What makes a car truly sustainable and eco-friendly? Is it enough that it doesn’t burn petrol or should we take everything into account? How about the batteries and their lifespan? What happens with the car after its purpose has been served? All of these questions must’ve burned a hole in the brain of the BMW management when the decision to put together the BMW i division was taken. However, out of great strain came a brilliant solution, one aimed at the years to come and the world we want to leave behind.
And while the BMW i8 might still be using a thermal engine, the BMW i3 is a whole different cookie, aiming at not only offering a means of easy transportation around town but also at making you feel good about it. How come? Well, the i3 is different than 99 percent of the cars out there today. Manufacturers around the world are starting to come around and realize that you need to take into consideration a holistic approach when talking about sustainable cars but in the meantime, the i3 is a solitary bird.
It’s the one car with a production process that takes into account the CO2 fingerprint it leaves behind and the pollution it creates and doesn’t focus solely on the impact the car itself has after it leaves the assembly lines. And the car shows it from the moment you lay your eyes on it. It looks peculiar from the outside to some but to others it looks special and that’s the point. BMW wanted to make sure their customers are recognized for the effort they put in for saving this blue marble we’re all on, spinning around in the Universe.
Yes, from the outside the design lets people know immediately that this is no ordinary car. The front kidney grilles, a trademark BMW feature, have been blocked off and their contours are now blue while the whole thing looks more like a tall hatchback rather than a sleek Bimmer. There are short overhangs both up front and in the back but the tall greenhouse and the short wheelbase mean that this thing will look like a scared car, with its fur all riled up in expectation of an imminent attack. Chip in the peculiar-looking taillights and the narrow wheels and we can definitely understand why some people call it ugly. To my eyes the i3 is definitely special but I would never call it ugly. Then again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Nevertheless, driving the i3 still feels like you’re a VIP, especially in places where electric cars seem to come from a distant future, having nothing to do with the times we live in. Driving this grey BMW i3 for the last few days made me feel important just because of the looks people gave me. Drive it with the windows down, slowly, in residential areas and you can even hear kids and teenagers whispering to each other “That’s that electric car BMW came up with.” Those are the fortunate cases, when the car is actually recognized as a Bavarian machine because in other instances, some people struggled to figure out what they were looking at.
Step inside though and the controversy is over. Everyone I talked to and drove around the city inside the i3 made sure to point out what is rather obvious: the interior is spectacular. And the praise is deserved here for the people who penned the cabin and chose the finishes. Before you even set foot inside the car you notice the Carbon Fiber Reinforced Polymer material used for the car’s side sills and doors and notice just how light the doors are as well.
And that brings us to one of the reasons why the i3 stands out in the crowd today – its construction. Knowing that in the future its cars will need to use lighter materials than what they used before, BMW decided to build its own CFRP production facility on the shores of Moses Lake in the US. This was a joint venture with the guys from SGL Carbon and the end result is the biggest plant of this kind in the world, making CFRP for BMW among others. What sets this plant apart though is the fact that it uses clean energy. You see, making carbon fiber and derivates is an energy-intensive process and BMW wanted to make sure that all this power comes from clean sources to keep the CO2 footprint as low as possible. Therefore, the Moses Lake plant uses hydro-energy, harvested with the help of the bordering water and some hydro plants. That’s not all though.
The care for the environment can also be noticed throughout the car. While building it to be as light as possible with the help of CFRP does seem impressive, that’s not nearly as impressive as other things BMW did for the i3. For example, the wood used inside the cabin is Eucalyptus and the reason for this choice is rather easy to explain: according to BMW, this is the fastest-growing tree out there, which means it’s a sustainable choice.
Furthermore, the leather used inside the i3 is naturally tanned to make sure as few polluting chemicals are used for this car. To top everything off, the plastic on the dash, door panels and other areas comes from recycled PET bottles, for the same obvious reasons. This is how we get to a car that’s 95 percent recyclable.
Other notable steps BMW took to make sure the i3 is as eco-friendly as possible include usage of secondary aluminum, for example. That’s a sort of aluminum that’s not obtained from ore but from melted production scrap and can be produced using up to 95 percent less energy. Should we also mention that the plant in Leipzig where the i3 is assembled uses as much renewable energy as possible from wind turbines and solar panels?
That is what sets this car apart from the rest of the electric vehicles out there. It has been brought to life with a holistic approach that thought of every part of the manufacturing process and how much it pollutes before the car even went out the door. And after it is delivered as BMW can also offer you a charging station that uses solar panels, installed in your back yard, to make sure that the energy you use comes from clean, renewable sources and not plants using coal.
But what is it like to live with the i3? Does it require some changes to the way you live? Well, in a nutshell it doesn’t. The thing is, as it is the case with every EV out there you need to get used to driving again as the experience can be quite different from a normal car. Apart from the fact that the gear selector is located on the steering column next to the steering wheel and the lack of a transmission tunnel both up front and in the back, it’s not the design you have to get used to but the way the car drives.
The instant torque hits you in the back of your head and the throttle is razor sharp in terms of how fast it responds to your inputs compared to any internal combustion engines. You can include here the best of the best naturally aspirated engines, they still don’t come close in terms of pedal response to an electric vehicle. That’s in Comfort mode, otherwise the equivalent of Sport mode on a conventional BMW.
This is the ‘sportiest’ mode you can drive in aboard the BMW i3 and it truly is different from the other two you can use. Comfort mode allows you to use the i3 to its full potential. You’ll get the full power of the engine, you can try to reach the car’s top speed if you will and do 60 mph in 7.1 seconds while also using the AC. It may sound peculiar but AC is a bit of a luxury inside the electric Bimmer.
I’m saying that because using it will considerably affect the car’s range especially during a hot summer, when it has to work overtime to cool off your car. Switch to ECO Pro mode and things get toned down a little. The most noticeable difference is in the way the car responds to you right foot, as the acceleration is a bit more subdued. AC still works though, unlike in ECO Pro+ mode. This is the most efficient way of cruising and, apart from toning down the acceleration even more, it also shuts off the AC completely and limits its top speed to 90 km/h (58 mph).
However, it’s not all for nothing as you can actually feel the difference in terms of battery power. I used this mode almost exclusively during my time with the car to see exactly just how much range I could get out of the battery and to my surprise I managed to get around 240-250 km (155 miles) out of a full battery without even trying too hard, in one of the most crowded cities in Europe – Bucharest, Romania.
Sure, BMW does claim 300 km (186 miles) of range using a full 94 Ah battery and I might’ve come up short but if you manage to drive this thing constantly at around 30 mph I can guarantee you that you’ll get the claimed figure out of the car’s new and improved battery.
But that’s not the only thing you need to consider when looking at an i3. You also need to take into account just how much fun you can have with it if you forget about nibbling on the throttle. This is a hell of a lot of fun in a compact package. The instant torque delivery and the skinny tires means you can make the rear axle squeal almost every time you press the electron pedal.
BMW’s electric car will launch forward like a cheetah but it will also corner like it’s on rails. The reason for that hides in the weight of the car and how it is distributed. All the effort BMW put into making this thing as light as possible shows the moment you want to have some fun. Unlike other EVs out there that tip the scale well over 2 tons, the i3 managed to come in just a bit over 1.3. That’s incredible when you also stop to consider that about 200 of those kilos are the batteries.
While that may seem like a bit much, being positioned under the floor in an AC-controlled environment that makes sure you don’t run out of juice in winter or summer time due to the weather, the center of gravity is closer to the ground than you’d expect. Sure, driving the i3 will feel closer to handling a crossover due to the raised seating position but the weight distribution is just right and you definitely won’t tip over.
Push this little hatch into a corner and the limited body roll you may slightly notice will be enticing you to go even faster. The steering rack is fast in Comfort mode and nicely weighted with close to no feedback but that’s something we’ve gotten used to lately. It doesn’t ruin your fun though, as it will do everything you ask in half a heartbeat.
There are some quirks that you also have to deal with when living with an i3. The most annoying of them all has to be the way the doors open. While definitely looking cool, the suicide doors in the back are a pain to use if there’s more than two people on board and you make stops often. And since this car was built for the city, that’s quite a possibility.
In order to open the rear doors, you need to open the front ones first and that means, if someone wants to sit in the rear right-side passenger seat you’ll have to get out and close the front passenger door yourself. Furthermore, the rear doors can’t be open if the front passengers have their seatbelts on because the seatbelts are fitted in the rear doors for some reason. That’s yet another annoyance.
Another iffy bit is the luggage space you get. Having no engine up front, the i3 does come with a storage bin in the front of the car which you can use for some small items. In the back, the space is even smaller than on a 1 Series hatch and you really can’t pack much in it. Then again, few people will go on a family vacation with this car due to its limited range so there’s no actual need to fit a lot of bags in the back. You can, however, be surprised by the limited amount of groceries you can fit in it. Thankfully the rear seats can fold, thus increase the space you get.
So, the i3 does have some downsides as well. Apart from the limited range and peculiar looks, you also have to be careful about how many people you’re taking with you and how much stuff you might want to carry. Nevertheless, for an EV it’s probably the most fun car you can get out there today and it is truly an eco-friendly offering, possibly the only one right now. Is it worth the trouble? I think it is but in order to understand that you really need to use one for at least a week to witness its pro and cons for yourself.