-paste most of this from my Tesla review)
I am a self-labeled “car guy” and my last two cars (prior to acquiring my Volt in July 2012 – now with 21K miles on it) were an ’02 BMW M5 and an ’05 Pontiac GTO. I’ve had a couple other 3 and 5 series BMWs along the way and various muscle cars. We also own a ’12 Volvo XC60 R-Design (325HP, 354 ft lbs of torque) and a neglected 67 Firebird with a 455 is sitting in my garage. Oh, and I still have a 97 M3, but my son drives it. In short, I like sporty cars and am fond of European sport sedans. The Volt has been (and continues to be ) a great car, BUT I do miss the power, solid feel, and handling of some of my previous rides. I am willing to PAY MORE for a car that is more “engaging/powerful/fun/etc”…how much more is dependent upon the car, my budget, and general value.

Enough with the chit-chat….the car:

The i3’s acceleration is pretty nice. It is torquier than the Volt (not in lbs ft numbers, but in acceleration result), by a decent amount and is a bit of a hoot to drive as a result. This is one of the things I was most interested in validating. Like the Volt, there is some softness on the first application of the throttle pedal, but it doesn’t appear to be as extreme. There are three modes on the i3: Comfort, Eco, and ECO+. Comfort is like “Sport” mode on the Volt only more so. Unlike the Volt, Eco and Eco+ did not neuter the throttle response as much as “Normal” mode does in the Volt (which was a surprise). 0-60 time for the Volt is about 9.0 seconds whereas the i3 is around 7-7.2 – that’s a pretty big delta, especially since EVs already feel faster than their ICE counterparts even when the “numbers” match. As I would almost assuredly have to get the range extender model, I would definitely want to test drive that version since it adds several hundred pounds of weight and 0-60 will be closet to 7.9 seconds. In many ways, it does feel like it splits the difference between the Volt in Sport mode and the awesome Model S in terms of acceleration (at least for the EV only i3) which is nice. (note: the Model S is still in a class by itself).

The drive/ride/handling
I posted a question on the BMW i3 forum asking the owners (all in Europe as of now of course) if their i3s inspired them to drive it like a classic “hot hatch” (i.e. GTI, Focus SVT/ST, etc.). I wanted to find out that answer for myself (as best as I could with two short test drives). The ride is definitely firmer in the i3 than in the Volt – by a healthy margin. BMW does a good job here with IMPACT harshness though so it isn’t horribly jarring. You do, however, get jostled around considerably more and in a particularly bumpy section I fell into the “OK, this would get pretty old if I had to drive on a road like this in this particular car on a regular basis” mode. Beyond a suspension tuned more for more sport than the Volt, the car’s wheelbase is 4.5″ shorter (Volt: 105.7″ vs. i3: 101.2″) – that’s quite a bit. Read the GTI forums and you’ll see this can be a challenge for owners sometimes (the mark 6 GTI is similar – and as an aside, the mark 7 GTI’s wheelbase will be about 4″ longer). The i3’s suspension does feel more “sophisticated” than the Volt’s – with a bit more of that “solid” feel you get in the European sedans. This isn’t just hype. I used to think all the raving about BMW handling in the car mags was BS, until I bought a 97 328i sport years ago and was sort of like “Oh…this is what they are talking about“). If I could change something here, I would add BMW’s adaptive suspension as an option with the usual comfort/normal/sport settings to try and get the best of both worlds. I will say this as a warning. I was already hearing rattles in ALL THREE of the i3s we drove over these bumpy roads over the sharpest bumps. I immediately drove my Volt over the same course afterwards…almost no rattles in comparison. There is no free lunch folks.

As to the handling and fun-to-drive aspects, it was definitely better than the Volt in terms of general tossability. You can just immediately feel that this car weighs 1000 lbs less than the Volt (OK, maybe you can’t tell the exact number, but you know it is a lot less). I did a few quick left/right maneuvers (as best I could on this short drive), and even used a roundabout as my personal skidpad at one point (no traffic on the roads behind the dealership) and it felt nice and light. The tires are the weak link. Normal and even normal sporty driving are fine, but push a long sweeper or transition a bit too sharp and you hit their limits, and then you feel the roll, etc. The car is NOT suspended for full on go-karting either so, despite the firm ride, understand this is not a sports car, etc.

Finally, we drove cars with the 19″ rims and the optional 20” rims. On these particularly bumpy roads, I noticed ZERO handling benefit with the larger rims, but did notice a drop in ride quality. So it comes down to “looks” – and a conundrum there (see my exterior section).

The Interior Tech and Controls
Really, this is almost no different that what you’ll see in most new BMWs and EVs these days. No special points for a “phone app” since most of them have all that stuff now too for preconditioning, unlocking doors, downloading navigation locations, etc. I think the BMW may have active cruise control, etc. and I understand the nav can tie into your driving (to a degree) and understand when you need to look for charge stations, etc. All i3s come with navigation as standard, but there is the regular nav and professional. The screen size on the latter is considerably larger (well, actually they have the same physical dimensions but on the “free” one, half the screen is covered on either side with plastic). Anyway, the i3s we test drove all had the larger professional navigation/idrive – very nice screen and bigger than the Volt. Very well done. I don’t think it is a touch screen as the idrive setups use the console mounted idrive controller (note: it does have a touch pad, but few practical uses for it I would guess). There are a decent amount of physical knobs and buttons so you don’t need to dink around in idrive to do the basics (hooray for knobs and buttons).

The Interior(s)
The i3 has three different interiors – that’s it. They are tied to what BMW calls “worlds” (aka trim levels). The three trims are mega, giga, and terra. (cheapest to most expensive). The cars we drove had the giga and terra trims. Giga is a mix of leather and cloth (sort of mustard colored leather and grey cloth), and Terra is a dark brown leather. Surprisingly, both looked OK. Normally, I would balk at the Giga interior, but it is sort of a “context” thing. In the context of a funky looking i3, the Giga interior just seems, well, normal. The terra interior definitely felt the most upscale, and the leather appeared to be of the Dakota-durable style (as opposed to Nappa). I could live with either one. The seats themselves were firm, and while generally comfortable I might have liked a touch more padding…of course, I am doing a good job adding my own personal padding these days, so this may not be an issue soon.

The exterior
OK, the i3 is NOT a particularly attractive car. I’m not going to budge on this or dismiss it as simply “new” or “unconventional”. I might even go so far as to say some things are contrived. HOWEVER, I’ve mostly gotten over it. I could live with its funky looks because I also like cars that have some element of “unusual” or “out of the norm”, or “what the heck is that?”. Call it vanity, or whatever…it is what it is.

Now, the coach (aka suicide) doors are just stupid and short-sighted. This car is really a coupe with awesome rear seat access. If you have little kids, do yourself a favor and don’t buy a coupe (been there, done that), especially if you want them to OPEN THEIR OWN DOORS at some point w/o you having to get out of the car. Now, for me and my wife, well, that isn’t an issue. Our kids are grown, and we only occasionally have a rear seat passenger. In one respect, this is a slightly better model as I put my laptop case in the back seat area when I drive to work and the i3 would allow me to do that slightly more efficiently than the Volt…a pretty specific use-case though. Anyway, you can decide if the i3 doors are an issue for you. They are not a “problem” for me so their shortcomings are mostly irrelevant.

I do hate, hate, hate, the location of the dang charge door. I have already confirmed my existing Blink Unit’s cable will NOT reach back to that spot! I mean c’mon BMW, have you actually looked at, um, virtually every other EV? Front is best, front quarters are second best, and anything at the back (on either side – that include you Tesla guys too) is a distant third. Sadly, I think the rEx actually has the gas cap location in the front right fender? If they want to accommodate Europeans and Americans differently, then just change the architecture to support both locations.

Now to the wheel conundrum. As noted, you get to choose from three trim levels. Each trim level includes a different interior and different wheel rims. On ANY trim level you can pony-up for the $1300 20″ rims, which look good, but do have a ride penalty. Unfortunately, the wheels on the base mega trim are hideous. Giga level rims are “tolerable” (barely), but the Terra rims would be my preference…which means you’ll be getting the darker leather interior (which I am OK with, but the price starts getting up there quick on an i3). Any way you look at it…decent rims will cost you.

Yeah, Yeah…would you buy one?
I’ve read a lot about the i3 and I had a feeling I would come out of this test drive on-the-fence, and that is exactly where I am at. The i3 is the “cool” (if perhaps unattractive) new kid on the block with a carbon fiber body, and its light weight makes it “fun” to drive. Conversely, the Volt feels a bit more “grown up”. It errs to the side of luxury in terms of its ride and general feeling. The i3 is more on the sport side of the equation. Honestly, tossing my car into sport mode and driving the same course as aggressively as I had driven the i3 reveals the benefits of BOTH cars as compared to the other. i3 = more fun. Volt = more luxury. Now, by “luxury” I am talking about the plusher ride and, I think, greater isolation in the Volt (not things like grades of leather). I swear I even heard more wind noise in the i3. The problem for me is I value BOTH sides of the equation (that’s one of the reasons I wish the i3 had the adaptive suspension). At an identical price point, I would buy the i3 over the Volt. I would even pay MORE for the i3 because of my desire for something more sporty or at least more powerful. However, I am having a hard time coming to grips with the i3’s price premium. It is uber easy to get an i3 into the low $50s….Terra trim, Nav and heated seats…whoops you are at $52K for an i3 with the range extender. Ouch. Part of the “problem” here is that the Volt is REALLY GOOD in so many areas, and is actually “undervalued” (despite the sales numbers).

My Volt lease is up in 15 months by which time we’ll have the official performance stats from the big car mags on the i3 and i3 w/ rEx, and some more real-world info from U.S. owners as to range, reliability, etc. In addition, Volt 2.0 will be out at almost that exact same time. Dang first world problems…

And if you just want to punish yourself, my reviews of the ELR and Model S here on….oday…(short)….-Tesla-Model-S

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5 thoughts on “BMW i3 Test Drive Review (In Depth)

  • Good review. I am sort of in the same position as your last paragraph. I want to purchase some sort of EV in the next 6-12 months but it seems way more logical to go for a 1 year used volt for literally more than half the price as a new i3 in an acceptable looking trim. And even then you are making a sacrifice in that perhaps the car is almost.. ugly.

    I figure this is a perfect time for the Volt. Buy, hold, and save between today and the 2017-18 release of the more affordable, better looking, higher performance Tesla Generation 3 (compared to the i3 that is).

    • I was told last month that Tesla would start taking deposits for the Model E in January 2015.

      • Ah, that would be great, but that doesn’t mean too much. They have been taking deposits on the Model X for about a year now if my memory serves me right and there really wont be any substantial deliveries until arond Jan 1 2015. So even if deposits start is could be Jan 1 2017 before any cars are delivered.

  • Nice review, a lot of useful info….

  • The i3 BMW looks nice untill this suicide rear doors, specially when children are there, look the new Subaru rear doors.

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