Buying a BMW i3? Read this guide

The BMW i3 is perhaps the hottest electric car in the world right now – arguably more so than the Tesla Model S.

Waiting lists stretch off into the distance (six months for many buyers) and the German automaker has had to order new moulding machines for its wind-powered Leipzig plant, as well as investing millions of additional dollars into its hydroelectric carbon fiber plant at Moses Lake, Washington.

The ‘i’ sub-brand to which this electric car belongs is already a popular and integral part of the future for BMW. Put simply, you’re not the only one reading this guide, but read on to find out why this luxurious bastion of sustainability may be the perfect car for you.

Performance

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The BMW i3 has a much smaller lithium-ion battery-pack than comparable electric cars, at just 18.8-kilowatt-hour compared to the more typical 24kWh unit found in, for example, the Nissan LEAF. Mounted along the floor of the chassis, it endows the i3 with a superbly low center of gravity and powers a 170hp motor driving the rear wheels.

What makes the i3 such a joy to drive, however, is it’s lack of weight. Built almost entirely from carbon fiber reinforced plastic and aluminum, that 170hp only has to propel 1,200kg of car, meaning that 0-60mph is dispatched in 7.2 seconds – quicker than any other electric hatch and enough to beat an E92 M3 off the mark. Top speed is 93 mph.

The lack of weight also means that the BMW i3 has an EPA-rated range of 81 miles despite its relatively small battery-pack. Overall efficiency is rated at 124 miles-per-gallon-equivalent, making it empirically the most efficient car on sale in the US.

Charging

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The smaller battery-pack means that charging is relatively quick. All models have a 6.6kW onboard charger, meaning that you’ll get around 30 miles of range for each hour of charging from a Level 2 source. BMW will provide that 240-volt Level 2 AC source by selling you its own branded BMW i Charging Station.

As the i3 uses the SAE Combo system, however, it can also DC fast-charge from appropriately-equipped public charging stations. Using this method owners can charge to 80-percent battery capacity in less than 30 minutes.

As a last resort, all models come with an ‘occasional use cable’, which recharges the car in around 20 hours from a 120-volt outlet.

Safety and practicality

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The BMW has only been crash-tested in Europe so far, where it scored four out of five stars in Euro NCAP tests. That puts it behind the Nissan LEAF, Renault ZOE, Toyota Prius, and the Chevrolet Volt. Nevertheless, a full complement of airbags, anti-lock brakes, and seatbelt pretensioners are standard across the range.

Where the carbon fiber hatch scored well was for adult and child occupant safety, being let down only by protection against driver’s left leg injuries and rear-impact whiplash. In fact, where it really failed to impress concerned pedestrian safety, as the hood’s hard angles and lack of crumple zones were deemed particularly unsafe.

In terms of practicality the BMW i3 has one glaring weakness: the lack off a fifth seat on the rear bench. This will be a deal-breaker for some prospective buyers, but on a positive note those rear seats fold flat and there’s a huge amount of passenger space – the i3 offers the most pleasant environment of any electric car. Cargo capacity with all seats in place is noticeably inferior to the Nissan LEAF’s cavernous trunk, however.

Price and options

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The BMW i3 starts at $41,350 and the i3 Range Extender (check out our review here) at $45,200. There are three trim levels: Mega World (base), Giga World, and Tera World (top spec).

The biggest drawback of the base Mega World car is that it doesn’t come with DC fast-charging capability, so you can say goodbye to half-hour charges replenishing the battery-pack or pay $700. Metallic paint and leather upholstery are also forgone, as is the rear-view camera and BMW’s Advanced Safety System (which include some useful collision avoidance technology). Heated front seats are an optional extra we’d recommend, and they cost $350.

The next step up – Giga World – costs an additional $1,700 and adds 19-inch alloy wheels, satellite radio (with a year’s subscription) and half-leather seats as well as keyless entry. Tera World costs $2,700 over base price and bags you full leather interior and the signature 19-inch alloy wheels.

Given the ultra-refined nature of the BMW i3, the Harman/Kardon sound system is bound to be popular ($800) and BMW’s Technology + Driving Assistant Package, which includes an uprated navigation system, real-time traffic information, and BMW Online/Apps, is also worth considering ($2,500). The connectivity of the i3 is one of its major advantages over comparatively archaic rivals.

Rivals

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The BMW i3’s only real rival is the Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive. Also from a premium German brand, the Mercedes will cost roughly the same as the i3 but will be much more traditional in its construction, using hardware supplied by Tesla but packaged into an existing model. Whether the BMW’s avant-garde ethos or the traditionally luxuriously approach of the B-Class appeals will be a personal decision. The latter does, however, have a slightly greater range of 85 miles.

You could otherwise spend an extra $20,000 and opt for the Tesla Model S equipped with a 60kWh battery-pack. You’ll get roughly double the electric range of the i3 this way and a significantly quicker car, too, but there’s a gulf in build quality. The BMW is streets ahead.

Of course, you don’t have to go ‘premium’. The Nissan LEAF, to name but one rival, will manage the same electric range, can carry an extra passenger, will also fast charge, and has much more space for luggage, all for nearly $15,000 less than what the BMW i3 costs. Think about that for a moment.

Future updates

As a brand-new model the BMW i3 won’t be significantly updated for some time. BMW will undoubtedly offer upgrades to the infotainment system and some new optional extras in due course, but so far there’s nothing on the horizon.

However, the early success of the i sub-brand has surprised even BMW, so we anticipate new models in the niche – perhaps an i5 sedan – in the foreseeable future.

Posted by Richard Lane

Richard is a London-based automotive journalist specialising in future mobility and sustainable design. Having fallen for cars because of the virtues of a particular German flat-six, it's what we'll all be driving next that now interests Richard most. Dream garage: Alfa Romeo GT 1300 Junior and a Detroit Electric SP:01.

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