CES 2014: How BMW Taught Me to Stop Worrying and Love the EV
January 9, 2014 2:57 PM
If the i3 Coupe can enamor a jaded EV observer, imagine how the throngs of hybrid vehicle drivers will react
Past coupes, SUVs, and other larger vehicles from Bayerische Motoren Werke (BMW) AG (
never really resonated with me
. But BMW does make terrific sport-luxury sedans, so I was willing to approach its electric coupe with an open mind. The skeptic in me kept poking out and expecting to poke some holes in the hype surrounding the i3 Coupe.
As a somewhat jaded observer, I've found myself disliking many electric vehicles ("EVs"). I never expected EVs to be perfect. I only expected a compelling overall value. The problem is that typically the flaws outnumber the strengths, at least for me. So I find my expectations for EVs consistently disappointed, even if there are some pluses to the overall experience.
But the i3 Coupe isn’t hollow hype. It has the power to surprise even an EV skeptic. It manages that feat by striking such a beautiful balance of overall strengths, that you find yourself liking it in spite of some small flaws. Quite unexpectedly, I wouldn’t one of these sporty all-electric coupes sitting in my garage back home.
Let me explain why.
I. Bold on the Outside
BMW made a bold move, bringing a fleet of at least a dozen 2014 BMW i3 Coupes to CES. This large fleet meant that not only the journalists, but also general attendees got to jump into one and take it for a spin. That's a pretty unusual display of confidence that I don't recall seeing with any other EV.
So why is BMW so confident?
The hype surrounding the i3 Coupe surely begins with the visual first contact. The first thing that struck me about it was its vivid exterior. Even in the tan-grey/black styling the look was bold.
In orange it was downright daring.
Composed of dent-resistant thermoplastic, the car's swooping curves contrast with sharp lines of accents on the front and sides.
It treads the line between style and aggression about as well as you can one can expect from a Coupe/Crossover. If anything, the styling got better on the production model versus
the July 2011 concept
Its current form looks pretty much identical to
the revised mid-2012 design
Some vehicles look better up close and personal than in press shots and this is one of them. The Coupe has a very urban feel about it.
The vehicle comes standard with attractive alloy wheels, which also cut the curb weight, improving the range on a charge.
Aside from the body's dent resistance, the vehicle comes standard with adaptive LED headlamps and taillights. BMW uses a black high-strength glass to accent the LED taillights. Given the company's fondness of comparing the car to a smartphone -- an analogy that made me cringe a bit, but didn't detract from my appreciation for the design -- I naturally wondered if the accent glass was Corning Inc. (
) Gorilla Glass.
Company representatives informed me that the glass wasn't Gorilla Glass, but was actually an even stronger glass product from Corning. Give the Coupe a point for that.
II. Beautiful on the Inside, Too
Peek inside you're greeted with an array of "sustainable" textiles and accents, paired with well-positioned high tech displays and an array of controls.
Some of the interior fabrics are made of hemp, marijuana's THC free cousin (sorry, Colorado).
The dash features panels made of kenaf, a naturally-insulating fibrous quick-growing fibrous woody foliage from Asia that's a relative of the hibiscus. Some of the trim options feature door coverings feature a mixture of climate-active wool (Pikea?) and "olive-leaf dyed leather".
I know all this social consciousness will likely rub some readers the wrong way, but it makes for a great-looking interior.
My personal favorite part was the "limed" Eucalyptus wood. As the product reps noted, this wood will naturally age over the life of the car and gain unique color, but it looks great even out of the start.
Interiors have not traditionally been a focus of BMW, but I really feel it's produced one of the best-looking dash trims I have ever seen in any mass-market vehicle. And its door/ceiling accents are top class as well. So say what you will about the merits of sustainability, but this is a darn good looking trim design.
Even with the looks I wasn't ready to warm up to the i3 Coupe quite so fast. I wanted to see how it drove.
III. Joystick, Aggressive Braking Grow on You
Turning it on was a bit of an experience in itself.
There's a unique joystick-like shifter towards the right of the car. The side facing you features a start/stop button, while the top features a park button. You can turn the knob up to enter drive or down to go into reverse.
It takes a minute to wrap your mind around, but after I got the hang of it, I became fascinated with the shifter. It has a downright video-game joystick feel to it, and I mean that in the best way.
The BMW staff warned me that I wouldn't need to use the brakes much as the aggressively tuned regenerative breaking would almost automatically stop the vehicle. Boy, they weren't kidding. Even moving along at roughly 45 miles per hour, you can in most cases get away with almost no braking, depending on traffic. Ultimately this becomes very welcome after a while, but it does take some getting used to, as you must be aware that if you take your foot off the
accelerator pedal, the vehicle will start to stop much quicker than a standard vehicle without regenerative braking.
My test started in the busy streets of Las Vegas a place that allowed me to test the maneuverability of the vehicle and acceleration. Overall, the vehicle handles beautifully. It can take curves very fast, and it has ample torque to rocket you from a stop, should you need to.
The seats are very comfortable: soft, but firm enough to feel supportive -- definitely a strong point of the interior.
IV. Maximum Speed Considerations and Sound
I ditched the boring rectangular suggested test route and took to the highway. Unbeknownst to me I had the car in "Eco" driving mode, rather than "Comfort" (oh well). In the energy saving mode, acceleration trails off somewhere around 70 mph. Still, I was able to maintain 65-70 mph comfortably.
I was later told that the "Comfort" mode boosts the speed enveloped by about 12 percent, depleting the battery’s charge more quickly. Highway driving performance in ECO mode wasn't a hindrance, but for those with shorter commutes I'd definitely recommend driving it in the sportier "Comfort" mode to have more power on demand.
The ride both on the highway and surfaces streets was perfectly dampened and whisper quiet with the stereo off. It was almost eerily quiet, a characteristic of well-designed EVs.
Returning to the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) I was stuck in returning rush hour afternoon stop-and-go traffic. Normally I might have spent several dollars in gas on this ordeal. Instead I just spent my time (which is of course a currency of sorts). But the stops gave me an opportunity to snap some on-road pictures and play with the stereo equipment.
A minor gripe in terms of city driving -- the turn signal may feel a bit unnatural if you're used to the kind of turn signal found in many coupes/sedans that clicks into place. By contrast the i3 Coupe's turn signal should be released after click it in the target direction. If you click it again, it may actually turn off. Personally, I like turn signals that snap into place better, as it gives you a tactile indicator that the signal is active.
Past versions of iDrive had their flaws, but with the latest "The Next Big Thing" (NBT) release from 2012, the system offers some nice features, even if it struck me as a bit cluttered UI-wise at time.
The 3D maps are a welcome touch. The LCD screen is great looking and is well positioned near the dash to minimize the distance your eyes have to travel off the road.
V. Goldilocks: Finding the "Just Right" View and Range
Speaking of which, the cabin features a great cockpit view. I find many fuel efficient vehicles like the Chevy Volt and Toyota Motor Comp.'s (
) tend to obstruct the view of with large side pillars, sacrificing visibility to achieve the ubiquitous teardrop shape.
The vehicle also has much more leg room than many hybrids or electrics -- which I appreciated as a taller driver.
By contrast the i3 Coupe has a much higher cabin roof and a much less encumbered view, which really lets you take in the surroundings. I imagine it sacrifices some small measure of aerodynamic efficiency to do this, design-wise, but it does help out in situational awareness.
I found the LCD range indicator mounted above the dash to give relatively conservative estimates in terms of remaining miles.
The vehicle has an 80-100 mile range on a full charge, depending on temperature, traffic speed, and other conditions. I definitely feel like the LCD estimates towards the lower side of this, which is probably a good thing as if you trust it, at worst you make it to your destination with a bit of extra juice versus the alternative if it was too liberal in its estimates -- getting stranded.
Honestly, I think 80 miles (as a minimum) is a good choice on BMW's part. With the gasoline range extender (providing an additional 80-100 miles worth of charge) the vehicle can become roadtrip worthy like the Chevrolet Volt. The range extender retails for $3,950 USD.
Granted, it will never have the range that a Prius or small diesel has. But then again, it doesn't really need to most of the time. The i3 Coupe strikes me as a great car for urban or suburban families, given the extra seats and the decent range will cover the commutes of most, if not all urbanites.
The car features a standard six-prong charger, the industry standard. But it also supports the extra two-peg extension for fast DC charging. Hooked up to a DC charger it can achieve 80 percent charge in as little as 20 minutes.
The car comes with a 110 volt wall box charge, which has about a two and a half hour charge time.
For a faster charge, BMW offers a $1,000 USD "Level II" charger, which will charge the vehicle in around an hour to an hour and a half.
VI. A Coupe That Grows on You, in a Healthy Way
The car really grows on you -- even features that I initially didn't care for, like the split sunroof, I eventually warmed to. The sunroof, for example, is split for a good reason -- it allows the driver and passenger to individually use shade covers.
Anyone who is married or in a committed relationship can appreciate surrendering a bit of real estate sunshine wise is probably worth it to preserve domestic tranquility.
I've driven various electrics and hybrids, and I honestly can't recall an electrified driving experience outside of Tesla Motors Inc.'s (TSLA) vehicles that felt as fulfilling as the i3 Coupe. That's not to say the car accelerates or handles like the Tesla Model S or Roadster -- it doesn't. But it also sacrfices much less than the growing crowing of less-than-sporty electrified coupes, sedans, subcompacts, and compacts. In other words, you could argue that the i3 Coupe is more Tesla than Volt, performance wise.
I came to realize that's what BMW's Jacob Harb meant when he told me:
Maximizing the benefits of an electric powertrain, I don't think anyone is close to us [even Tesla].
He wasn't knocking Tesla's performance. Rather, he was arguing that BMW's disciplined design has delivered a vehicle that balances many variables that are difficult to balance and deftly manages to offer an electric vehicle that's fun to drive, has a decent range, looks great, is well appointed, and best of all is surprisingly affordable.
How affordable? The
all-electric coupe starts at $41,350 USD before any tax credits or subsidies
. BMW trumps Tesla in some regards in terms of safety (more on that to come), but I think where it truly wins is price. At that price, given the design, standard features (LED lamps, navigation, etc.) I think the car could see strong sales in the entry-level luxury segment –
BMW seems to think so as well
. The fact that the vehicle qualifies for a $7,500 tax credit will also entice buyers looking for a “green” vehicle with a BMW badge.
At $33,850 USD (after tax credit), your biggest problem might actually be finding one (compact, entry-level vehicles are becoming a big business as
Mercedes has recently found out with the sub-$30,000 CLA
). Because if BMW can make me to stop worrying learn to love driving the EV, imagine what it could do for the throngs of Americans more comfortable with the hybrid experience.
I never expected BMW to port forth such a vehicle, but I certainly give them a hearty “congratulations” for doing so. Other EV makers should carefully study the i3 Coupe carefully, as the blueprint of a compelling, balanced electric commuter car.
"I'm an Internet expert too. It's all right to wire the industrial zone only, but there are many problems if other regions of the North are wired." -- North Korean Supreme Commander Kim Jong-il
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