2019 BMW i3 Extended Road Test: Bigger Battery Improves Range
What’s changed? We drive a 2019 BMW i3 REx for a week to find out
The BMW i3 has been a polarizing EV since its inception. Besides being BMW’s first electric car offering, its unconventional styling has been a point of contention, which has most certainly contributed to the i3’s lackluster sales.
However, BMW has sold around 125,000 i3s worldwide in the five years it has been in production, so it clearly has appeal to many people. For the 2018 model year, BMW made some minor visual changes, and added a sport version. There’s also been some minor interior changes over the years, as well as new exterior color choices. However, the biggest change BMW has made has been with regards to the i3’s battery pack.
The original 2014 i3 had a 21.6 kWh (total) battery pack which had a usable capacity of 18.8 kWh. The BEV version was EPA rated at 81 miles of range and the range extended version had a 72-mile electric range. About 2.5 years later, BMW introduced a new battery which became available in August of 2016 as a 2017 model. This new battery had a 33.2 kWh (total) battery with a usable capacity of 27.2 kWh, according to BMW. I say according to BMW, because I have a 2018 i3s, and my usable capacity was 30 kWh when the car was new, so I believe BMW underestimates the usable value. The BEV version had a 117-mile electric range and the REx version was rated at 99 miles on battery alone.
For 2019, the i3 now comes with a 44.2 kWh (total) pack. I haven’t seen BMW’s statement on usable energy yet, but my time with the car demonstrated it’s right about 40 kWh, if not slightly less. The new BEV i3 is EPA rated at 153 miles, and the range extended version’s EPA electric range rating is 126 miles, before the REx kicks on.
Like the i3 or not, you have to admit BMW hasn’t been sitting still with regards to the i3’s battery. This is the third battery available for the vehicle, and the i3 has only just begun its sixth year of availability. Only Tesla, and soon Nissan, with the 62 kWh LEAF Plus, has offered battery upgrades for their EV’s so many times, and in such a short period of time.
Besides the battery, the 2019 i3 gets a couple new options. There’s a new brown exterior color called Jucaro Beige Metallic. That new color replaces the popular Protonic Blue Metallic. I’m a little surprised that BMW discontinued Protonic Blue, but I suppose that since they added Imperial Blue in 2018, they decided they didn’t need two different shades of blue. As for the interior, Mega and Tera World trims offer new shades of brown SensaTec and leather, respectively. The i3 I was loaned was equipped with the top-of-the-line Tera World interior with full leather seats.
Other changes include standard auto high-beams, which I found worked pretty well. The only complaint I have is they seemed overly cautious and disengaged the high beams often when it was unnecessary. For instance, while driving down dark country roads, the car would turn off the high beams if I was approaching a property that had lantern-style lights at the entrance of the property Evidently, the car thought the lantern lights were approaching vehicles. They quickly turn back on once I passed the lights, but I found that this happened more frequently than it does on other cars I’ve driven with the auto high beam feature.
There’s also a new wireless charging pad (for mobile devices, not to charge the vehicle) and WiFi hotspot option that costs $500.00. Unfortunately, the car I had didn’t have this option, so I couldn’t test it out. Another difference is the i3 BEV no longer comes standard with a heat pump system, it’s now a $150 option. The heat pump still cannot be ordered with an i3 that has a range extender, because the heat pump system is located where the i3 REx’s fuel tank is.
On the road, the 2019 i3 I had felt a little slower than the 2018 range extended i3 that I have previously driven. I admit that since my daily driver is a 2018 BEV i3s, I had a hard time judging the quickness of this car. Not only is my i3 the sport version with more power, but it’s also a BEV, so it’s about 300 lbs lighter. Still, the 2019 felt a little slower than the 2018 non-sport REx i3, perhaps because the new battery adds a little more weight.
There’s good news on the pricing front, as BMW has held the line and is not increased the price of the 2019 i3, even though it now has a much larger battery. Still, even with the new longer range, with a starting MSRP of $44,450, the i3 is not a great value proposition, and probably the biggest reason sales haven’t been better.
I was able to drive the car about 500 miles in the week I had it, so I got a good feeling for the true range. It was February in New Jersey so the temperatures were mostly in the 20’s and 30’s, but I did get one warm day where temperatures were in the 50’s. On that day, I drove the car 142 miles and still has an estimated 20 miles of range left. The range estimator showed 80 miles of range for the REx, which translates into a total of 242 miles of total range.
That’s even more range than the BEV i3 is EPA rated for. I averaged 4 mi/kWh that day which isn’t very difficult to do with an i3 in warm weather. On the colder days, I averaged about 125 to 130 miles per charge, which was surprising, because I was able to match the EPA range rating in 30-degree temperatures, and that’s usually not the case. I suspect it won’t be too hard to get 175 miles per charge with an i3 BEV in milder temperatures.
Charging rates remain the same as the 2018 i3, with 32-amp level 2 charging, and a 50-kW limit for DC Fast charging. I used an EVgo DC Fast charger one day and was able to go from 12% to 70% in 30 minutes, and take in 24 kWh. I had to unplug after 30 minutes, but I then plugged back in and 14 minutes later I was at 94% state of charge. Therefore, in 44 minutes, I added 82% SOC, which was 33 kWh.
At home, charging on a JuiceBox Pro 40 I was able to charge from the range extender setpoint of 6.5% state of charge (the lowest I could drain the battery down to) to full, and it took 5 hours and 41 minutes. The JuiceBox app showed that 39.01 kWh had been delivered to the car.
While charging on level 2, the i3 will accept the full charge rate (32-amps) all the way up to well over 90% SOC before the power begins to taper down.
One of the biggest complaints about the i3 for the North American market has been how the range extender is implemented. Unlike in other markets, the user doesn’t get to decide when the range extender turns on. It automatically turns on once the state of charge drops below 6.5%. The range extender then works to maintain the 6.5% SOC, it doesn’t charge the battery past that set point.
The problem is, there are some driving conditions (high speed & extended uphill climbs) where the range extender cannot keep up with the energy demand of the vehicle. In those instances, the car will deplete the 6.5% buffer and then go into reduced power mode, limiting the vehicle to speeds around 40 mph. This even led to a class-action lawsuit in 2016.
The good news is, as the i3’s battery size increases, so does the 6.5% buffer, reducing the chance of the car going into reduced-power mode:
- 2014 – 2016 models: 21.6 kWh battery = 1.4 kWh buffer
- 2017 – 2018 models: 33.2 kWh battery = 2.2 kWh buffer
- 2019 – on models: 44.2 kWh battery = 2.9 kWh buffer
The range extender now has more than double the available buffer than the original i3 REx did, about 3 kWh to prevent the chance of reduced power mode. While it can still happen, as long as the owner understands how the REx works, they should be able to prevent any issues. Before I had the 2018 BEV i3s that I currently drive, I had a 2014 i3 REx for three years, and personally never had a problem with reduced power.
However, it’s important to note, I don’t typically drive in areas that are mountainous, with extended drives up long inclines. On the occasions that I needed to drive 100 or more miles with the range extender running, I kept my speed at 70 mph or less and there was never any issue. I noticed that if I drove much faster than 70 mph, the state of charge would slowly go down, and I would risk going into reduced power. Now, with double the buffer capacity compared to my 2014 model, I’m confident the range extender will be able to satisfy the needs of nearly all, but the most challenging uphill driving conditions.
In all, the 2019 BMW i3 is basically the same EV it has been for the past five years, except it now has nearly double the range it did when it first came out as a 2014 model. The people that don’t like the i3 will still not like it. However, those that do like it, now have an even more compelling reason to get one, and that’s about 30% more range than it had in 2018.
One final note. I’d like to thank Chris Chang, General Sales Manager of BMW of Bloomfield, in Bloomfield, New Jersey. Chris arranged for me to take a brand new 2019 i3 he just received in stock for this review, when I couldn’t arrange to get one directly from BMW NA. Chris is a big i3 fan, and does a great job of selling them at his dealership. That’s noteworthy because it’s been well documented that many dealerships, of all brands, are struggling to properly explain and sell their electric offerings. BMW of Bloomfield is doing a great job with their plug-ins, and Chris is the main driving force behind it.