Last June, when my family and I moved to Florida from Poland, we couldn’t afford the Tesla Model 3. Well, I could afford it as far as my calculations went, and it seemed to me that it made the most financial sense, especially with the $7500 tax credit still available, but I couldn’t get a loan for the amount needed for some reason. I’ve long loved the BMW i3 (I think it was the first electric car I drove, which made it extra special), and you could find wicked deals on used i3s because they had depreciated so much. So, I got one of my dream cars.
I still love the i3. It’s a blast to drive. I love driving the Tesla Model S and Tesla Model 3, but the i3 offers another awesome yet different driving experience. The i3’s 0–60 mph time doesn’t look impressive on paper, but the car so quickly zips off the line. It is a zippy, light, airy kind of acceleration, which I assume is due to the i3’s super light weight (combined with the instant torque, of course). Tesla vehicles have a heavy, powerful acceleration, which is totally awesome but truly different. I love both, and depending on the day or my mood, I might prefer one over the other if that were the only issue.
However, the i3’s lightness and skinny wheels come with an issue. The i3 is quite wobbly. That’s not fun. It also makes going fast while turning something I avoided in most cases. Generally speaking, turns in the i3 are not enjoyable unless they are at a super slow speed or very wide angle. Yes, this ruins the fun of the quick acceleration in places where you don’t more or less have a straightaway.
When it comes to looks, I love the i3 from certain angles/positions. The back of the i3 looks super cool, and the car can look neat from the sides as well. The stubby front can “ruin” other angles, but not too much for my tastes. It’s not a Model S or Model 3 (which look amazing by all objective standards), but it’s still a cool looking car that tickles the mind and inspires the viewer (well, some viewers). I understand that some people think it’s ugly or at least not cool, but we received many sparkling stares and smiling enquiries from strangers, and overall approval. I don’t need the approval, but it’s nice to share in the joy. Generally, though, whenever I walked up to the car to go somewhere, I thought, “that’s such a fun car” or “that’s such a cute little spunky vehicle” or “that’s such a cool looking car.”
I imagine more people will like the look of the Model 3, and I certainly appreciate it immensely when walking up to it and seeing its white + black + white combo, but it is also getting to be a bit common, which takes away that spark by a few ounces. My whole family has fun seeing Teslas on the road, and we compete to see who can guess the number we’ll see on each trip, but we often see more than a dozen a day. We see a BMW i3 less than once a day, maybe 2–3 times a week, and I get stoked each time we do. “An i3!” They are special, cool in their own way and certainly much more rare. In a year or two, I expect Model 3s to be everywhere — I will not be surprised if I see dozens a day. The i3, however, will still be a cute, fun, sporty little stormtrooper that is rare to spot.
The interior of the i3 is pretty cool, with a lot more space than you might expect from a subcompact due to its bubbly shape and creative BMW design. However, it isn’t spectacular. It’s a bit tight, even with the girls being just 3 and 5. The seats are okay, but not nearly as good as Tesla’s seats. Also, they have cheap manual controls instead of Tesla’s nice mechanical ones. (If Tesla put those in a car, $TSLAQ would flip out.) Of course, the BMW doesn’t remember the driver’s seat position or host driver profiles at all.
There definitely isn’t much storage space inside the cabin, and that isn’t helped by the fact that the trunk is tiny and the frunk is basically useless (water, leaves, etc. get inside and it’s super duper tiny anyway).
We have loved the medium height of the i3, which gives it a kind of crossover feel, and the helicopter-like visibility. I’d still recommend the car for these reasons (as well as the driving highlights mentioned above), and my wife has long said she prefers that over the seating position of the Model 3. I might agree with her. Though, we both clearly now enjoy the much higher seat quality and comfort of the Model 3’s seats. For me, part of that is that the small interior space leaves me a bit cramped — or if I wasn’t cramped, I’d be squashing the little one behind me and would be getting constantly kicked.
Where the i3 breaks down is with the infotainment, navigation system, and app. The infotainment is super lame. It feels a decade or two old. The navigation isn’t much better, and having to enter addresses with a nob is hilariously annoying. It’s like making someone use a rotary phone. As such, we only used it a few times. Instead, we had to rely on Google Maps and little smartphones. I am pretty sure I thought about Tesla’s navigation system every time we did so. That said, we lived with these downsides fine. It wasn’t that big a deal for us. The radio generally sufficed for our family and we got by on Google Maps like many other drivers. Though, knowing something was out there that was so much better is what caused some annoyance.
While the trunk space is about as bad as it gets, and made us stick many a bag inside the car by our feet, the hatchback design is fun and useful. I love popping the hatch and found it worked well in all cases. As long as the stuff could fit in the trunk, it was totally convenient loading it in. The i3 doors, hatch included, have a very nice feel/sound when you close them. I know this is a tiny matter, but it’s something you can notice. It’s one simple feature of the i3 that I frequently appreciated.
The BMW app can do a few things — pre-cool the car, lock and unlock the doors, check charging status, etc. — and I used it for those things many times. However, the app is so slow that it was always annoying. I ended up just dropping it and only using the app in emergencies. It wasn’t worth the time staring at the screen or wondering if my command would actually go through.
Regarding phone charging … ugh. The USB port in the i3 didn’t work for us, so I eventually took it in for service. They couldn’t get it to work. They switched out the whole electronic contraption, and it still didn’t work. They basically said, “sometimes it doesn’t work,” or, “it doesn’t work with some phones.” One of the service techs recommended using one of those cigarette lighter adapters. We bought one recently … and that didn’t work either. Clearly, in 2019, it’s not terribly convenient to not have a USB port in the car to charge your phone.
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The BMW i3 has adaptive cruise control, which is alright, but I almost never used it because it wasn’t good enough to be useful in normal city driving and I avoided highway driving as much as possible due to the wobbly nature of the i3 and its light weight — not fun on a fast road next to other cars and trucks.
BMW service was always friendly. It’s a nice place to go if you have to go in for service. The people were helpful and the waiting area welcoming and pleasant. The wait wasn’t something to complain about. The service tech once left a gash in the center console (after unsuccessfully trying to fix the USB port), but they replaced it and kindly apologized for the inconvenience. Shit happens. Not a big deal. I once was waiting on a call that never came — they were supposed to let me know when a part was in. So be it. Communications issues abound at busy places. All in all, the experiences weren’t always perfect and anything that wasn’t under warranty came at a BMW price, but we were happy with the service and would put it in the plus category.
Charging and range are issues that depend on the circumstances. That said, 60–71 miles of electric range never won any awards and no major automaker will ever make a fully electric car with less than 100 miles of range again — as they shouldn’t. For our low-mileage lifestyle and an adequate number of charging stations in the area (especially in places we frequently visit), that was plenty for the first 9 months. In the past month, due to one of jounk daughters entering kindergarten and us living in a different place, the range has been a clear limitation that has been a bit of a hassle. Not a big hassle, but even a little hassle is something to avoid. If the electricity runs out, the problem is not that the car will die, just that the gasoline range extender will kick in. The gasoline range extender is gross. Gasoline is smelly and toxic, and an internal combustion engine is noisy and creates all kinds of rumbling. We really didn’t like it when the engine turned on, and I hate filling up a gas tank. I only had to fill up the tank twice and the engine only kicked in a handful of times, but it was enough to dream about a fully electric car with 200+ miles of range.
Preferences vary. There are all kinds of styles for many consumer goods because there are all kinds of tastes. Overall, we loved the BMW i3 from day one and we still love it today. It’s just not as pleasing or convenient as it once was, and it’s not a Tesla Model 3.
Yes, I’d definitely recommend a used i3 to someone considering the car, someone whose lifestyle and circumstances work for the i3. But if in the market for a new car, I definitely couldn’t recommend an i3 over a Model 3 — even two for the price of one might not be enough to compete with the Model 3. But hey, check again in a few months and see what I say.
If you have any remaining questions about the i3, drop me a note.
In my last article about the i3 — “Cost of Driving a BMW i3 REx for 9 Months in Florida: $2.26” — I didn’t get to the comments until it was too late to respond. So, below are answers to questions from there:
- “For the miles driven and the estimated (city) energy requirements, what would a home charging family have paid in Sarasota? It’ll still be a low number, but one that’s far more applicable to the general public.”
— I have no idea. I’ll track things better going forward and have more interesting comparisons in a few months.
- “Also, I presume you wouldn’t have needed to charge anywhere but home if it had been available, but confirmation would be great.”
— Yeah, we’d rarely need to charge outside of home if we had gotten home charging, but still would have since chargers were at many common destinations, are free, and it’s fun. There are a number of stations with multiple charging points and no problem with availability.
- “I see you have become a bit Europeanized – gone native – having experienced a public space constructed so that you don’t really need a car, you see the US differently.”
— Well, I studied that in college and graduate school. I expected to be a city planner focused on smart development, mixed-use planning, transit-oriented development, etc. However, love and life took me elsewhere.
- “Those free chargers you have in Sarasota, are they slow chargers, like a wall outlet at home?”
— They are mostly 6.6 kW. Some 50 kW fast chargers, too. Well, I only used one of those and only occasionally.
- “Like many municipalities set up at curb side parking to encourage BEV use, to reduce local (and global) pollution?”
— Not much curbside charging here, but charging stations at some stores, parks, and public facilities.
- How many kWh, or at least miles driven?
— I have no idea regarding kWh. Miles = approximately 6,000 miles (~10,000 km).
- “Oh, BTW Zach, your chauffeur looks a little young.”
— Yes. Indeed.
If you’d like to buy a Tesla and get 1,000 miles (1,500 km) of free Supercharging, feel free to use my referral code: https://ts.la/zachary63404