We spend most of our ownership looking at the interior of our car – not the exterior. And yet nearly all marketing materials are focused on the shiny exterior and creative paint palette – nary an interior photo exists in most magazine adverts. I suspect this is because many people care more about how they look than what they’re looking at. Perhaps the majority of car buyers wish to make an exterior statement with their car as they make fashion statements with their clothes. Or maybe car buyers have grown tired of ho hum interior design, accepting that most interiors are all the same – clad in different colour leathers, with different vent shapes and navi screens, but ultimately the same once you peel away the cow hide, wood trim, and plastic – so they might as well focus on choosing a stylish exterior. It’s time to get excited about interior design. New materials and manufacturing processes are allowing interior designers to get a little more wild with their sketch pads – and we all stand to benefit every time we get behind the wheel.
Imagine if we could get as excited about the interior look of our car as we do the exterior? Imagine detailing the interior of your car as regularly, and with as much passionate attention to detail as you clean and polish the exterior (I’m talking to the most enthusiastic and dedicated of our readership, of course). In the i3, I believe BMW have produced a car that places interior design at the forefront of overall vehicle design, breaking from the status quo while blending art, ergonomics and function into an interior tour de force. To borrow a line from my first drive review: “Your first time behind the wheel of an i3 will likely feel similar to mine – alien in ambience, layered in unfamiliar yet welcoming materials, smells and sounds.” It’s the materials that strike me the most. Every surface is covered – or naked – in organic materials that somehow connect with your touch in a primal way – like letting nature into the cabin. The fabric covering parts of the doors and parts of the dash is made of recycled materials, yet feels premium by every metric. A large slab of wood is placed on the passenger side of the dash, adding to the organic ambiance. Through use of such materials, a very futuristic interior is made to feel immediately comfortable, and even familiar.
A layered approach to the interior design leaves the car feeling much larger than its footprint would suggest. Where old-school design would have left the most prominent points of every surface feeling in-your-face – continuous with the surfaces around them – the next-gen approach of the i3 creates open spaces around every touch point closest to you – be it the dash, or the infotainment screen, the door handles or the cup holders.
Of course, the i3 interior isn’t just beautiful – it’s functional. By removing the B-pillar altogether, BMW have provided ease of ingress and egress from the rear seats. If you happen to have the rear seats folded down and are loading awkwardly shaped objects into the i3 (who knows – early adapters are usually creative people), you’ll also appreciate the pillar-less side door access. Speaking of rear storage, the i3 will swallow up 260 litres of creative-people-goods, 1,100 litres with the rear seats folded flat. Flipping the seatbacks forward is child’s play – just yank on the fabric strap from the front of back-side of the rear seat.
A sunroof is optional – I didn’t have the opportunity to drive an i3 with one installed but I imagine it would add greatly to the open, airy feeling of the interior. Creature comforts abound – but not quite to 7 series levels. For example, the front seats are heated, but not ventilated or massaging. Had the designers included such indulgences, the i3 would have gained weight and lost range – not to mention that the direct consumption of electricity would have also decreased maximum driving range. Speaking of the seats, they are supportive over long drives, and well formed to my body (can’t speak for yours). By building the seats from lightweight materials, further kilograms were knocked off the curb weight (car seats are typically quite heavy, meaning they’re a good place to start when looking to shed weight).
If you’re looking for dual climate control, you’ll have to continue on looking at another car. Dual climate control essentially creates a climate battle across the interior of the cabin – one side fighting to warm the interior whilst blowing warm air over its occupant, while the other side battles to cool the interior (or warm the interior to a different temperature) – this climate war cannot be fought in a car attempting to stretch every kWh of battery juice.
iDrive makes a standard appearance, in all its simplistic, functional glory. After sampling many competitive infotainment control systems, I’m left with a newfound appreciation of iDrive. That’s right Sticky Fingers McGee: keep your hands off –this isn’t a touch screen, and I don’t fancy fingerprints on any screen. You’ll find the drive mode selector button right beside your right thigh – I found this to be well positioned since you may reach for it quickly on occasion, and you may toggle it frequently. For example, when driving in Eco Pro+ I found myself in a traffic situation that called for quicker, more assertive maneuvers. Toggling to Comfort mode livens up the drive pedal (formerly known as the throttle pedal) and allows you to carve through traffic more effectively. A quick toggle of the same button has you back to electron salvaging in short order. It should be mentioned that the front cup-holders are removable, allowing for a considerable amount of space between the driver and passenger foot-wells. An attaché case would easily fit, so if you’re carrying a full house and have run out of storage room, you could always make use of this space. The elimination of a drive tunnel (thanks to the mid-rear motor, rear-wheel drive design) makes this possible.
I only sat briefly in the rear quarters but my time back there was comfortable. Again, don’t expect 7 series levels of comfort, but do expect adequate space with premium materials and design. If you’re a luxury buff, you may appreciate the nod to Rolls-Royce tradition with rear-hinged rear ‘suicide’ doors. In the font, seating position is quite upright and elevated, giving both driver and front passenger a commanding view of the road. It’s not quite SUV like, of course, but it does offer a more elevated view of the road than many cars of comparable size. This will likely be a selling point for many, since the elevated driving position of SUVs has become quite popular, particularly in North America. To save weight, the seats are operated manually with levers on the lower profile. Suits me fine. Once adjusted, the seats really are comfortable, even if only two-way adjustable.
BMW has mounted the gear selector on the steering column, on the right-hand side. To get going, first press the Start/Stop button to wake up the electronics, then spin the lever forward to select Drive, or back towards you for Neutral or Reverse gear. Then, be very timid with your right toe: remember this thing accelerates faster from stand-still than an M3 (before quickly being overtaken, of course – unless you’re in an uber-tight autocross. Check out the surprising dynamics of the i3 by clicking here). Besides the main LCD infotainment screen central to the dash, a smaller LCD screen finds a home on top of the steering column, functioning as your speedometer, signal indicator, vital drivetrain gauge cluster and navigational screen all-in-one. It’s very easy to read even in the brightest of ambient light and its well positioned to keep your eyes on the road.
A battery of steering-wheel mounted controls also keep your eyes on the road. Voice activation also makes an appearance on the i3, though I didn’t test it (to busy fooling around with the other cool tech, and exercising my anterior neck muscles with the drive pedal). Final detail about the steering wheel: it feels good in your hands, is well sized given the car’s quick steering ratio, and is decorated with a ring of blue around its rim – a stylistic touch that reminds you of the electric horses pushing you along. Should you go for the entry model i3, you’ll forego the beautiful wood trim and leather seating surfaces – but as you can see in our photo gallery below, both base and upgraded interiors are stylish, comfortable places to be.
Now to the sound system. Oh, the marvelous sound system. Harman Kardon have truly outdone themselves this time, fine tuning the audio to provide a high-fidelity audio experience. The i3 may not have vented seats or dual climate control – but it does have one of the finest sound systems I’ve ever sampled in a car. I’m not sure if it’s the layered interior surfaces or carbon-fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) chassis that mutate the i3 into an amphitheatre, but the sound reproduction was truly outstanding, regardless of the genre of music. Classical to modern rock to hip-hop and R&B, minor tuning of the equalizer left my driving partner and I deeply impressed by the audio quality. Rock on, i3.
When you’re not belting out the lyrics in direct competition to Harman Kardon, you’ll appreciate the otherwise quiet interior, well muted from wind and tire noise. At highway speeds it was easy to carry a conversation without exercising your voice, and the serenity of this interior ultimately left me relaxed and refreshed even after long drives. The electric drivetrain is both extremely smooth and quiet, so the i3 is a natural NVH champion. Finally, the one gripe I found to wrestle with during my entire time with the i3: the front seats only recline to a maximum angle of approximately 45 degrees (as illustrated below), making it difficult to fall asleep a la road-trip hotel. As far as I could see, there was no obvious design reason for this, as nothing physically impeded further relining of the seats (at least not visible externally).
Do I sound like I’m selling these things? Probably. But this fact remains: I don’t stand to benefit from BMW’s profits – I simply appreciate the art and creativity of Interior 2.0.
[Photo credit: Shawn Molnar | BMWBLOG.com]