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BMW i LogoI recently drove the BMW i3 at a test drive event at Seattle BMW. Besides rolling out sandwiches and drinks, the people of BMW brought a fleet of euro-spec i3s to take on a little drive. And by little, I mean quite short!

If you don’t know, BMW have started from the ground up to make the i3 something quite different. It looks different, it’s built differently and it has different values than any other car I’ve seen. By values, I mean that BMW set out with goals very unique to the world of automotive design. They sought sustainability, and recyclability, from raw materials to end-of-life, with a car that’s mostly recyclable. There is no gas-powered engine (although a range-extender BMW Motorcycle engine is an available option to act as a generator), so no fluids to spoil the environment. The car is made out of very different materials: carbon fiber reinforced plastic (made in Moses Lake, WA), with 25% of those plastics recycled; renewable natural fibers and eucalyptus wood make up the dashboard; and textile upholstery features 100% recycled polyester. Even the aforeBMW i3mentioned plant in Moses Lake runs on 100% hydroelectric power. Pretty cool eco-tech.

Driving this car is really impressive. Quiet, very quick and with decent handling–it’s what you would expect from a BMW. The carbon-fiber reinforced plastic shell is also quite stiff, although I did hear some interior creaking in the vehicle I drove. I’m guessing the creaking is due to this car being a very early production model that’s probably seen some hard, test-driving miles. It is fun to drive. It’s really quick (did I mention this), due to an all-electric drivetrain that has 100% torque all the time. Some reports I’ve read say it’s faster to 35MPH than a BMW M3! Yet what’s different is the brake-regenation system. In my test, I was able to come to a complete stop without hitting the brake pedal. Once you adjust to this, the feature becomes quite useful and enjoyable to use. BMW claim the brake lights illuminate when you slow suddenly. I think it’s easy on your foot in traffic and also probably saves on brake pad wear. The whole time I drove the i3, I hardly touched the brakes.

The interior is nicely done. The fiber-based materials feel really good–almost natural. The exposed fibers that make the main dash components are cool to look at and soft to touch. It’s all sort of industrial, yet cool–sort of like exposed concrete floors in a building. The people who came up with the interior colors and combinations thereof should be commended. I don’t like beige interiors, but the i3 with the beige interior is quite nice–more of a earthy tan. The base-models cloth interior was actually my favorite. Simple, clean and light grey. The leather version feels rich and the seats are super comfortable and supportive on all models. If the leather was available in grey with the dark grey exterior, I’d probably choose that model.

BMW i3 InteriorThe instruments are another unique feature on the i3. The small rectangular screen sits behind the steering wheel where most cars have gauges. It features the speedometer, power-use meter and quick information (like radio station, cruise information, etc). The center console features an elegantly mounted larger display, that ties into BMW’s iDrive system. The car I drove had the full navigation package and parking assist. Along with the radio and other customization features, these all use the center display. The parking assist and camera are amongst the best I’ve used, providing you an accurate graphical arc of where you are headed, based on steering angle. I parked perfectly straight about 2-inches from the parking line, using the backup camera. When I got out of the car, I was right where I thought–not something I always experience with backup cameras.

I didn’t get enough time to run the iDrive through all of it’s paces, but I’d say it’s one of the top 3 virtual control systems on any car. BMW have had the most experience here and prefer their system over others I’ve tried. The navigation system ties into the car’s trip computer to let you know how far you can get on your current charge. The instrument cluster will also tell you the current posted speed limit. All very nice touches.

Speaking of range, BMW first claimed this car had ~100 mile range. The EPA has rated it 80. Representatives from the demo team said to me that it had 80 to 100 mile range. Being an experienced electric-car driver, I asked how the range diminishes in the cold or hot climates, with the heater or A/C on, respectively. Their response was around 20 miles are so loss if you had the heater on the whole time. This is one of the biggest problems with electric cars–the heaters seem to be huge power-suckers. I thnk there’s some opportunity for innovation with the heating systems–perhaps a heat-pump?

All in all, I like the i3. I’m still on the fence about its exterior styling, but the more I see it the more it’s grown on me (the greenhouse heading downward at the rear window still bothers me). The price has come in a bit higher than I expected. With most electric-car manufacturers lowering their sticker prices, BMW have come in at $42,275 (including destination charges) for the Mega World trim, which is the base model. I think they meant Mega Priced! I expected this car to come in under $40k. The range-extended model comes in nearly $4k higher. Add some options and you’re hovering $50,000!

To me, this is a lot of money for a car smaller than a Volkswagen Golf. A well-equipped Chevrolet Volt comes in at $4k less and has a range-extended motor! BMW are offering a lease special on a “well equipped” i3 for $499/month at 36-months. This sounds pretty good, until you realize there’s a nearly $4,000 down payment (apparently making up for the price delta between the i3 and the Volt’s sticker prices). Wih less down, a Volt can be currently leased for $249/month. This equates to aggressive lease deals by GM, where BMW is not providing that (yet).

Pricing is a hard reality of all the good, eco-friendly sustainability the BMW i3 provides. My guess is BMW will come up with more aggressive lease options in the future, as they are known for their excellent leases. One cool thing factoid: when you own an i3 and need to go further than its range will provide, BMW will provide you with a loaner car at no charge. I didn’t think to ask what restrictions apply. For instance, could I drive the loaner to Disneyland and back? Do they deduct the miles from my lease? It is a unique and handy option, however.

I’m quite sold on the i3. The ride and handling beats the Volt by every measure. The packaging is cool and the eco-friendly features feel good. That said, the price is a major barrier between me and an i3. Even if I could afford a $500 (plus tax) payment, I am not sure that’s where I’d spend the money. For nearly the same down and monthly payment, I could have a BMW 535d, which is an amazing, car that gets 38MPG. I could pay a lot less and get a 3-series or get a new Volkswagen Golf TDI (coming July 2015), which has a fantastic diesel.

Still, once you’ve had an electric car, it’s really hard to go back to fuel.