Last week, the Sales Director at Baron BMW sent me an email with a proposition: Would I like to stop by and pick up one of their new BMW i3 electric cars, live with it for a few days, and provide my impressions? It was one of those times where a more humble man might stop to consider why such good things seem to happen to him with regularity, but such self-reflection is for pansies so I jumped at the chance.
First things first: Driving an all-electric BMW i3, the firm's first vehicle to be engineered from the ground up to be that way, is altogether a normal experience. Except it’s not. Allow me to explain.
It’s clearly a car, but a car that was sculpted by a design class devoted to the writings of Freeman Dyson (or for the less charitable, perhaps the industrial designs of James Dyson). Freed from the convention of a typical engine and drivetrain, the designers sketched out the subtlest origami shapes for the exterior and the most Danish Design-meets-Starship Enterprise vibe for the interior, and then the engineers actually figured out how to manufacture the damn thing. It’s striking and stunning but not so overly styled as to be precious, and it’s immediately familiar to anyone who has ever driven a BMW. Familial harmony was maintained, complete with faux-kidney grill (though disappointingly no Hofmeister kink).
But how does it drive? In short: It’s fantastic. Electric motors excel at torque, and a push of the right pedal is met with hole-shot acceleration. Your inner hooligan will be smiling ear to ear. The weight of the car is oriented near the floor, since that’s where the heavy batteries are packaged, so even though the belt line profile is rather tall, the suspension is utterly glued. Steering is precise and nicely weighted, absolutely balanced, and turn-in is as quick as a Mini. Indeed, the i3 drives nothing like so much as a Mini Cooper S, which I consider high praise indeed. The brakes are regenerative, which means when you lift off the accelerator (note: must stop calling it a “gas pedal”), there is an immediate drag, as the brakes begin to recapture otherwise wasted kinetic energy for the batteries. It’s seamless and I quickly got used to it, but I found myself stopping way short of the first few stop signs. Most around-town jaunts end up being single-pedal affairs; if you’re smooth, you rarely need to do anything other than tap the brakes, such is the off-accelerator drag of the regeneration system.
The most amazing sensation, though, is the utter lack of sound. The car wafts. It glides. It’s your own private space capsule, powered, it seems by the tears of Canadian oil barons or maybe by the gape-mouthed stares of the inevitable gawkers. Because make no mistake: The i3 draws more looks and comments than any car I’ve ever driven (and I had one of the first Audi TT space pods so I know these things). It’s one of those rare moments when people feel like they're catching a glimpse of their own transportation future, where the blandness and dullness of the current generation of hyper-efficient cars (sorry, Prius drivers) is replaced by something Baby Boomers would call “Space Aged.” Businessmen, homeless guys, high-school girls, and construction workers all gave me thumbs up. The i3 is a crowd pleaser.
If you own one for real, you’re encouraged to install a 220-volt “Supercharger” that will charge the car’s batteries from empty to full in a scant 4 hours. Since this is a tester, I just plugged it into a wall jack in my garage using the included portable charger unit; like plugging in a vacuum or laptop charger, only this process results in you being able to blast down the road the next morning. Easy.
In the time the i3 lived with us, we used it exclusively. We took it to Costco for dog food, to the grocery store for the weekly supply run, to the dry cleaners, to the kitchen store, to get gelato, to buy wine, to the coffee shop, to the office. I even took it down to Riverfront Park for The 3rd Annual Meat Meet Euro Car Meet & BBQ, where the i3 attracted attention like a pot vendor at the Colorado state line. It required zero concessions for our typical domestic jaunts, and made even mundane tasks fun. A delight.
Are there downsides? The experience can be somewhat antiseptic, if not outright unnerving; with no engine or transmission noise, only a small amount of road noise from the relatively skinny tires intrudes on the zen-like environment. For someone like me who is so utterly committed to the primal sounds of induction and exhaust, it’s not a natural transition. And pure electric vehicles introduce the concept of “range anxiety” to the transportation mix, but that issue will abate as charging stations become more prevalent. An EV requires a bit more trip planning, but given the length of most city dwellers’ trips, this issue is more psychological than grounded in reality.
BMW designed the i3 as the most modern of urban vehicles and it succeeded admirably. Our visitor spent its time living harmoniously with my own BMW M3 Coupe and my wife’s new BMW X5 diesel. It’s certainly not a replacement for either of those excellent vehicles, but also makes no pretensions to be such. If I’m honest, the i3 is just about perfect for 70% of the driving I do, and I could imagine living with one comfortably and with delight. It’s quite an achievement; stunning really.
Now, if only Baron calls again when the i8 shows up later this year.