As an automotive reviewer based in New York City, I test every car that comes through the Auto World News garage on the same, tight city streets-but not all cars are truly meant for the city.
That's why I jumped when BMW tossed the keys to its brand-new i3, a hybrid-electric car truly built for the city. Could BMW imbue the qualities that made its sports cars fun to drive into a plastic-paneled, carbon fiber-rich hatchback?
What is it?
This is BMW's first attempt at a full-electric-and a hybrid-electric-car for the city. It has a shape unlike any other car on the market, with clamshell doors hiding a rear compartment. Available as either a full-electric or a "range-extended" hybrid-electric, the hype around the i3's introduction was real. The i3 supplements the i8 supercar as part of a two-car punch aimed at moving the luxury segment closer to the green-car environment. As a bonus, it can achieve almost an 80-percent charge on a limited-availability quick charger, or a full charge at level-2 stations in under five hours.
How does it drive?
Brilliantly, with a caveat.
When the i3 is fully charged, it acts as a full-electric vehicle until the range is depleted or sport mode is engaged. A 170-hp punch is more than sufficient to help the i3 scoot around corners, and sprints to 30 or 35 mph feel quite quick. Steering is lightning-quick in the city, straddling the line between bumper-car and go-kart, although we wish there were more grip from its aerodynamics-inspired, bicycle-thin tires. When the two-cylinder gas engine kicks in, there is a less-than-pleasant hum and drone, but power remains steady.
The caveat? "One-pedal driving," as described by BMW. In most cars, when you lift your foot off the accelerator, the car slows gradually on a flat surface, decreases ascending a hill, and increases when descending. In the i3, upon stepping off the accelerator, or releasing pressure from it, the car begins to apply regenerative brakes automatically. Step completely off the gas, and the i3 will nearly halt itself to a stop. It's a jarringly opposite theory of driving, and it takes a lot of getting used to.
What's it like inside?
Like a SoHo boutique. Every material, from the natural leather to the posh cloth inserts and wood finishes, feels premium. The expansive, tiered dashboard gives an airy feel to the cabin, with spaces designed for tossing down keys and phones as if falling into a comfortable living room. BMW's iDrive infotainment system is a breeze to understand and use. And the i3's backseat is a livable space for short and long trips alike.
What's its specialty?
Whisper-quiet motoring with boffo accommodations.
Most innovative feature?
While one-pedal driving is the i3's point of innovation, the concept of a full-electric luxury hatchback is in itself innovative.
How's the competition?
Growing. Over the next few years, competitors in the full-electric and hybrid luxury city car space are expected to appear. (Witness Lexus' LF-SA concept at the Geneva auto show.) Some comparison tests have likened the i3 to Mercedes-Benz's B-Class Electric Drive, but the two serve very different purposes: Whereas the i3 is a fashion statement that also happens to be great to drive, the B-Class strikes us as a family-centric EV.
A fashionable statement for city hipsters.
Lightning-quick steering in the city, punchy when charged, beautifully decorated and upholstered interior, real space for four occupants, the novelty of one-pedal braking, can park it almost anywhere.
The novelty of one-pedal braking, rear-wheel drive setup, tiny fuel tank when equipped with range extender, questionable usability outside the city.
The ideal setup:
We fell in love with the sand-and-shale theme of the i3 Giga World package ($1500), but not as much our tester's solar orange exterior. Skip the optional 20" wheels ($1300) for better ride quality. The Technology and Driving Assistant package ($2500), which includes navigation and active cruise control, is worth considering, as is the Harman/Kardon upgraded stereo ($800). Thus equipped, be prepared to pay just over $51,000. And you'll want the range-extended version.
By the numbers: 2015 BMW i3 with range extender
MSRP: $47,200 (includes $950 destination charge, before applicable local rebates and tax credits)
Power / drive wheels: 22-kWh lithium-ion battery, 170-hp, and 0.6-liter, 38-hp two-cylinder engine / rear-wheel drive
Transmission: Single-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy: 117 mpgE (combined, city/highway)
In showrooms: Now