By on March 20, 2015

2015 BMW i3 Range Extender
Some call it a hybrid, some call it an EV. Some have called it a REx, a BEVx, a landmark vehicle in EV production, and others simply call it ugly. One things is for sure however, the 2015 BMW i3 turns more heads in Northern California than a Tesla Model S. Not since I last drove the Jaguar XKR-S have I received as many questions while parked at the gas pump, or visited a gas pump so frequently, but I digress. In a nutshell, the i3 is technically a hybrid or an EV depending on the version you get.



The “hybrid” i3 isn’t the kind of hybrid you’re used to, this is an all-new classification of car defined by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) as a “Battery Electric Vehicle with Range eXtender” or BEVx. BEVx is the key to understanding why the i3 operates the way that it does and why the Euro version operates differently.

California has decided (for better or worse) that some 22% of cars sold in the state must be zero-emissions vehicles (ZEV) by 2025. While that sounds straightforward, nothing cooked up by the government and lobbyists can ever be easy. Rather than an actual percentage of cars sold, CARB created a credit system where an alphabet soup of classifications (PZEV, AT-PZEV, TZEV, etc) get partial credits and true ZEVs can get multiple credits. Into this complicated world came the unicorn that is the BEVx. Despite having a gasoline burning engine, BEVxs get the same credits as a vehicle with the same range and no dinosaur-burner. The distinction is important and critical. If the BEVx requirements are met, the i3 gets the same 2.5 credits as the i3 EV, if not it would get a fractional credit just like a regular Prius. The requirements are: the fossil fuel range must be less or equal to the EV range, EV range but be at least 80 miles, the battery must deplete to a low level before the generator kicks in and may not be charged above that level. In addition the fossil fuel generator or APU must meet CA’s SULEV emissions standards and have a long battery warranty. There’s one important catch: the carpool stickers. While BMW gets to have the i3 REx treated like an EV for credits, i3 REx owners are treated like hybrid owners for the carpool sticker program. The EV model gets the coveted (and unlimited) white carpool lane stickers, while the REx gets the same quantity-limited green stickers as the Chevy Volt. If CA follows course, the green sticker program will eventually sunset like the yellow-sticker hybrid program did in 2011.

2015 BMW i3 Range Extender Exterior-004


The i3 is about more than just ZEV credits, it’s about putting new materials and processes into production for real drivers to experience with some funky modern style tossed in for good measure. In some ways the i3 is a return to body-on-frame construction, you see this is not a 100% carbon fiber car as some have incorrectly said.

The i3 is composed of two distinct parts. On the bottom is the drive module which is an aluminum chassis that holds the drivetrain, suspension, battery and crash structures. Connected to the drive module is the “life module” which is made of carbon fiber reinforced plastic or CFRP. While obviously a little heavier than a car made entirely out of CFRP, the aluminum crash structure is more easily repaired in the event of a minor collision. The result is an EV that tips the scales about a cupcake shy of a Mazda MX-5 with an automatic transmission (2,634 pounds). Adding the range extender adds just 330 more. That’s about 370lbs lighter than the already impressive 3,000 pound (approximate) curb weight of VW’s new eGolf.

2015 BMW i3 Range Extender Exterior Turn Signal


Up front the i3 gets a familiar BMW roundel and a blue interpretation of the signature kidney grill. What’s different about the i3 is that the kidney isn’t used for cooling, even in the range extending version. The biggest departures from BMW norms however are the headlamps which lack the “angel eye” rings BMW has been known for and the high beams that are placed lower in the facia. (No, those are not fog lamps.) Regardless of the trim or paint color you choose, the hood, lower valance, side trim and rear hatch will always be black.

The side view generated the most head turns due to the undulating greenhouse and “pinched” look to the rear windows. I didn’t find the look unattractive, but it does reduce rearward visibility in what is ostensibly a practical city car. Out back the hatch is composed of two sheets of glass, one for the rear windscreen and the other forms the “body” of the hatch and actually covers the tail lamp modules creating a very sleek look. Turn the steering wheel and passers-by will immediately forget about the pinched greenhouse and focus on the tires. Yes, they are as skinny as they look, but the proportion is the real key to the “bicycle wheel” look as one passenger called it. Our tester was shod with 155/70R19 tires up front and 175/70R19 in back. For reference a Toyota Sienna uses a T155 tire as a spare. Thinking critically, there have been plenty of cars with tires this narrow, but I can’t think of a single one where the width combined with a nearly flat wheel that was 19 or 20 inches across.

2015 BMW i3 Range Extender Interior Seats Doors Open


Freed from the usual front-engine, rear-drive layout of every other BMW, the Germans decided to reinvent the cabin. Because the drive module under the cabin houses the majority of the crash structure, the CFRP body was built without a structural pillar between the front and rear seats. The suicide door design means that getting in and out of the rear seat is surprisingly easy, as long as you haven’t parked too close to another vehicle. Without the transmission tunnel the HVAC system was pushed as far forward as possible allowing the driver and front passenger’s footwell to become merged. (There are just two floor-mats, one up front and one in back.)

The doors aren’t the only unusual thing about the i3’s interior, the design is decidedly Euro-funky. From the steering column mounted shifter to the “floating” iDrive display and glove box on the “top” of the dash rather than the front, the i3 designers went out of their way to think out of the box. The concept-car like theme doesn’t stop at shapes, the materials are a little unusual as well. The upholstery in our model was a wool/recycled-plastic blend fabric and the dashboard and door panels are made from a bioplastic reinforced with kneaf fibers (a kind of jute.) Front seat comfort proved excellent despite lacking adjustable lumbar support. The rear of the i3 was surprisingly accommodating, able to handle six-foot tall folks without issue. Because the dash is so shallow, a rear facing child seat can be positioned behind that six-foot person without issue. As with other small EVs on the market, the i3 is a strict four-seater. My only disappointment inside was the small LCD instrument cluster (shown below) which is notably smaller than the i3’s own infotainment/navigation LCD.

Under the hood of the i3 you’ll find a small storage area (also called a “frunk”) that houses the tire inflater and the 120V EVSE cable. The i3’s frunk is not watertight like you’ll find in the Tesla Model S, so don’t put your tax paperwork inside on your way to the IRS audit in the rain. Cargo capacity behind the rear seats comes in at 11.8 cubes, about the same as your average subcompact hatch. Getting the i3 sans range extender won’t increase your cargo capacity as the area where the range extender fits remains off limits from your luggage.

2015 BMW i3 Range Extender Instrument Cluster


Being a rear wheel drive electric car, the i3’s motor is located under the cargo floor in the back. With 170 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque on tap, the i3 is one of the more powerful EVs on the market. The light curb weight and gearing in the single-speed transmission allow a 6.5 second sprint to 60 in the EV and 7.0 in the REx. Powering all the fun is a 22kWh (18.8 kWh usable) battery pack in the “drive module” coupled to a 7.4kW charger capable of charging the car completely in just over 2.5 hours on AC. Should you need more electrons faster, you can opt for the new SAE DC-Fast-Charge connector capable of getting you from zero to 80% in under 30 minutes. 18.8kWh sounds much smaller than the  37kWh Tesla battery in the Mercedes B-class, but the i3 is much more efficient putting their range figures just 5 miles apart at 80-100 miles for the EV and 70-90 for the REx.

Next to the motor is the optional range extender. It’s a 34 peak horsepower 0.65L 2-cylinder engine derived from one of BMW’s motorcycle powerplants. Permanently to a generator, it can supply power to the motor, or charge the battery until it hits about 6%. The 1.9 US gallon gas tank is capable of powering the small engine for an additional 70-80 miles depending on your driving style. There is no mechanical connection at all between the engine and the wheels. Think of the battery as a ballast tank, you can pull 170 HP out whenever you want, but the supply refilling the ballast flows at a maximum of 34. This means that it is entirely possible to drain the battery and have just 34 HP left to motivate your car.

Battery Flow

Sounds like the Volt you say? Yes and no. The Volt is more of a plug-in hybrid with some software tweaks and the i3 is a range extending EV. I know that sounds like splitting hairs but some of this comes down to the way GM decided to market the Volt when it launched. The Volt’s transaxle and 2-motor/generator system is actually much closer to the Ford/Toyota hybrid design than anything else on the market. Because of that design it can operate as an EV, as a serial hybrid or as a parallel hybrid. Interestingly enough however, maximum performance happens in gas-burning mode, just like the plug-in Prius and plug-in Ford Energi products. With the i3 however, performance is always the same (unless the battery is totally dead.) Also in the Volt you can opt to “reserve” your EV capacity for later, and that isn’t allowed in US bound i3 models (you can in Europe) in order to get that coveted BEVx classification.

Technically speaking, it is possible for any hybrid (i3 included) to enter a “limp mode” where the battery is depleted and all you have left is the gasoline engine. The difference is what you have left when this happens. The i3 has far less oomph in this situation than even the 80 HP Volt, 98 HP Prius or 141 HP in the Fusion/C-Max Energi.

2015 BMW i3 Range Extender Shifter


The i3’s steering is precise and quick with just 2.5 turns lock-to-lock and the turning circle is 10% smaller than a MINI Cooper at 32-feet. Due to the combination of a fast steering ratio, narrow tires, electric steering assist and the incredibly light curb weight, the i3 can feel twitchy on the road, responding immediately to the slightest steering input. That feeling combined with low rolling resistance tires (that squeal long before they give up grip) make the i3 feel less capable than it actually is. Once you get used to the feeling however, it turns out to be the best handling non-Tesla EV currently made. Is that a low bar? Perhaps, but the i3 leaps over it.

BMW’s “one pedal concept” is the fly in the ointment. Here’s the theory: if you drive like a responsible citizen, you just use the accelerator pedal. Press on the pedal and the car goes.  Lift and the car brakes. Lift completely and the i3 engages maximum regenerative braking (brake lights on) and takes you to a complete stop. As long as the road is fairly level, the i3 will remain stopped until you press the go-pedal once more. On paper it sounds novel, in practice it annoyed me and made my leg ache. The reason is that in order to coast you either shift to neutral or hover your foot in the right position. If the i3 could adjust the “foot-off” regen, I’d be happy. Driving the i3 back to back with VW’s new eGolf didn’t make the one-pedal any better because the VW allows you to adjust the regen from zero to maximum in four steps easily and intuitively.

BMW i3 One Pedal Operation Concept Brake Neutral Go

The i3 EV’s wider rear tires mean that despite being RWD and almost perfectly balanced you get predictable understeer as the road starts to curve. You can induce some oversteer if you’re aggressive on the throttle, but BMW’s stability control nanny cannot be disabled and the intervention is early and aggressive. Toss in the range extender’s 300+ pounds and understeer is a more frequent companion. You can still get the REx a little tail happy if you try however. The i3 will never be a lurid tail happy track car like an M235i, but the fact that any oversteer is possible in an EV is a rare feat since nearly everything else on the market is front heavy and front wheel drive. Put simply the BMW i3 is the best driving and best handling EV this side of the Model S.

Now let’s talk range extender again. After hearing the complaints about the i3’s “limp” mode when you’re left with just 34 ponies, I tried to make it happen to see what the fuss was about. I hopped in the car with the battery at 6% and started off to work. Climbing from 700ft to 2,200ft worked out just fine at 45-50 MPH on a winding mountain road, going down from 2,200 to sea level at 60 MPH was uneventful as well. I hopped on CA-85 and set the cruise control to 65 since the rumor mill told me the top speed would max out at 65ish with the battery dead. 15 miles later my battery was still very much alive so I kicked it up a notch to 75 and switched over to Interstate 280 where rolling hills would tax the battery further. 20 miles later the range extender was humming like a dirt bike in my blind spot but I wasn’t slowing down. I decided drastic measures were needed. I kicked the i3 up another notch to [intentionally left blank] MPH and watched as the battery gauge ran to zero. Finally. Except it wasn’t that exciting. It didn’t feel like I hit the brakes, it simply felt like someone had backed off the throttle. It took me around 1.5 miles to drop from [intentionally left blank] MPH to 55 MPH which was more than enough time for me to put my tail between my legs and move four lanes to the right.

2015 BMW i3 Range Extender Instrument Cluster-001

Hitting the “34 HP barrier” as I started to call it proved a little easier at closer-to-legal speeds when hill climbing, and the effects were a little more drastic. On a winding road where driving a car hard involves heavy braking before corners and full throttle exits, the i3 ran out of steam after 4 miles. The i3 then spent the next 8 miles with the go-pedal on the floor at speeds ranging from 37 to 50 MPH.

When running on the range extender, I averaged 60-65 miles before I refilled the tiny tank which came out to somewhere around 38 MPG. The number surprised some, but personally it sounds about right because the energy losses in a serial hybrid can be high (up to 20% if you believe Toyota and Honda). What did surprise me is just how livable the i3 REx was. Despite BMW constantly saying that the REx wasn’t designed to be driven like a hybrid, over 300 miles of never charging I never had a problem driving the car just like I’d drive a Prius, only stopping more often for fuel. Way more often. The i3 REx can drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles stopping every 60 miles for gas, I’m not sure I’d do that, but it is nice to know I could.

2015 BMW i3 Range Extender Interior Dashboard

Starting at $42,400 in EV form and $46,250 for the REx model, the i3 has the same kind of sticker shock as all EVs. However if you qualify for the maximum incentives the i3 REx comes down to a more reasonable $36,250 which is a little less than a 2015 328i. That slots the i3 between the rabble and the Tesla and more or less the same as the Mercedes B-Class, the only real i3 competition. In this narrow category the i3 is an easy win. It is slightly more fun to drive than the B-Class, a hair faster, considerably more efficient, has the ability to DC fast charge and the range extender will allow gasoline operation if required. The i3 is funky and complicated and BMW’s 320i is probably a better car no matter how you slice it, but none of that changes the fact the i3 is probably one of the most important cars of our time. Not because the i3 is a volume produced carbon fiber car, but because we are likely to see may more “BEVx” category “range extending” vehicles in our future (for more unicorn credits) and this is now the benchmark.

 BMW provided the vehicle, insurance and 1.9 gallons of gasoline for this review.

 Specifications as tested

0-30: 3.0 Seconds

0-60: 7.0 Seconds

1/4 Mile: 15.5 Seconds @ 86 MPH

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63 Comments on “Review: 2015 BMW i3 Range Extender aka i3 REx (With Video)...”

  • avatar

    I rather like the way the i3 looks, especially the interior, but I’m also a big fan of mid-century modern and nordic design generally. I realize it isn’t to everybody’s taste.

    I’ve driven the i3, and I like the way it drives. It’s got that nice electric instant torque that makes winding urban roads and onramps fun. To my mind it feels and drives like a really, really nice VW Golf.

    I want one, but the REx system is super frustrating. I don’t live in California but even so BMW expects to live with constraints imposed by the California government. It really needs just two small changes to be much, much more livable. First, the fuel tank needs to be a bit larger. It doesn’t need to be huge, but even a total capacity of 3 or 4 gallons would be a huge, huge improvement for when you need to take the occasional road trip. Second, it needs the “charge hold” mode enabled as it is in other markets. Essentially, at any point you can tell the car “try to hold this level of charge in the battery” and the REx will run as appropriate. If you’re going on a long drive that gives you the ability to power up any hill or mountain you might encounter without dropping into Rex-Only mode.

    People have figured out how to hack the car via the OBD-II port to enable charge hold mode but the fuel tank is still an issue.

    • 0 avatar

      I like the interior too. Sat in one recently and was pleasantly surprised at how spacious it was on the inside.

      • 0 avatar

        Saw one of these at the auto show, but didn’t get to sit in it, as a couple fitting one of the stereotypes you might expect for such a vehicle — the professorial-looking guy with the gray beard, thick, wool tweed jacket (in an overheated, dry-as-the-desert convention-center–UGH!) and reading glasses, along with his wife — literally were sitting in and talking-up the British BMW rep who accompanied the car for almost ** 90 minutes! ** Went by the stand at the beginning, waited ten minutes, walked through the entire show, went back, same couple sitting in car, said “fvck it” and left!

        I presume this car has a left-pedal for normal service-brakes, correct? (Even though the theory is that if one is careful, they get little if any use?)

    • 0 avatar

      As another commenter pointed out, if the Euro tank is only 0.6 gallons larger, I’m not sure they have space for a much larger tank. I agree though – as it is, this is a car that needs to stick to populated areas. Regarding the SF to LA hypothetical trip, I would probably take 99 instead of 5. Or at least take a closer look at 5 to plan the gas stops. Taking the scenic route down 1 would cause much range anxiety, if it’s even possible. I don’t think there are too many stops between Monterrey and Morro Bay.

  • avatar

    How’s the ride quality?

    • 0 avatar
      Alex L. Dykes

      Firm, well composed and like most cars with short wheel bases it can become choppy over expansion joints on concrete freeways. The high profile tires soften the ride a hair and the suspension is well tuned.

  • avatar

    How is it possible for the 650cc parallel twin range extender to weigh 300+ lbs? The full F650GS motorcycle weighs 199kg wet (roughly 435lbs)the engine gas and other liquids probably barley weigh 150lbs so another 150lbs + of hardwear? Also BMW motorrad quotes the engine at 71hp. I’m curious if there will be an i3 “programing hack” to bring the 650 up to full power and what effect that will have.

    Basically seems like an owner is “driving a motorcycle” with a reserve petcock

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      The traction alternator is primarily a big slab of metal, so there’s most of the weight difference. The lower hp rating is likely due to not running the engine near redline, and the need to have a set speed if they’re outputting the power onto the same bus used for charging off the commercial grid.

    • 0 avatar

      According to Amazon a 15kw generator weighs over 360lbs so the weight of the i3 range extender seems about right.

  • avatar

    -It’s like a Chevy Volt that costs more and with worse performance.
    -Has a gas pedal and OFF button designed by the same guy responsible for Doug Demuro’s infamous “button”.
    -Very polarizing styling to insure you will never see one in the flesh.
    -Carbon fiber body. Will get totaled by windblown shopping carts at Whole Foods.

    Thanks for the review Alex. I’ve been waiting for it ever since I saw 20 of these squatting at the dealer lot last fall. They should give the iMIEV (giggles at “hip” name similarity) a real run for it’s money.

    • 0 avatar
      Nicholas Weaver

      a: WAY better performance than the Volt. I’m not sure if its WORTH $10K more than the 2016 volt, but the performance really is substantially better, in speed, handling, and “feel” (except at 75 mph on the highway)

      b: See below why the gas pedal is the way it is.

      c: Polarizing? yes. But its already a bit of a plaguelet here in Berkeley: it does stand out which is why people buy it, to say “hey, I’m sooooo eco-sensitive I just dropped $40k+ on a BMW”… (If you are really eco-sensitive, lease a Leaf for near-free and use the remaining money for solar cells on your roof, dood).

      d: The opposite. Its saturn style, expect a 10 year old car to be remarkably lower on the dings/dents due to plastic body panels.

      As for the frame, its like Ford did with the Aluminum F150, they’ve actually thought long and hard on how to do frame repair: it takes specialized tools but it is designed with repairability in mind. See this article for details.

      • 0 avatar

        a.The person who buys these doesn’t expect or desire a hot-rod eco car. I was referring to it’s efficiency.

        b.I don’t care about why it’s that way. I’ve never driven one, but the theory of holding your foot precisely for extended lengths of time in this manner is ridiculous.

        b.sub1. No regenerative braking? Seriously?


        d.I was exaggerating of course. Replace “shopping cart” with “exploding pizza cutter tire” for real-world shatterability. In contrast to Saturn, body parts will NOT be found for cheap.

        • 0 avatar
          bumpy ii

          Pedal is the same thing they did on the electric Minis a while back, almost like driving a riding mower with a foot pedal hydrostatic drive.

        • 0 avatar
          Nicholas Weaver

          a: Actually, on efficiency the i3 REX is better, both significantly on electric (.29 kWh/mile vs .35 kWh/mile) and trivially better gas (.026 gallons/mile vs .027 gallons/mile).

          The only thing the volt has on the i3 is high speed freeway: the wider tires and low profile make it feel less skittish.

          b: I have: Short drives in Tesla, Volt, Leaf. Prii on multiple occasions. 3 days in an i3.

          You have to hold your foot in a precise position to maintain speed in a normal car! The only difference is you have it down a little bit more with a 1-pedal car. And the i3 has a really nice adaptive cruise control for freeway cruising, it worked flawlessly even to stop-and-go.

          And there is regenerative braking, its just controlled by the right pedal, not the left.

          d: NO BMW has cheap parts. Heck, no modern car has cheap parts for this. Its no worse than a new Tin Can F150, and in practice hardly any worse than any other BMW.

          Frame repair on the i3 is literally “Cut here and glue in a replacement part”.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve seen one in the flesh!

      Well, an I3. No idea if it was a Rex, but IIRC it looks just like the non-Rex I3.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve seen a few i3s now here in Hawaii. (Could it be the same one…?)

      The proportions are odd, though it’s not quite Juke-level ugly. Maybe BMW should have designed it as a Mini.

    • 0 avatar

      There are at least three in my neighborhood, along with a smattering of Teslas. I love the styling; I’d have picked one up already as a commuter car if I had a convenient place to charge it at home. That “costs more” doesn’t reflect BMW’s typical giveaway lease rates.

  • avatar

    I believe this is where the technology is heading. Sure, it’s expensive NOW, but CD players were $1000 when they first came out.

    Double the fuel tank size and halve the price, and you have a viable choice in the market. Will it happen tomorrow? No, but it will happen eventually.

  • avatar

    I hadn’t looked all that closely at this car until this article, and I’m surprised at how much that front chin reminds me of the Mitsubishi iMiev.

  • avatar
    Nicholas Weaver

    I did an extended test drive (3 days) on a i3 REx myself. I was very impressed. Its “slow” compared to my S2000, but it feels faster: electrics are so instant on the throttle response that it is a delight to drive.

    I can also confirm that its actually hard to hit the 35hp “wall”: I hustled it up the hills between Fairfield and Napa and it didn’t slow down at all although I was getting darn close to hitting 0 on the battery.

    I disagee on the 1-pedal however. Part of the reason the brakes feel good is there is no regeneration: the braking system is pure old-school disks, which gives a much better feel when you do hit them than say a Volt or Prius as there is no threshold between regen and hydraulics. You CAN’T have good brake feel and have the brake pedal do double duty for regen and normal braking.

    One-pedal also teaches people to drive the car right: on a Prius or Volt its much more driver sensitive as the car needs to explicitly train the driver how to use the brakes, while there is none of that here in the i3 or Tesla. As for keeping your foot on the pedal, at least on the freeway the adaptive cruise control worked very well if you’re lazy that way.

    Another thing of note: the outside body panels are actually a modern take on the original saturn: the frame is CFRP, but the panels are dent resistant polymer. Expect it to be like my 95 Saturn was: 10 years on it will not have the normal dings and dents of a sheet metal car.

    So why did I not buy one? My commute is 40 miles each way, with unreliable charging at work. So the range works: when I could plug in at work, there was no gas use, but when I couldn’t, I could still get home happy.

    a: But most of my commute is on the freeway, and it is a little twitchy at 70 mph compared to something lower like a Volt.

    b: The “teacup tank” for regulatory reasons. I know why its so tiny, but I just resent it. Even a 5 gallon tank and I’d be happy, but 60 mile gas range? GAH!

    c: No German delivery at least as of a few months ago. If I’m getting a BMW, I’m damn well going to check the “save 7%, no @)#(* from the dealer, oh, and its your European renal” option.

    d: 2016 Volt. I HATE the interior of the current volt, but do really like the drivetrain and the range works although I’d still like better gas efficiency.

    The 2016 Volt promises a much better interior (real buttons damnit!), regular gas, and better fuel economy on gas.

    I know the i3 drives much better on the backroads than the Volt and will be faster off the line. And over the current Volt, it is easily worth the $10K premium. But I don’t think it will be worth $10K more than the next Volt.

    • 0 avatar

      What I really don’t get is why BMW is crippling the i3 outside California — the BEVx designation only helps them there. Especially when half of this stuff seems to just be software.

      That said, I could see the next version of this being very appealing.

      • 0 avatar
        Nicholas Weaver

        I don’t get it either.

        Perhaps its to please California lawmakers who are afraid that if BMW had a bigger tank as an option, we Californian ner-du-wels would order a replacement tank and put it in.

        • 0 avatar

          To be fair, the Euro tank is only 0.6 gallons bigger. They don’t have much room to work with in this package.

          But yeah. If I could get this with a 4 gallon tank and in all black, I might well consider it.

      • 0 avatar

        If people are already hacking the car to enable charge hold mode, you would think they could offer that option outside California. Maybe selling two versions is not worth the bother – California residents probably stand to buy more of these than almost all other states combined. Tyranny of the majority.

    • 0 avatar
      heavy handle

      I still don’t get why “regular gas” is a selling point on the next Volt.
      Volt owners brag about how they’re still on their delivery gas 18 months in, and yet they complain about an extra few pennies for premium.

      I guess if you told them that the more expensive gas is free-range and organic, they would gladly shell-out.

      • 0 avatar
        bumpy ii

        The primary reason for the premium spec on the 1st-gen Volt was that premium supposedly doesn’t go stale as soon as regular gas. My guess is that somebody at GM decided it didn’t matter that much, and that a note buried in the owner’s manual would suffice.

        • 0 avatar

          “The primary reason for the premium spec on the 1st-gen Volt was that premium supposedly doesn’t go stale as soon as regular gas.”

          Highly doubtful. My chemical engineer friends tell me there’s no significant difference in shelf life. In spite of the premium recommendation, GM chose to include a mode to intentionally burn off stale fuel. As long as they were doing that, why bother with the premium recommendation?

          It is much more likely that they recommend higher-octane gas, so they can raise the compression and improve the efficiency a little bit.

          The engine they used was an off-the-shelf engine of no particular sophistication (even an iron block, I believe). Raising the compression was the cheapest way to improve the Range-Extended fuel economy from “not good at all” to “spectacularly mediocre.”

      • 0 avatar

        “I guess if you told them that the more expensive gas is free-range and organic…”

        I suppose it all was at one point, no?

  • avatar

    I’ve driven the Volt and the i3 dude, and unless by “performance” you mean “overall range”, there is no way that the i has “worse performance”. The thing is crazy fast and once you get used to the accelerator braking thing, it handles exceptionally well.

    One thing that didn’t get covered in the otherwise thorough review, Alex, is the way BMW is selling these – heavy focus on 2 year leases to turn them over. People in Georgia are getting stripped down versions for $160/mo and fully loaded ones for $220-$250. While the styling is a bit “different”, that’s a heck of a lot of car for Toyota Yaris money.

    Full disclosure – after driving a Volt, a Leaf, an i3 and a Model S, I purchased a rEx-less i3 and absolutely love it. Sits in the garage next to my BMW 550 M-Sport and Porsche Cayenne when its not doing ~85% of my driving.

    • 0 avatar

      $250/mo lease is a nice deal. I think the Leaf is around $199/mo. Worrying less about range must be worth something. The BMW is probably a lot more fun to drive too. Also, the Leaf tries to look like a normal car, but I’m not sure it gets there. It might be polarizing, but I think it’s cool that BMW went off the deep end with the i3.

      • 0 avatar

        The problem is that the normal car the Leaf tries to look like is one no one would want!

        The i3 is gawky on the outside, but looks way more normal in dark gray. And it’s a huge upgrade over the Leaf on the inside, from the looks of it.

  • avatar

    I like the i3 and hope it does well. I see quite a few where I live.

  • avatar

    I have to confess to liking the i3 once I saw one at a dealer. It is surprisingly roomy inside and the styling is fresh and clearly sets it part from all other EV contenders. While all style is subjective the carbon fiber tech is not. At this price point the weight saving tech is revolutionary and is hopefully a sign of things to come for all cars.

    As somebody mentioned above, a lot of these are sold through very competitive leases so the payment and the new-tech risk factor are well within reason for anyone looking for something different in a commuter car.

  • avatar

    i3 rex, that is so well named, so precious!

  • avatar
    cRacK hEaD aLLeY

    Great review thank you Alex.

  • avatar

    “…the 2015 BMW i3 turns more heads in Northern California than a Tesla Model S…”

    I’m sure, but in which direction? :Q

    I actually rather like the inside. And if those $250/month leases are for real, it would actually start looking attractive… if only it didn’t look so freaking unattractive! Yikes. I guess I’m not the target market for this one.

  • avatar

    Any idea what the seats are made out of? They look thinner than usual, which I’m sure helps with rear seat space. It would be nice to see thinner seats make their way into other small cars where space is at a premium.

    • 0 avatar
      Nicholas Weaver

      Its some plastic-funkyness for the seat frame, to give the thin & light structure. Tesla is actually the same way, the Tesla seats are a bit thicker but still pretty thin.

      The i3 seats are nicely comfortable, especially in the mid grade (cloth & tan leather) trim, although they lack lumbar adjustment and are fully manual (for space & weight reasons).

  • avatar
    Nicholas Weaver

    The lease prices are pretty fantastic. 2 years for $220 w $5k down, $.2/mile after 20k miles.

    Nissan’s special on the Leaf (a vastly inferior electric, but also very heavily subsidized) is $200 w $2.4k down, $.15/mile after 12k miles/yr.

    MSRP-wise, the BMW is $12k+ more, but the difference on the lease is a lot smaller.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s not really close on the leases, actually that’s a big spread. $5k down on a 2 yrs lease is like adding $200 to the payment, and that’s only with 10k miles per year. The Leaf lease is 36 months, 12k per year and less than half the up fronts… Adds about $70 to the payment. In the end your looking at nearly $200 difference per month, basically double the price from a Leaf to the i3.

      I get that you love the BMW and want to justify why you picked one to go with your “vastly superior” BMW and Porsche so clearly money is no big deal to you, but don’t throw doctored numbers around like it’s chump change. Apples to apples man.

      • 0 avatar

        Ok, it’s a $12k more expensive car that costs $3k more to lease. Is that apples to apples enough for you? I imagine a lot of people would get a BMW over a Nissan for $3k, especially when maintenance is included on the BMW.

        • 0 avatar

          >> especially when maintenance is included on the BMW.

          On an electric, I really can’t think of what sort of maintenance you’d need that would be covered under the BMW maintenance program (I own one). Tire rotation maybe? Brakes most likely will last beyond 100 miles. No oil changes.

          >> Nissan’s special on the Leaf (a vastly inferior electric, but also very heavily subsidized)

          What qualifies the i3 as vastly superior to the Leaf? There are certainly some i3 features I wouldn’t mind having on a Leaf like a more aggressive regen mode selection beyond the Leafs “B” mode and the i3’s option autopilot features ($$$$). On the other hand, the Leafs range is close to the i3s (I went 50 miles yesterday at 55 mph and some heavy traffic in 32 f temps using 51% of the battery) and the level 3 charging network is currently much better. The Leafs regen works from the brake pedal, and it does have a one pedal mode (I use it traffic), but I would like to dial in more aggressiveness.

          While the i3 is better than a Leaf, it’s not vastly better.

          • 0 avatar
            Nicholas Weaver

            Having driven both (short testdrive on Leaf, long on i3)

            The Leaf’s air-cooled battery is a disaster for longevity and range.

            Even over just a 2 year lease, I’d be much more confident that the BMW doesn’t lose range compared to the leaf.

            The interior on the BMW is drop-dead gorgeous in the mid-trim level. Leaf is dowdy.

            The i3 drives much much better: much more neutral, much more balanced.

            Much better technotoys.

            And that’s not even getting to the snob appeal from the rondel on the hood…

          • 0 avatar

            @Nicholas Weaver

            And don’t forget the i3 has 50% more horsepower in the motor.

          • 0 avatar

            Can’t rotate the tires on the i3 since they’re staggered. So cancel even that one small thing. I guess if you get the REX they’ll do maintenance on the two cylinder. :)

        • 0 avatar

          Once again, you are minimizing the numbers to try to make the BMW look cheaper than it is. It isn’t $3000 difference, its a $7000 difference. Or to put it in more useful terms, its $270/mo compared to $440/mo, which is how most people shop a lease. Its not a fantastic bargain, but it is a pretty good deal for a $45k car. But its not a very useful car, its a commuter. And for a commuter, the Leaf is cheaper.

          Personally, I would get the BMW as well, its got just enough extra range to make it useful to me, and its nicer than the Leaf. But I am not fooling myself into thinking its “basically the same price as a Leaf”.

  • avatar

    Great and very detailed review. Have a lot more respect for the vehicle than I did previously, now that I understand CARB’s strange and bureaucratic rules.

    Just because it’s easy to do, many jurisdictions have adopted California rules, including my Canadian province. perhaps that’s why BMW sells the same versions everywhere in NA. Just easier and stops the inter-jurisdictional customer-level squabbling if some areas got bigger gas tanks, etc.

  • avatar

    I love the technology and also the lease deals. But I just can’t stand the way this car looks–to the degree that I wouldn’t get one. I don’t usually care too much about styling if I like a car otherwise, but this is an exception.

    Don’t like the blocks of multiple colors. Don’t like the matte silver trim. Don’t like the random splotches of blue. Don’t like the fussy shapes, and especially the drunken greenhouse. In my opinion this is currently the ugliest car on the market, and it’s not even close.

  • avatar

    The wood interiors look the nicest, sort of like driving an Eames chair with a Bang & Olufsen stereo.
    BTW the engine is actually from a BMW scooter. If you want a BMW motorcycle engine in something not a bike, Rosenbauer will sell you a fire pump powered by an R1100 mill.

  • avatar

    Great review thanks, Slow Joe the range extender is from a BMW Motorcycle, same as my F800ST, Rotax design originally made in Austria, now made by license to BMW in China.

  • avatar
    healthy skeptic

    I was behind a BMW ActiveE (the electrified 1-series from a couple of years back), and thinking to myself “Why couldn’t BMW have just done more of that?”

    The ActiveE looked like a real car, stylish and attractive even with all the stupid circuitry artwork drawn all over it. No ugly eco-dork styling. No bicycle tires. A bit slower and heavier than a 128, but presumably it handled well enough.

    If anyone could challenge Tesla with a fast, sexy, high-performance EV, you’d think it’d be BMW, especially after Tesla proved there actually was a market for such cars. Perhaps the i3 sits halfway between the Model S and the Leaf as Alex says, but to me it seems much more like a glorified Leaf than a Model S Lite.

    Here’s what I would like: the EV equivalent of a 335i. Performance, luxury, looks, size…and hopefully around the same price. If the car were an absolute blast to drive, I’d probably be happy with as low as 150 miles of range. Unfortunately, every other manufacturer besides Tesla can’t seem to get over the idea that all EV buyers surely only want eco-dork appliance cars or science experiments. Maybe an electrified 335i isn’t yet possible, but whoever builds such a car will definitely have my interest.

    • 0 avatar

      I think you are describing the i8. More expensive than a Tesla P85D, but are there people stretching for a $100k car that couldn’t also swing a $130k car? Especially when you consider whatever (probably generous) lease deals BMW offers.

    • 0 avatar

      There’s one big problem with the idea of an electric 3er: weight.

      Consider, for a second, the Focus Electric. A 2L/5spd Focus hatch is 2919lb. A Focus Electric hatch is 3622lb. So in the same car, an electric drivetrain (with 107kW) raises the weight 703lb.

      Now let’s look at a 3er with a similar powertrain weight. A 320i has the same size engine as the Focus, so the powertrain should weigh *about* the same. It has a curb weight of about 3280lb. So you could expect an electric version to be close to 4000 pounds. To put that in context, the 335i with a stick is 3555lb.

      So what you end up with is a car that’s 450lb heavier than a 335i, despite having less power than a 320i. And probably pretty terrible range, given its weight.

      Is that really what you want?

      • 0 avatar
        healthy skeptic


        Good point, which is why I’d be willing to live with 150 miles of range. My calculations are this: if Tesla can get 250+ miles out of a 1,000 lb battery for a 4,700 lb car, I figure a 500 lb battery in a 3,500 car would get you 150.

        But as I also noted, it probably can’t be done at the present time. I think the energy density of batteries needs to go up about another 50%, and the price needs to drop further. I think in the next 5 years it should be feasible.


        True, the i8 is a monster, as is the Porsche 918. But those are both hybrids. I was thinking of pure BEVs.

        • 0 avatar

          The numbers are hard to make sense of, but I think the 4,700lb curb weight is for the 85kWh Model S. The battery in that one is at least 1,200lb, and I’ve seen it called “over 1,300lb.” Factor in 200lb for the motors, and you’re talking about 3,200lb for the non-drivetrain bits. Not that dramatically different from the 3er. What is dramatically different is the Cd — .24 for the Tesla, versus a surprisingly high .29 for the i3, which is the same as the 328i. (For comparison, the Prius is around .25 and the A6 is only .26.)

          That all being said, I think you’re going to end up having trouble getting Tesla-like efficiency without designing the car from the ground up to be electric. The Tesla is a much more conventional-looking car, but the chassis is anything but — the battery and the structure are intertwined in a way that makes it a lot more space- and weight-efficient than a retrofit could hope to be.

  • avatar

    I’ve never seen so much FAIL in one place.

    That “one pedal” operation is gonna get someone killed in a panic stop.

    I like the looks, but I’d like it a whole lot more if it was atop the P85 platform.

    • 0 avatar

      Looking at that diagram, I’ve got to agree with you. Nissans “B” mode is a lot more intuitive. When I need to slow my Leaf, I just release the pedal. If it’s going to stop short of where I want to stop, I just apply a little accelerator pedal. If I need to stop in a shorter distance, I apply extra regen with the brake pedal. Most of the time, I can get by with the single pedal. It would be helpful if I could adjust the level of regen in “B” mode – or maybe if there was a “C” mode as well. Maximizing regen has been a big factor in getting some pretty amazing range out of my Leaf.

      I know they say they were trying to make the brakes have a normal feel, but that’s not the point of a vehicle like this. It’s not for carving country roads. It’s for hard core urban commuting. On an EV, it’s not a bad thing to have feedback as to when you cross over to the friction pads from regen. The friction pads are to be avoided and you want feedback when you essentially screw up and use them so that you can adjust your driving style.

      Then again, if you’re getting an i3 for commuting, just get the tech package with the stop/start radar cruise control so all you have to do is steer in heavy traffic. I’m surprised that option was missed in the review. Maybe it wasn’t on the vehicle?

  • avatar

    The actual range of the vehicle is much closer to 500 miles if you stuff the cargo area full of gas cans.

    There’s quite a few things to like about this car. It’s interesting to see that BMW chose to make some creative decisions about drive-train, layout, doors, construction. It’s much more of a “car of the future” attempt than the Volt.

    However, from a practical perspective, the tiny gas tank means that it’s actually more of a Leaf competitor than anything else. I think I’d be more likely to buy a 200-250 mile EV that had fast-charge capability.

    As for the interesting accelerator pedal characteristics, it reminds me of the BelchFire 8, as shown in National Lampoon from the mid-’70’s, with its “Tap-a-Toe” transmission.

    However, in this case, I would think you could just use the cruise and be perfectly happy.

  • avatar

    Subsequent to reading this review, I read this one:

    It’s a must read. it’s detailed.

    The car seems actively dangerous in snow, because of that strange throttle action. Back off the throttle and the back wheels lock up and spin out the car due to the over eager braking. And adding Blizzaks probably isn’t going to help much.

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