BMW i3 Test Drive Review: From a Mini E and ActiveE Driver’s Perspective

4 years ago by Peder Norby 43

View From Inside the BMW i3 - Photo Credit Peder Norby

View From Inside the BMW i3 – Photo Credit Peder Norby

A Wolf in Lambs Wool…for the city

i3

i3

The BMW i3 from a Mini-E and ActiveE driver’s perspective.

I’ve witnessed and participated in, the evolution of electric transportation and of this car, the BMW i3.

Much has been said and written by the world automotive press, pundits and enthusiasts about the i3. But this is writing from a non-journalist (me) that has loads of seat time and years of experience in electric transportation and the ramp up to the i3.

As one could imagine, I have high expectations for the BMW i3, as the result of my four years and nearly 70,000 miles of seat time in its two predecessor prototypes.

First, the 2009 BMW Mini-E, a rudimentary prototype produced under contract with AC Propulsion. It was twitchy, hard sprung, a blast to drive with tons of torque steer and a very light front end. This car showed me the way to electric mobility powered by sunshine.

i3

i3

Second, the validation car, the BMW ActiveE which was produced in house by BMW. The ActiveE is a very refined and well behaved luxury coupe that sadly my wife gets to drive far more than I. A happy marriage was the result of my acquiescing to Julie when she unexpectedly pronounced that ‘she’ was going to be the driver of the BMW ActiveE. I was disappointed but not stupid.

Editor’s Note: Our thanks go out to Peder Norby for allowing us to share with you this exclusive test drive review of the BMW i3.  This post first appeared on Peder’s blog, which you can check out by clicking here.

As I prepare to switch from the ActiveE to the i3, I’ve come to realize that evolution is simply the wrong word for i3.

The BMW i3 is a Revolution

Driving on Sunshine - Photo Credit Peder Norby

Driving on Sunshine – Photo Credit Peder Norby

A game changer that will reap benefits for decades for BMW up and down its complete product line ushering in an era of lightness, higher torque and higher performance. A brilliant and bold decision that will at first seem odd to the general public as they see the i3 singularly as a “non traditional” BMW. (I suppose the Isetta was traditional?) but will make complete sense in the decades to come as BMW fills out its “I” product line with electric motors and carbon fiber bodies and begins the migration of same to the BMW M and normal series cars as well as other BMW owned brands.

BMW and Carbon Fiber will be “stitched together” forever in history as the biggest advancement in auto manufacturing since the introduction of the assembly line. Lightness, quickness, instant torque, connectedness, effortlessness and the premium luxury will be the hallmarks of future BMWs.

The i3 is a solid performance car, a wolf in lambs wool for the city. The i3 is MUCH faster than a Mini-E, which is MUCH faster than an ActiveE, and it all comes from the rear wheels for much better launch control.

The i3 is a car that is woven together by brilliance rather than generically stamped out of steel by brute force.

As a typical red blooded American male, I came of age and learned to drive in my brothers 69 Dodge Charger with a 440 magnum and idolized my friends “old” 67 Chevy Camaro. So, I can understand why one or two of the performance oriented car mags were less than excited about the i3. They’ll get there eventually, perhaps with a ride in the BMW i8 in the near future.

Let's Race

Let’s Race

I dare any Camaro or Charger of any vintage to line up against my i3 at a stop light along Hwy 101 in Carlsbad Southern California. While the “muscle cars” gather their enormous strength from a high octane fuel flowing through 400 moving parts making crazy heat and beautiful noise ultimately getting to the tires, slowly working up to the sweet sport in the RPM range, I’m gone with a simple effortless press of the go pedal, the light-speed of electrons, and I’ll see you at the beach or coffee shop later.

The juxtaposition of the extreme effort required by high performance gasoline cars, with their drivers holding the handbrake, revving their engines and then destroying their clutch, all so they can launch quickly from the start line, compared to the i3 where the driver simple depresses the go pedal and holds on to his coffee or cell phone is striking.

The brute strength of a 350 pound NFL offensive lineman vs. the graceful refined strength of Usain Bolt comes to my mind.

Usain Bolt Moves Likes Lightning

Usain Bolt Moves Likes Lightning

As I said, I’ll wait for you at the beach while you try to find a parking spot large enough for your beast.

The BMW i3 lives in the city and so do I.

Never before have I been in a car that is so effortlessly quick. The feeling of lightness, effortlessness is a new reality in driving and defines the car. I’ve driven the Tesla Model S and there is no comparison for speed, the Tesla wins, but the refinement, lightness, ease of entry and driving position, tight turning radius, incredible design excellence of the interior and sensors that allow for semi autonomous driving such as parking, adaptive speed control and collision avoidance technologies all position the i3 well ahead of the Tesla Model S for city driving.

ActiveE Powered by "Sun Gas"

ActiveE Powered by “Sun Gas” – Photo Credit Peder Norby

Don’t get upset Tesla. Range, weight, cost and yes your “mine is bigger than yours” monster screen in the dash are all much much greater for the Tesla Model S.

The i3 looks great in person, It’s not a coupe or a sports car but a small UTE-CUV type of a car with a high seating position and an aggressive and pleasing stance. Closer in kin to the BMW X1 than the BMW Z4

The BMW i3 is solidly planted on the road at speeds just like the ActiveE or any BMW. The i3 for me seemed even quieter than the ActiveE which is amazing. The interior on the i3 was the highest class of the three interior worlds/options and it was indeed higher in quality than the ActiveE. More room than a 1 series, on par with a 3 series with the hatch and folding flat rear seats providing functionality that is superior to a sedan.

The carbon fiber roof of the i3 is awesome, and there are many areas where you can see the carbon fiber such as the door sills and when you open the rear hatch. BMW left a lot exposed to remind all that this car is made from CFRP.

i3 Interior Shot

i3 Interior Shot

But back to being a red blooded typical American male auto enthusiast for a moment. I suspect that BMW had a slightly female bias in mind when designing this car, It’s just to darn practical and smart to be designed for a ego-auto-centric male such as myself. The whole stitching and weaving a car together with a loom is very feminine compared to the manly brute force of stamping steel and welding. Dudes weld.

Well get over it guys.

The BMW i3 is a blast to drive, quicker and easier than any gas drinking car off the line. A butt hugger around corners and you’ll be able to do donuts in a space as small as the half basketball court in your driveway. Get a set of 16 inch rims and wide slicks and you’ll be the kick ass king of the stadium auto-cross.

To get your testosterone really flowing, you’ll have the daily pleasure of making some Mustang or Camaro driver envy your attractive rear lights while shrinkingly reassessing what really drives their manhood at the same time.

i3 Coupe Concept Might be Production Bound

i3 Coupe Concept Might be Production Bound

Drive quietly and carry a big stick!

The only question for us (we got over range anxiety years ago) is do we buy two i3’s right off the bat or do I, the strong, car-guy, city male, wait a year or so until the sports or coupe model comes out.

Choices are good, the BMW i3 is great.

It will be a world-changer car, I hope they can make enough of them. We’ll take two.

Editor’s Note: Again, we urge you to check out all of Peder’s blog for more on his electric driving experiences.

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43 responses to "BMW i3 Test Drive Review: From a Mini E and ActiveE Driver’s Perspective"

  1. MDEV says:

    Hybrids are not EV. In fact the i3 and Volt compete in the same category. Tesla is way out the i3 league. It is a cute car like smart, I would buy one for my daughter for the school, safe and different like a Scion, nicer than Prius though. Compare the i3 with a muscle cars is a joke.

    1. Aaron says:

      Did the author get the straight EV version of the i3? If so, they Volt isn’t in the same category.

      He wasn’t comparing the i3 with muscle cars. He was dusting them from stoplights. The EV version of the i3 has a 0-60 time of 7.0 seconds. This may not beat some muscle cars, but it’s enough to embarrass most of them.

      1. Eric Loveday says:

        As a former owner of a rather souped up V8 1970 Chevelle, I can guarantee that the i3 would beat that hulk of a machine probably til 40 mph or so. It would be no contest in stoplight to stoplight dashes

    2. Surya says:

      I would never compare the i3 to a Smart. The i3 has WAY more room. One is compact, the other is tiny. They serve completely different purposes.

  2. Peder says:

    MDEV, The BMW i3 is is not a hybrid it is a BEV. It can however as a option, be ordered with a small range extender. Ours will be without a range extender but with fast DC charging.

    You’re right, comparisons to muscle cars are a joke, especially off the line 0-30 quickness and nimbleness in a city environment. 🙂

    Cheers
    Peder

    1. Spec says:

      Apparently, the majority of i3s sold will include the range-extender. And it is pretty clear that it was designed as a range-extender car since the space of where the range-extender goes is unused when the range extender is not purchased.

      1. pjwood says:

        Amen, to the range extender concept.

        1. pjwood says:

          …for this EV 😉

  3. Peder says:

    Hi Spec, time will tell on the numbers, I suspect and guess roughly half and half. You’re right that the space for rex if not ordered goes unused. On the flip side, the interior volume of the car does not change rex or no rex and thats important as well. The space for the rex to the right of the motor straddling a half shaft below the deck of the car would be nice for a secret deep pocket compartment or two.

    Perhaps in future years.
    Cheers

    1. MTN Ranger says:

      The space is also for the optional heat pump. The ReX will not need it since range isn’t as important as in the pure EV version.

  4. Dave R says:

    Seems more of an advertisement or a highly biased BMW “fanboy” review to me.

    I’m sure it’s a fine EV – I just don’t think it warrants all the gushing drool it’s received here. I’ve seen the i3 in person – it looks just as awkward there as it does in pictures.

    “I dare any Camaro or Charger of any vintage to line up against my i3 at a stop light along Hwy 101 in Carlsbad Southern California.”

    Does not seem wise to do that at any point along Hwy 101 especially in Carlsbad given how busy the road is with other vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians – not to mention the eager Carlsbad motorcycle police force.

    1. Eric Loveday says:

      Even the title upfront says that the review is coming from a BMW driver…we certainly aren’t trying to hide that fact.

    2. GeorgeS says:

      I’m not a BMW fan boy. I own a Volt but have been watching BMWs carefully planned and well studied approach to this i3. I remember when Lyle had the mini E in the early GM-Volt forum days.

      I have been hot and cold on the i3…..but had not seen one until last weekend at the Tucson plug day event last weekend. You never can tell what a car REALLY looks like till you see one in person.

      Well I must say that the car was much better in person than in the pictures and word descriptions. It has been described as a small car much like the mini but this is not the case. The German engineers did their homework and this car is quite roomy inside due to its carbon fiber shell which allows no center post between the doors. Also, with the batteries IN THE FLOOR like the Tesla S this multiplies the interior room even more.

      Also I noted in an article here before that the i3 uses a battery coolant scheme similer to the Spark EV where the battery coolant tubes are in the BATTERY TRAY as opposed to being in between each cell in the plastic “repeating frames” like in the Volt.

      I am hopeful that GM will use some of these techniques that the BMW has incorporated in Gen 2 Volt.

      BMW has a winner on their hands here. This is an extremely well engineered car.

      It puts BMW i3 on the top of the heap right next to the TESLA S as the number 1 best purpose built EVs to date.

    3. Lloyd C says:

      Not a particularly objective review. I wonder what the “reviewers” remuneration was from BMW. Anyway, I’ll wait until some of the auto mags and Consumer Reports does their articles about the i3.

  5. Peder says:

    Dave R,

    You know Carlsbad and it’s police force 🙂
    Fun loose writing attempting to extoll the incredible and effortless acceleration 0-30 of the i3.
    Cheers!
    Peder

    1. Dave R says:

      It was well written, Peder. 🙂 It’s always good to see more well written articles about EVs.

      I really hope that BMW sells a lot of them and are successful with it – even if I’m personally not all that crazy about the car.

  6. Brian says:

    Thanks for writing this, Peder. Unlike other commenters, I enjoyed reading your colorful expressive writing! You are passionate about the car, and that’s part of what solidifies it as a BMW. I don’t know a single BMW driver who ISN’T passionate about his/her car.

    1. Eric Loveday says:

      This BMW owner agrees 100% with your statement Brian

    2. GeorgeS says:

      I second the motion. Peder is good with words. GREAT write up. I can relate as I grew up in the muscle car age myself.

      1. James says:

        So why do BMW drivers act like IDIOTS on the road? I am assuming Eric, Brian
        and Peder are exceptions to that rule. But BMW advertises itself as “The Ultimate
        Driving Machine”, which has mesmerized thousands into thinking that means they
        can endanger people as they zig and zag between traffic, storm off the stop line
        and blink their lights at you to pass when you are going over the posted limit.

        It’s brand-washing, or purely hyperbole in my book. The 3 Series broke ground on
        a segment BMW invented, and they’ve had the lead in that price category and vehicle type ever since. That doesn’t make them invincible and they’ve definitely had some hits and misses. One irritant is that BMW hopped onto the USA-driven
        SUV, CUV craze and all it’s Germanic bretheren followed suit. Now BMW makes
        every size and sort of SUV ( They call theirs “Sports ACTIVITY vehicles – how
        cute ). Actually what they are is very expensive mall dashers that use a whole lot
        of gasoline and cost a pretty penny while doing so. Again, what is sad, is most
        males who are seen driving these also drive like nutjobs.

        While Peder’s article is definitely from a fan of the marque’s perspective – he does
        show creativity in his descriptions. I don’t see anyone with a brain doing doughnuts anywhere in an i3 – and it wasn’t designed with that kind of driving in
        mind. As a unique design it gets an “A”. Unique is beautiful in the eye of the
        beholder. This vehicle in zero way displays the driving dynamics BMW has prided
        itself in for generations of gas cars. It’s skinny tires and tall stature deny this, no
        matter how much carbon-plastic it imbues or how low it’s center of gravity. Physics are physics. Colorful, but nonsensical to include American muscle cars
        in comparisons here.

        Not mentioned here is i3’s enormous cost. Once the car hits our shores, I’m sure
        many will feel the pinch when it’s MSRP is truly eyeballed. In the end, not being
        blinded by the badge, the carbon-plastic, the hype and the futuristic, spacious
        interior – it basically does the EXACT same job as the Nissan LEAF. Personally
        I’d buy a HIS and HERS LEAF for the garage rather than one of these over-
        blown city EVs.

        Not mentioned here is the cost of body repair. We love tech. And I myself dig the
        carbon process BMW worked so hard on, and it’s manufacturing process that seems to take robotics to new levels. This alone is not going to take dollars out of
        my pocket. So far, it appears repairing even minor damage to an I Series BMW
        could mean insurance companies totaling the whole vehicle!

        Now on to those rear doors. My, my — Ever struggle with those last-gen
        ( late nineties to mid 2000s ) extra-cab suicide pickup truck doors? Yes, we know – they’re hassle, and don’t make much sense. And why are they showing
        up here on a potential family mover? Wait until kids and school assistants try to
        deal with doors that can only shut AFTER the front door is opened? These are
        things many i3 gushers just haven’t thought through. The glitter wears off of
        this stuff fairly quickly when the reality sets in.

        Not knocking BMW for trying…I’m just saying for $50,000 + all those extras
        BMW is selling, like Rental BMWs for longer trips and added connectivity options
        just are not going to fly well once folks assess value vs. utility.

        1. GeorgeS says:

          James,
          Have you ever owned a BMW?

          I have… and before I did I had your opinion.

          The Germans are really good engineers. Take my word for it. I worked w/ them on both the A320 Airbus APU and on the GT601 gas turbine truck engine that we did w/ Volvo and Mack Truck (Cool engine).

          BMW motorcycle riders are not as you describe. They tend to be more intelligent AND better riders than some other brands.

          1. Jay Cole says:

            I have to admit that even though I’ve spent 3 years of my life driving a BMW (Z4) and probably another 3 or 4 in the near future with the i3 REx, I also find owners to be (by and large) some of the worst people on the road. No clue why really.

            And it’s science now too, lol:

            BMW Drivers are the worst

            1. GeorgeS says:

              well then the car drivers must be different than the motorcycle drivers (I had a K1200S not the boxer)

            2. Eric Loveday says:

              That explains why I’m always so rude then. Get rid of the Bimmer and alls good? Odd theory…doubt it would work.

        2. Peder says:

          James, appreciate your point of view and yes two Nissan’s cost about the same as a BMW gas or electric. I can only hope the BMW EV drivers are kinder to you and others compared to the gas BMWs.

          This car is going to make a great little stadium auto-cross car with it’s quick 0-60 time, lightness, wide bulldog stance with tires close to the corners, turning radius and short stopping distance. I will be be doing donuts, I assure you I am of sound mind 🙂
          Cheers

          1. james says:

            Cool! But don’t bend a fender!

            And be truthful about how you like those rear doors after 3 months of real-world use, OK?

            1. Eric Loveday says:

              Those doors certainly do bug me too…That would make it a no go for me if I had kids…

  7. Peder says:

    Those who drive ActiveE’s or are familiar with the the car will be amazed when they take a ride in the i3. And we were four people in the i3.

    One more observation, a big part of performance driving along with acceleration is braking. Look for the BMW i3 to have very impressive braking times and distances. Like unbelievably impressive short distances.
    Just sayin!!

    Cheers
    Peder

    1. Jay Cole says:

      Thanks for doing this write-up Peder – your enthusiasm makes me even more anxious to get delivery of my own i3 (REx) in the Spring. /good stuff

      1. GeorgeS says:

        Congrats Jay.
        The web site must be doing well 🙂

  8. pjwood says:

    Nice job, Peder. Read the whole thing. The i3 is a mucho important car, to the acceptance of electric drive. I’m confident “form follows function” will prevail!

  9. Rick says:

    I love BMW I use to drive a M3, M5 now I’m waiting for my Tesla next week. The style of the i3 is not for the folks that love muscle cars or M series. I8 has a masculine appeal, the i3 is more for women / student car. Niice but for the money Volt is better.

    1. Peder says:

      Rick,
      I tend to agree! But some hot hatches appeal to both sexes and the I3 I believe os one of those cars. It’s not going to get anyone out of muscle car or an F150.

      Cheers!

  10. James M says:

    Good point, lightness and the large wheels should make breaking tight. A couple other unpublished stats I’m real anxious to learn are the EPA’s MPGe (with/without REx) and crash test ratings. I suspect MPGe will be best in class and I’m hopeful for safety, but I admit I am holding my breath on the latter because engineering is key. Hopefully they did it right. I too think no REx but DC fast charging is the way to go. REx is a range vs performance tradeoff. BMW was smart to offer these many choices, including Comfort vs ECOPro, making the car very viable to a larger audience. One other thing I hope BMW has learned from Tesla is battery swapping. I’m betting the car can substantially outlive the batteries so in a decade when energy density doubles, it would be good to run the car a 2nd decade with new batteries that double the range.

  11. Justin W. says:

    As a former drag racer for a couple of decades I know the importance of a well controlled quick launch from a stoplight to win a “race”. Reaction time is 50% of it and a lot of torque is what makes for a quick launch. People like a lot of torque because it makes for fun city driving. Doing a 4k rpm clutch dump at a stoplight just to beat the little EV next to you is rather embarrassing IMO.

    People fell in love with hybrids because of their efficiency, not their performance. People who couldn’t stomach the poor performance of a hybrid will be drawn to EVs because they can be efficient AND have fun driving. You can sprint from stoplight to stoplight with little effort and very little noise and no one will ever know how much throttle you’re giving it. Unlike the vehicle with the screaming engine trying to catch up to you. I am not implying we should be racing. I’m just making a point. 😉

    1. Peder says:

      Justin, a point made better than I made it!
      Cheers!

  12. MTN Ranger says:

    I can’t wait to give both versions of the i3 a test drive next summer.

  13. benoit says:

    mister peter norby the new bmw i3 is an ugly duck and (MOD EDIT.
    the french renault zoe is 10 time better for the half price
    (MOD EDIT)
    benoit.

    MOD EDIT (statik): we welcome comments but not cursing or unnecessary slander

  14. benoit says:

    why does nobody talk about the bollore blue car, about the renault zoe and about the nissan leaf ? and why only talking about the tesla S and BMW i3 ?

  15. Peder says:

    Benoit…..never-mind. Have a nice day today!

  16. Evil Attorney says:

    I appreciate the enthusiasm here, and am sure that the i3 is a huge step forward from the Mini-E and Active-E. But I think many of us are wondering exactly how the i3 objectively compares to the Volt, Leaf, Rav4, etc., since those are the other options on the market.

  17. MyBEV says:

    ….and a other (better/nicer) ? option is on the way….the mercedes b-class electric drive !!

  18. ModernMarvelFan says:

    You have to give BMW credit for taking the weight out of an EV. That is one of the lightest EV on the market that has great performance.

    I will be curious to see how the insurance cost and service cost with those high tech materials will impact the ownership cost.

    It is a great direction that BMW is taking. It is NOT a “me too” type of effort that some other automakers are taking….