Mountain Wheels: BMW’s tiny i3s is electric exotica at its best (column)
Our strange and occasionally foot-dragging path to the next generation of automobiles occasionally produces a mainstream vehicle so ahead of the curve that you’re not quite sure what to make of it.
Near the top of that list is BMW’s diminutive i3 all-electric, a small and super-stylized design experiment come to life — full of recycled materials, battery powered and about as weird as it gets, even among a slowly increasing community of all-electric vehicles.
I’ve discussed the practicalities (and the lack thereof) of the little BMW in the past, but a recent drive in the new “s” edition of the all-lower-case i3 had me both intrigued and utterly flummoxed by its stylish bravado, its mixed bag of performance and its sheer strangeness. Spoiler alert: at almost $59,000, with a pile of options and before any state or federal incentives, it’s also hella expensive, adding to its one-of-a-kind status.
This sport version of the i3 provides 184 electric horsepower and an all-electric range that BMW somewhat conservatively suggests is about 100 miles. My test vehicle also had the wonderfully peculiar “Range Extender,” which is literally a 650 cc BMW scooter engine tucked in underneath the rear flanks, as a back-up power option.
I got nearly 140 totally silent miles out of a full charge (more on that process in a second), and when the electrical charge runs out, the tiny engine literally putt-putt-putts to life like an outboard motor, allowing you a total range of 180 or more miles. In gas-engine mode, you can still reach highway speeds, though that’s not really the intention here.
Like most electrics (minus the more comfortably long-distance-capable Tesla family or the Chevy Bolt), that means the vehicle is not really set up for effortless mountain-to-Front Range/Western Slope excursions, though you can technically cheat and keep adding another $4 of gas over and over again to scoot along between charges.
As a result, this is more of a close-range automobile, with a physical scale that will certainly make you nervous while dealing with big rigs on the freeway.
Should you manage to figure out your high-speed charging situation — and this still remains a complex issue, even in built-up, eco-friendly spots like Boulder or downtown Denver — i3s can also be fun to drive, and blazingly fast.
The “s” version drops the i3’s ride height a bit and stretches out the proportions a tad. The electronics have also been reconfigured to allow the car to use all of its impressive electric torque to rocket you up to full freeway speed, and allow you to cruise quite comfortably, within those range considerations.
BMW has also improved its regenerative braking system — in previous iterations, the i3 operated like a tiny electric city bus, and dragged itself to a sometimes jarring stop when you let off the accelerator.
That drag is now less prevalent, except in the car’s mileage intensive modes (which also limit your top speed to 65 or 56 mph). Throw it into the super-sport mode and you will consistently astound other motorists.
Ride quality is still a little brittle as i3s runs on 20-inch tires that are about as wide as the front tires on a farm tractor, a little wider than the standard issue, but the boost and the overall BMW drive dynamics can make that a fun ride.
A two-tone color job, new carpet badging and cool interior details (mine had a nice, very German leather and cloth package, as well as real eucalyptus wood trim in the wide, bench-styled dash area) make it a very distinctive vehicle. Optional Smurf-blue seatbelts hardly seem out of place here.
The small rear doors open backward but allow absolutely simple access to the very large rear seats; despite its size it’s quite comfortable inside, with all of the peculiarity of its exposed, recycled paneling and its painfully futuristic controls.
My charging adventures this time, without the home-charging setup that will make things normal for any actual owner, were as weird as usual. Denver’s BMW dealership had a free DC fast charger that provided an 80-percent “fill-up” in under an hour; the car’s travel and charging computer suggested that a full level two (mid-voltage) charge was going to take about six hours, or a very long time with a regular wall socket.
Full-time users will figure this all out; tire-kickers like myself are confused by vehicles that don’t easily allow you to travel Colorado-sized distances without a lot of logistics.
Not everyone’s cup of tea, clearly, but a further step on the road to an automotive future, and awfully stylish at the same time.
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