What a difference three years makes. I was able to secure one of the first 2017 BMW i3 REx cars that made its way into U.S. dealer inventory, compliments of Chris Chang, Sales Manager at BMW of Bloomfield here in New Jersey. The vehicle is mostly the same as my 2014 i3 REx, the one big exception is it has the new 94 Ah battery cells, which increase the overall battery capacity from 21.6 kWh to 33 kWh without increasing its physical size. That was necessary, since this isn’t a redesigned i3, so the battery modules had to fit in the existing battery tray.
As much as I wanted to check out the moonroof option that this car had (finally the moonroof is available in the US!), there is no denying the single most important improvement I was interested in was to find out how much more range the new model has. The EPA range rating for the 2017 i3 REx is 97 miles per charge, and BMW claims 180 miles of total range when combined with the added miles from the range extender. The full 2.4 gallons of gas is now available for the REx. Previously it was software limited to only 1.9 gallons so the vehicle would qualify as a BEVx vehicle. My 2014 i3 REx has an EPA rating of 72 miles per charge, and BMW claimed a total range of 150 miles including the range extender miles. So the new i3 REx should offer about 35% more all-electric range, if the EPA test results are accurate. One thing to note is the auto manufacturers do the range testing in house, and reports it to the EPA. I think many people are under the assumption that the EPA tests the cars, and they do not. Manufacturers have been known to “massage” these numbers to fit their needs.
I wanted to perform three tests. The first was to fully charge the car and drive it easy. I didn’t hypermile, but I took it a little easier than I usually drive. It was 83 degrees, which is favorable for good range, but I did have the A/C on the entire time. I dove in Comfort Mode because that’s pretty much the only mode I ever drive in. I took a combination of highway and secondary roads and basically drove the speed limit with moderate acceleration from stops.
After 100 miles of driving, the car still had 26% state of charge and was estimating an additional 37 miles available. I’ve driven my i3 long enough to know how far it can go, within a couple miles, and I’m sure if I were driving my i3 in those same conditions it would have gone about 72 to 76 miles before the range extender would have needed to turn on. This new i3 REx easily beat the 35% range increase expected by the EPA range rating. In fact, based on these results I think it would be hard for me to get less than 100 miles per charge even if I tried. So that’s what I did for the next test.
This time I was going to drive it harder. Not Autocross hard mind you, but I’d punch it from all the stops, drive 75 – 80 mph on the highway and not concern myself with using the regenerative braking to their fullest advantage. Basically, I’d drive like I was late to an important meeting. Halfway through, I realized my efforts weren’t making much of a difference. At 50% SOC I had driven 62 miles and the range estimator still showed 62 miles to go. I did noticed that the gas range estimate had dropped from 85 miles to 75 miles though, even without using any. That’s because my driving efficiency was much worse than it had been on the first 100 mile drive.
Seeing how I was still on my way to 120+ miles of range, I stepped up my assault on the tires, and really thrashed the car around a bit. It worked, and I further reduced my efficiency. I finished up this 100 mile trip with only 13.5% SOC and estimated 16 miles remaining. I was able to reduce the single charge range by 21 miles, but I couldn’t manage to get less than 100 miles of range, which was my goal. In my opinion this is great news. Honestly, I don’t know how this car is rated at 97 miles per charge; that’s nearly impossible to attain unless it’s being operated in cold weather or perhaps being driven at a very high rate of speed. I’m sure once the winter months roll in and the temperature drops it won’t be hard to get less than 100 miles of electric range. However in moderate temperatures, I think most people will always be in triple digits. Based on the experience with my car, I’m guessing this new i3 REx will probably average about 85 to 90 miles of all electric range in the winter. My car only averages about 60 to 65 miles of electric range when the temperatures are below 30 degrees Farenheight, therefore 85 to 90 miles sounds about right for this new, longer range model.
The REx Test
The final test was to see if the range extender performance was any different. Much has been made over the fact that the i3 REx can enter Reduced Power mode, and slow down under certain strenuous driving conditions. So I depleted the battery, drove it for 50 miles and made sure to take it up some hill climbs at highway speeds. The first thing I noticed is the range extender operates the exact same way as it always has. It doesn’t turn on until the battery state of charge reaches 6.5%. The “Hold State of Charge” option is still disabled here in the US, so if you want that feature, it will still have to be unlocked by coding the vehicle, as before. There was some speculation that the automatic turn on point of the REx might be at a higher SOC with the new model, but I can confirm that’s not the case. However, there were two observations that I noticed that were positive.
First, the range extender seemed quieter from inside the cabin. In my car, the REx motor is pretty quiet and unnoticeable until it kicks into it’s highest output mode. At that point you can definitely hear the scooter engine revving up high from underneath the rear seats. It’s kinda like your being chased by lawnmower. On long highway trips it will operate at its highest level for most of the journey and the noise is noticeable. I’ll usually turn the radio up a notch to cancel it out. With this new car, driving at a constant 75 mph to 80 mph the motor seemed much quieter than it does on mine. My wife was with me for part of this test and she also noticed. She actually asked me if the REx was even running. It seems to me that BMW improved the REx soundproofing. It does sound just as loud as before from outside the vehicle, but it’s definitely quieter on the inside.
Secondly, (and I’ve reached out to BMW for confirmation on this but haven’t received a response yet) it does seem like the REx motor has been tuned for a slightly higher output. I took the vehicle on highway roads that I drive on regularly, and have on occasion done so when the REx was operating. The range extender was able to hold the state of charge higher, and under more strenuous driving conditions than my 2014 REx can. There’s one particular long incline that I drive every day. With my car, if I start at the bottom with 6% SOC and drive 70 mph up to the top I’ll deplete the battery to about 2.5%. I did this same test with the 2017 car and I reached the top of the climb with 5% SOC remaining. I repeated the climb with the same results. I also noticed that I could drive at about 75 mph on flat ground and maintain the 6% SOC. My car can maintain the SOC on flat ground with a constant 70 – 72 mph, but not any higher or the charge will slowly deplete.
I know the 6.5% buffer is now larger, because it’s holding 6.5% of 30 kWh instead of 6.5% of about 19 kWh, so that extra energy is definitely helping, but to me it appears that the REx motor has a higher output for the 2017 model. The REx motor in my car is rated at maximum power output of 28 kW. I wouldn’t be surprised it we find out the power has been increased to about 33 kW, but I don’t have any official confirmation on that. I’m just going on what I’ve experienced with the previous REx cars and how this new one compared to it. Another hint that I may be correct is the REx is now rated at 35 mpg, down from the 39 mpg which the previous models were rated at. I don’t think the extra 170 lbs alone would cause a loss of 4 mpg. I believe it working harder now to produce more energy, which was I’m guessing was achieved through a software adjustment.
Faster Charging With A New Profile
Previous model year i3s were capable of charging at 30amps which, at 240 volts, gave a maximum draw of 7.2 kW. The new i3s can accept 32 amps which translates to 7.4 kW. Not a huge difference, but it can help if you’re waiting for the car to charge to a certain SOC so you can unplug and drive. I should note that most public charging stations are limited to 30 amps, so it won’t make a difference on those units. However at home, I have charging stations that can deliver 32 amps so I was able to monitor the difference. My car usually accepts 7.1 to 7.2 kW (depending on the voltage supply) but this new i3 was consistently drawing 7.3 kW to 7.4 kW, so I can confirm the onboard charger upgrade.
I did observe something interesting while monitoring the charging profile of the new i3. Instead of the charge rate gradually tapering off as the SOC reached 90%, and slowing down for the final 40 minutes of charging, this car took the maximum rate nearly right up to the end of the session. I charged it three times to monitor this and it behaved the same way all three times. I’ve never observed this on any other EV. Normally, the vehicle slows down the charging rate considerably as it approaches the end of the session to slowly balance the cells. This takes place once the vehicle is over 90% and the final 5% to 10% of charging takes much longer than charging at lower SOC. That’s not happening with this vehicle. It only slows down slightly, and only for a couple minutes at the very end. The charging rate doesn’t gradually lower until it shuts off, it more closely resembles falling off a cliff. Interesting.
Finally, a Moonroof
The moonroof is a new option for the US. It’s been available all along for i3s outside of North America, and now it’s available here also. The moonroof is a $1,000 option and is a split version, having two openings separated by a solid center section. Each opening has its own manually-operated sunscreen, but the moonroof itself is one piece, and slides back with a push of a button. However it only opens about eight inches, slightly more than half of the actual opening in the roof. It’s not even large enough to stick your head out of it – not that you would want to do that; but the point is, it’s a small opening. The moonroof does accomplish two things, though. It allows more light in the cabin, giving the feeling of it being more open. It also allows you to eliminate side window buffeting by simply tilting the moonroof open.
Available Battery Capacity – Surprise!
BMW states that the new battery is 33 kWh, and 27 kWh of that is usable. That’s only 81.8% of the total pack, much less than the ~90% they allowed to be accesses on the 60 Ah battery pack. When I read that I wondered if it was perhaps sign that the new 94 Ah cells were less tolerant to deep discharge than the 60 Ah cells were, so BMW was going to be conservative with them. So when I fully charged the battery after the first 100 mile test run, I checked the hidden diagnostic menu and to my surprise it was showing a full 30 kWh accessible. So BMW is allowing access to roughly 90% of the overall pack, just like they do with the 60 Ah cells. That explains the extra range I’ve witnessed but it doesn’t explain why BMW’s official stance is that there is only 27 kWh accessible. Perhaps it’s for battery capacity warranty claims?
Gained Some Pounds
The only negative I’ve found is that the new battery is heavier, and adds 170 lbs to the curb weight (3,064 lbs to 3,234 lbs). This does effect performance a bit. The car doesn’t feel quite as responsive as my 2014 does. Without testing the performance times, I’d say it’s probably close to a half a second slower from 0 to 60 mph. Handling didn’t seem quite as crisp as mine either, but that might not be this car’s fault. It has the 19″ turbine wheels, and my i3 the 20″ wheels with the sport tires, which are wider and have a larger contact patch. I also recently lowered my car with sport springs from H&R which have improved the handling, so it’s not fair to compare the handling to my car.
The other performance change I noticed is the regenerative braking seems to be blended in differently. When driving slowly, it seems pretty much the same as my car does. However at higher speeds the car will coast more when releasing the accelerator. The regenerative braking doesn’t initially come on as aggressively as is does on my car. It will get progressively stronger if you continue to coast, but initially upon releasing the accelerator, the car freewheels a lot more than previous versions do. I like this for highway driving, as freewheel coasting improves efficiency. If you slightly depress the friction brake pedal, the friction brakes aren’t used, instead the car used first uses only regenerative braking, until you depress the brake pedal harder.
After a couple days and driving over 300 miles I feel it’s safe to say that I believe most people will find the average usable range greater than the EPA rating of 97 miles per charge. I almost wonder if BMW purposely underestimated the range a bit in an effort to under-promise and over-deliver. On my 2014 i3 REx, I’ve found the range to be pretty close to the EPA rated range. of 72 miles per charge. I do average a few miles more than that during the warmer months, and about 10 miles less per charge during the winter when it’s cold. But this new i3 has unexpectedly trounced the EPA range rating by a healthy margin. I think most people should average well over 100 miles of pure electric range on these vehicles. The range increase will undoubtedly push some people deciding on whether to go BEV or REx into the BEV camp. I know if I were buying one today I’d go BEV also. Getting this kind of range with the REx, I’m certain 125 to 140 miles per charge would be easy to attain with the 2017 BEV. That, combined with the ever increasing CCS DC fast charge networks, would really be all I need for all my driving needs.
Thanks again to Chris Chang and BMW of Bloomfield for providing me with the use of this car for three days of testing.