Something unexpected happened when we took the BMW i3 out of its natural environment in the city: It rebelled.
Because the i3 had a theoretical range of about 140 miles—75 on electric power, and approximately 65 to 70 on fuel—it would be able to make it to a Berkshires hideaway for a quick weekend trip. If the i3 were to find favor with New Yorkers with disposable income, it would also have to accommodate their habits.
We made it as far as several exits onto the Merritt Parkway, outside Westport, Conn., before the electric charge was fully depleted. The switchover to the internal combustion engine was accompanied by a rather noticeable drone from the two-stroke engine, which now had the sole task of propulsion. Unlike an earlier drive on the same road in BMW's other i car, the preternatural i8, the engine was working so hard that it could not also charge the battery and provide more electric range. Sour grapes, I thought.
Time passes quickly in the i3. You begin to focus on the details in the dashboard design, in its intuitive iDrive infotainment setup, and in the materials chosen to cover and line the interior surfaces.
By the time the i3 ran out of fuel, about 130 miles into the drive, more than just a few snowflakes had begun to fall. We pulled over at a bog-standard filling station, and I filled the i3's shallow tank with approximately a gallon and a half of Texas tea. When the pump burped to let me know it was finished, I giggled. Whither sustainability?
Then I looked out at the highway, which had somehow become covered in half an inch of white powder in the 58 seconds elapsed.
Snowy, snowy afternoon
We returned to the highway, where traffic was now moving slowly and cautiously. The i3 found its way into a set of tracks plowed by the car ahead of it, in the rightmost lane, and we settled in to a cruise at about 45 mph. At one point, I let my foot off the accelerator to slow the i3, as heavier snowfall appeared, and the i3 began to wobble. My hesitation about the tires' real-world capability began to kick in.
"We're not going to make it," I said to Sarah, a native Californian who likes shoveling snow. "We have to get off at the next exit and find somewhere to stay until the snowfall is over."
Luckily, an exit appeared about a quarter-mile in the distance. The snow was picking up quickly, and its first casualty was a late-model Jeep Grand Cherokee that had spun 270 degrees and ended up on the side of the road. I began to signal. This is it, I thought: we're next.
In most cars, exiting the highway would hardly be the hardest part of the ordeal. Approaching a snowy, downhill exit ramp in the i3 requires breaking most rules of winter driving. Because the severe regenerative engine braking kicks in when pressure is removed from the accelerator, I nervously kept my foot on the accelerator to the tune of about 5 mph. Sliding down the straight ramp was all but inevitable in the rear-wheel-drive hatchback with all-season tires, but we white-knuckled it safely to the stop sign at the bottom of the hill.
A tourism sign indicated that hotels and a town were about six miles away. I signaled left, and slowly turned on to the main road. All of the nimbleness that made the i3 so fun to drive around the city suddenly disappeared. My tight grip on the bijou steering wheel did little to assuage the lack of the i3's in the white stuff.
Approaching the first traffic light, at no more than 10 mph, I let off the accelerator to come to a stop. The i3 hastily lost grip, suffered an internal panic, and spun 270 degrees before finding a low-lying curb stop. There was no one behind us, at first, but a gaggle of midsize sedans, SUVs, and pickup trucks began to give curious looks to the turned-around orange alien that lay in their way. Not that they stopped to help. The rear-wheel-drive i3 was hopeless in extricating itself from the mess.
Soon after, a friendly driver of an ancient Dodge Ram asked if we needed any help. YES, PLEASE! I stayed behind the wheel as he pushed us out. He suggested we sit under a nearby overpass until the snow stopped, so that's what we did, after he plowed off through the snow. I reached for my golden ticket, the AAA card. Calling AAA was basically useless, and the conversation went something like this:
Me: "Hi, I'm stuck on the side of the road in the snow. Thank god, neither my passenger nor the car are hurt."
AAA: "Let's see what we can do."
AAA: "Did you say there was no damage to the car?"
Me: "Yes. We've just spun out on the side of the road and miraculously didn't hit anything."
AAA: "In that case, there is nothing that we can do, if your car is in good working order."
Me: "What? Can you bring a flatbed? Something?"
AAA: "You're on a recorded line saying that there's no damage to your car, and if there's no damage, we can't help you."
I pounded my head against the soft-touch dashboard to no avail. It would later be revealed that I should have said my electric car ran out of charge-which it had-and a tow truck would have readily appeared.
The snowfall, which turned the mountainous background into a lovely wintry backdrop, showed some signs of subsiding. We called our friends, who had already made it to the destination, to let them know we wouldn't. Then we tried several hotels to check local room availability, and scored the AAA rate (go figure) at a Courtyard Marriott no more than 10 miles away. Could we manage the distance? The navigation system pointed us left, away from the overpass, and we began to drive.
We approached the first curve with the utmost caution, at single-digit speeds, but the i3's tires began to lose traction almost immediately. Around the corner, the hardly trafficked scenic byway in the middle of nowhere was covered in at least an inch or two of snow. This would barely faze most cars with all-season tires, but the i3's lack of winter preparedness manifested in more slipping. I found a small pull-off on the side of the road, slowed into a mild skid, and decided we weren't going any further.
Next, I phoned BMW Roadside Assistance: an iffy tactic, given that the i3 was borrowed and cell service was unreliable out in the Connecticut woods. (As a backup, I also sent a text message to the vehicle fleet coordinator, letting him know of the situation and asking for advice.) A friendly voice in Florida on BMW's aid line said he would do what he could to help, before ultimately giving me the news I didn't want to hear: Our tow truck drivers don't feel that the road conditions are safe enough to drive right now. You might want to call the local police.
By now, the sun was setting and the temperature was getting lower. Letting the i3 run would deplete its meager fuel supply, but keeping it wholly off would result in a cross passenger and a frigid tush. I asked Sarah, who has a far more cheerful voice than I, to dial the police. The dispatcher reluctantly gave us the phone numbers of a handful of local tow trucks-where were we, again?-that turned out to be emergency lines. Without batting an eye, the first tow truck company we called sent a flatbed, and 20 minutes later, it arrived.
Several inches of snow had accumulated on the road, and traffic had mostly ceased. The driver emerged and asked me to drive the i3 up onto the truck's ramp. I refused, noting that it would probably fishtail and wiggle its way off the truck and into the adjacent river. I let him take a stab at it, and he was surprised when the rear-drive i3 barely spun its tires. He attached a cord to the i3's front bumper, hoisted the car up, tied it down, and we were off.
"What kind of car is that?" he asked. I told him. "Oh. I see a lot of BMWs and Audis stuck out here all the time. Not too many Mercedes. They're great cars."
I'm not sure, but it's possible that we held the distinction of being the first i3 drivers to be picked up by a flatbed for reasons other than lack of charge or fuel.
Theft by morning
We overnighted at the aforementioned Courtyard, where there are no EV chargers, but excellent Turkish food abounds. In the morning, I journeyed by myself about eight miles to a local Nissan dealership that had a Level-2 charger, to see if I could gain some electric charge. In an hour and a half, I juiced up to the tune of about 11 miles, outweighed by the fact that the return drive would deplete nearly all of that.
I returned to the hotel and located a household outlet in the hotel's parking garage. No other cars were around, so I crept over to its location next to the elevator, plugged in the i3's adapter, and stole some charge until we departed. The return drive to New York later that day was mostly uneventful, as the roads had been salted overnight. The frequent fuel stops, for a gallon at a time, make you wish you packed a jerrycan or two of petrol in the trunk. The i3's navigation system cleverly guided us to BMW of Darien, which offers Level-2 charging, and we plugged in. We did what hipsters would do, and simultaneously recharged our own batteries at the neighboring Whole Foods.
The problem returns
An early-morning, two-car photo shoot the next morning called the i3 back into service. My yawning assistant and I managed to get to three locations in about two hours before any coffee was consumed. She liked the i3's agility around town, but agreed that the effect of the regenerative brakes was halting (pun intended).
As we left the second car at its Manhattan drop-off point, a few snowflakes appeared. Instinct kicked in. We needed to get back to Brooklyn as quickly as possible. Traffic was light. The snowfall was moderate. The i3's charge and fuel tank were almost full. Things were looking so good that we considered a stop for donuts.
We slowly crossed the Manhattan Bridge to find that it had snowed significantly harder in Brooklyn. I gently let off the throttle to come to a stop at the first traffic light. No dice. The i3 wriggled its way into a spin-this time, still pointed ahead-and startled myself and my passenger. There was no choice but to creep at 3 mph down Flatbush Avenue in the rightmost lane with the hazard lights flashing, until we reached a suitable parking space almost 45 minutes later. The usual honking and lack of care by the outer boroughs' finest drivers didn't help the situation.
The BMW i3 is gorgeous inside, perplexing from the outside, and a unique entry in the world of EVs and city cars. Our timing may have been extraordinary—what with two unexpected snowfalls and unusually spur-of-the-moment trips—but they were hardly unavoidable. A look at the BMW aftermarket revealed that specially designed Blizzak winter tires are available for the i3, and we only wish they had been fitted to our test car. Whether their extra grip would have ameliorated the circumstances is unknown; we're still not confident about the one-pedal braking system's functionality in snow and ice.
If you live where the weather is predictably wonderful all year—Santa Barbara comes to mind—the i3 could be a great choice. Evaluate your EV options.