When you visit Europe, do you notice the little things that are different there? I notice, for instance, the cars I have never seen in the US. There are brands that don’t exist in North America like Renault and Peugeot. Then there are the awesome little hatchbacks like the 1-series and the A-class. For whatever reason, the BMW and Mercedes HQ bosses have determined that it makes no economic sense to sell these cars on US soil.
Arguably, these “un-American” petite cars do match the backdrop of Paris or London flawlessly. Picture a perfectly proportioned 1-series going around the Arc De Triomphe or Piccadilly Circus. Now switch the BMW in the photo for a Hummer H2. Suddenly the Indiana-assembled SUV looks like a Photoshopped mistake.
Would you say a Hummer looks out of place going through Time Square? How driving uphill in San Francisco? Or stuck in highway traffic on your way to work? The Hummer is ugly. But not out of place.
And that is how I always felt about futuristic BMW i3. Under the right colors, the i3 looks terrific. But no matter how often I see it on the streets, it still doesn’t really look a car when it pulls up next to a Corolla. The i3 looks like it was drawn by a kindergarten and BMW was forced to turn it into a car. The i3 may look less like a toy than the Smart car, but not by much. If anything, I would argue that the Smart car makes more sense because — priced at $15,000 — it is not even trying. There are mountain bikes that cost more.
That’s why I was wanted to test the BMW i3. Compared to the Tesla Model S, the i3 does not score very high on looks, performance, and most importantly, Elon-ness. And why does the i3 car key look like a fridge magnet?
To start, the i3 is not particularly cheap. With all the options, the one I drove was over $54,000. Although the government covers $7,500 in incentives, the i3 I tested is only $12,000 cheaper than the entry-level “Elon” Model S.
The i3’s bigger brother, the i8, looks and feels like a time machine. The i8 even has an “engine” speaker that makes fake V8 engine noises. If BMW adds the same engine speaker option to the i3, I guarantee sales will double.
So why did 60,000 people still decide to buy the i3? This is like people who pick a Samsung over an iPhone. Or worse, a Xiaomi over an iPhone. I’m afraid of climate change too. But is there anything that makes the i3 more than a fancy electric car that comes with a smartphone app?
Well, like the Ferrari LaFerrari, the BMW i3 also has a KERS system that feeds the kinetic power back to the battery when you brake. And like the LaFerrari, the i3 has instantaneous torque. This is why the i3’s 0 to “30” time is faster than any BMW car. Yes, including any of the M cars and even the i8. But only up to 30 mph.
As for practicality, buying the i3 means you will have to install a charging station in your garage. Virtually all i3 buyers choose the gas-tank-just-in-case range extender option. The truth is the performance of electric car batteries drops as soon as the weather gets cold. The extender option will set you back $3,800 and add to your carbon footprint. And 260 lb to your car’s “actual” footprint.
Hence, I am afraid the i3 is fairly hopeless in most regards. It is overpriced, too small, unattractive, and — by BMW standard — not exactly an ultimate driving machine.
Which brings me to the first iPod. It was outrageously expensive, impractical, and everyone thought Steve Jobs lost his mind. People asked if we really needed to have 1,000 hours of music in a device. Soon after, the iPod inspired the iPhone that created the entire category of smartphones.
I sincerely hope BMW and other brands will keep making electric cars. Because the alternative is global warming apocalypse. The temperature will rise one degree every year. Eventually Arc De Triomphe, Piccadilly Circus, and Time Square will all be underwater.
Perhaps the i3 is not the perfect electric car. But perhaps one day, we will all be driving some derivative of it. After all, there is a word to describe these 60,000 i3 buyers: Early Adopters.