The Ultimate Electric Driving Machine

BMW’s all-new i3 electric car may look something like a science project, but a short test-drive reveals it to be a well-thought-out alternative to the conventional gasoline-powered automobile. The shape and construction of the i3, which features a body made of carbon fiber mounted to an aluminum substructure, is innovative. Some of it works well, like the dip in the rear-door glass to give the backseat a more open feel; on the other hand, the coach-style rear-hinged doors and high step-in height make it a little tough to climb into the rear of the vehicle.

But the advanced materials result in a vehicle that is quite svelte by EV standards. It tips the scales at just 2,700 pounds and the rear-axle-mounted electric motor delivers 170 hp, which gives the i3 muscular acceleration. BMW says the range is between 80 and 100 miles, and a second version will be available with a 650cc 2-cylinder motorcycle engine with a 2.4-gallon gas tank that roughly doubles the range.

The i3 has a relatively upright seating position, a low cowl, and great forward vision. The electric power steering has the sort of heft and online feel that are consistent with the BMW brand. The company has an aggressive regenerative-braking strategy that allows for a “one-pedal” driving experience. Lift off the throttle, and the vehicle slows dramatically, with the kinetic energy directed back into the lithium-ion battery pack. On twisty roads, the effect is like trail braking by merely lifting off the throttle. Two additional models beyond comfort—Eco Pro and Eco Pro+—dial back the vehicle’s acceleration and increase the regen braking. However, this remapping lessens the responsiveness of the acceleration to such an extent that there are greater transitions between throttle on and throttle off. I found the normal mode to provide the most satisfying driving experience.

The BMW i3’s size and range in pure electric form make it the perfect second or third car for short commutes and in-town errand running. Its distinctive looks also make it a head turner, more so for the eco-set than for aesthetes. With a base price of $41,350, the i3 will make a pricey yet effective statement about the future of automobility when it goes on sale in the spring. (www.bmwusa.com)

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