BMW i3 at LA Auto Show: Driving Impressions & Details


First Drive of BMW i3

BMW i3 First Drive

It’s been a long time coming, but I finally got to drive an i3.

From ActiveE to i3...The Transition Starts Soon

From ActiveE to i3…The Transition Starts Soon

I’ve actually been getting tired of having journalists contact me and ask me for my opinion of it on the road compared to the MINI-E and ActiveE and having to tell them I haven’t had the opportunity to drive one yet!

So, did it live up to my (high) expectations? Yes, it did.

It’s certainly not “the perfect EV,” but in my opinion it does do more things better than any other electric vehicle that cost less than $70,000. And yes, the $70,000 is the threshold mentioned because slightly above that, (actually $72,240) is the starting point before incentives for the least expensive Model S you can buy in the US.

Though Impressive, the Tesla Model S Should Not be Considered a Direct Competitor to the BMW i3

Though Impressive, the Tesla Model S Should Not be Considered a Direct Competitor to the BMW i3

Price is worth mentioning here because since the i3 has launched, there have been endless comparisons between it and the Model S. My contention is that they are both excellent electric vehicles and while there will be inevitable comparisons and even some cross-shopping, they are really vastly different cars and if they weren’t both electric, would never be compared. The i3’s base price is $42,275. That’s $29,965 or about 40% less than a base Model S and that alone should end the need to compare them. However, I feel it was important to touch on this because everybody else is. These are both excellent EV’s, but they serve different masters. The one thing fascinating about the Model S is that it’s such a great electric vehicle, that every other electric vehicle that comes along will now be compared to it, well done Tesla.

In addition to my test drives, I had the opportunity to sit down and interview just about every BMW representative there and I will do a future blog post dedicated to at least one of those interviews. However, here I’m going to focus on my thoughts on the driving experience and answering the many questions about the i3 I’ve received in the past few weeks in the form of comments, personal emails or posts on the BMW i3 Facebook page or in the BMW i3 forum, both of which I am the administrator of.

Optional Wide Nav Looks Impressive

Optional Wide Nav Looks Impressive

BMW had fifty identical i3’s at the LA Auto Show for test drives. They were all exactly the same color, had the 20″ wheels, the top of the line Tera World interior and had every available option the i3 will offer. I later found out from BMW NA i3 product manager Jose Guerrero that these cars were actually the very first i3’s to roll off the assembly line and that they were pre-production vehicles and European spec so they had to be updated with US charging ports, navigation software and other small modifications so they could be used here in the US for test drives. Also, after the LA Auto show these cars will gradually filter to dealers all over the US so depending on where you live your local BMW dealer may get one soon for demonstration and test drives.

Lined Up and Ready to Go

Lined Up and Ready to Go

What about the range extender?

Looks Fairly Spacious Doesn't It?

Looks Fairly Spacious Doesn’t It?

Unfortunately, none of the cars had range extenders, so I can’t answer many of the REx questions I’ve had like: “How quiet is it?, Can you feel the vibrations when it’s on? and What MPG does it deliver?” I did learn some new details which I’ll discuss later in the post though.

I will say this though because the question of how robust the range extender is has been a common theme on every website that has an i3 discussion. At a private event on Thursday that BMW held for the ActiveE drivers that question was brought up and Jacob Harb, BMW’s North American manager of sales and strategy for electric vehicles said he wanted to straighten out the confusion around a comment that a BMW representative once said, and that was that the REx wasn’t meant for daily use. Jacob said you can certainly use it every day if you need to, but that BMW didn’t envision the car being used by someone that has a 120 or 130 mile daily commute. The car could do it, but if your daily driving needs were this extensive then perhaps a different vehicle might be a better choice.

He was then asked about taking it on a long drive and refilling the take and continuing to drive. Again he said that BMW doesn’t really envision people using the car like that all the time, but technically it’s perfectly capable of doing so. He even said that technically speaking, you could drive an i3 from New York to LA simply by stopping for gas every 50 or 60 miles and refueling, and then qualified it by saying “But I don’t know why anybody would want to do that.” and personally I agree. 😉

Driving in LA:

Time to Stop for a Photo Op

Time to Stop for a Photo Op

I actually had the opportunity to drive it twice and to do a ride along once so I probably spent a collective 20 miles in them. I had a press pass so I registered for a press drive and then at the ActiveE event we were all allowed one test drive plus I rode along when fellow Electronaut Todd Crook took his turn. On the first drive, BMW handed me a course that they wanted the press to follow. It was basically a 3 mile loop that had you driving five blocks and turn right four times and you ended back where the ride originated from which was the Staples Center parking lot.

You were alone, so you could of course vary from the course if you “got lost”. Being from New Jersey and never having driven in LA before I found it difficult staying on course and accidentally drove a little longer. It was pretty much what I expected it to be. Very quick, (we were told it does 0-60 in 7.0 seconds) very quiet (quieter than the ActiveE for sure), it has very responsive steering, an amazingly short turning radius and the braking was probably the best I’ve ever experienced. I practiced some emergency stops in a parking lot and the car stopped in exceptionally short distances. I can’t wait to see official road tests when they measure braking distances. I predict it will deliver some of the shortest braking distances of any car on the road today.

Time to Put Some Miles on the Odometer

Time to Put Some Miles on the Odometer

I really didn’t get the chance to push the handling because of the LA city environment but I did have some fun weaving in and out of traffic, sprinting from streetlight to streetlight and mashing the accelerator to the floor at every opportunity. I don’t know how it will do auto crossing (yet), but I give it an A+ for making the most fun you can out of city driving. I even tried out the Parking Assistant and it worked perfectly. I also purposely hit every pothole there was – and incidentally LA doesn’t have nearly as many of them as we do in New York, and the car absorbed them without a problem and I didn’t hear any unusual rattles or noises that I’ve read a few other journalists report when driving over bumps.

Backup Camera in Action

Backup Camera in Action

The regenerative braking was about 10% weaker than it is on the ActiveE, but it’s still by far the strongest regenerative braking on any electric vehicle. I’d say the Volt in low driving mode and the Model S are tied for 2nd, but the i3 has stayed true to BMW’s promise of having the strongest regen in the industry which really allows for “one pedal driving”. Like on the ActiveE there is what BMW calls a glide mode (basically the ability to coast to improve efficiency). By slightly easing back on the accelerator, the motor decouples and the car freewheels. While this isn’t what you would normally need in a city driving environment, it will come in handy at higher speeds on the freeway. By easing back a bit more on the accelerator the motor then reengages and the regenerative braking grabs.

Generous Load Bay

Generous Load Bay

The seats were comfortable and supportive and felt like they would do fine holding you in place during spirited driving but definitely don’t grab you into place like seats in a sports car would. This, plus the lack of a center tunnel on the floor does allow you to easily slide across to the other side of the car and exit out of the passenger side if you wanted to, which I did just to see how easy it would be.

The back seats have plenty of room for two big adults. I even brought along three passengers on my second test drive to see how we all fit and if the extra 600+ lbs would effect the driving dynamics. The car was slightly slower as you would expect but the handling felt just as good as when I was driving alone but again, I couldn’t push it much on the streets of LA but I did make some rapid lane changes at about 40 mph and the car felt precise and planted even with the full load.

What was learned:

As I mentioned above I’ve had a lot of people ask me i3 questions recently and I promised I’d do my best to get answers once I drove the car and had the opportunity to speak to the program managers again. Without listing the specific questions here the answers to most of what I’ve been asked:

  • The range extender engine is liquid cooled, but it’s a different system and coolant than what is used for the battery management system. In fact, the i3 REx has three separate cooling systems. One for the BMS, one for the passenger cabin and one for the REx engine. The battery pack uses air conditioning refrigerant and the REx engine uses conventional liquid coolant.
  • Waste heat from the REx is not used to heat the cabin.
  • In the US the heat pump is standard on all BEV i3’s, but it’s not available on the i3 REx. BMW doesn’t believe it’s a necessary option if you have the range extender.
  • Yes, you can certainly precondition the the cabin (heat or cool) and the battery even if you have the REx (Two people from the UK asked me this so evidently there is inaccurate info somewhere there)
  • European delivery will not be offered on the i3.
  • There are no optional interior color choices. Each interior level only comes in the color shown. So you can’t for instance get the Terra World with gray interior, it only is available in the brown leather like the pictures shown above.
  • The REx does not turn on until the state of charge is under 5%. It is robust enough to maintain the charge under all but the most strenuous conditions. You can manually shut it off so it doesn’t turn on at all for instances when you know you’ll make your destination on battery alone. If you do so it resets once you turn the car off and on again. This way you can’t forget you shut the REx off.
  • The REx has start/stop technology and shuts off when you are driving under 10mph unless the SOC is so low that it needs to stay on to get the car to 5% SOC. This is so that the car remains quiet at low speeds and while parked. This means you can’t park the car with the REx on and let it charge up for a while.
  • There is no speed limiter when the REx is running, but there is when you choose Eco Pro+ mode. In Eco Pro+ mode you are limited to 56 mph (BMW has provided us with an update on this aspect of the i3.  In Eco Pro+ mode, US versions of the i3 will not be speed limited). Jose Guererro showed the ActiveE group a picture of the speedometer he took while driving an i3 with the REx running and he was going about 70-75mph (I don’t remember exactly) he also said the car was maintaining the charge without a problem at that speed.
  • Heated seats are optional, and this was a bit of a head scratcher: You can’t precondition the passenger cabin with heat unless you get the seat heater option. I don’t get that at all, but that’s the way it is. Anyone that lives in an area that has cold temperatures during the year simply must get the heated seats option in my opinion or they will regret it later.
  • The rear seats fold down completely flat and split 50/50.
  • Comfort Access is standard with Giga and Tera World trim packages, as is the sunroof.
  • The battery pack is comprised of 8 modules which each have 12 individual cells. The cells are supplied by Samsung but BMW assembles the modules in house.
  • You have to get the Parking Assistant package to get the rear view camera, it’s not a standalone option.
  • US orders will begin in January, not in November as previously reported.
  • i3’s bound for the US will begin production in March, likely arrive in the US for delivery sometime in April.

*End note: For more on BMW i3, including additional images, check out Tom’s blog by clicking here.

Categories: BMW, Test Drives

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

63 Comments on "BMW i3 at LA Auto Show: Driving Impressions & Details"

newest oldest most voted

Glad you finally got your drive.

Thanks for your thoughts and the updated delivery info.

Thanks Tom for the awesome i3 review, I can’t wait to get behind the wheel for this car myself.

“BMW didn’t envision the car being used by someone that has a 120 or 130 mile daily commute”.
It would seem to me that the i3 would be the best option available, in that case, after a Model S.
With any other plug-in hybrid/EREV you would have a much shorter battery range, so you would have to burn much more gas. Not to speak of non plug-ins…
And the fact that you would be using all the battery capacity every day (or most days) just means that you would have the biggest possible savings and repay the price premium for the car earlier.
Besides, there is the possibility that, at some point, it will become possible to plug-in at work, and make the return trip as well on zero gas.
Am I missing something?

In that scenario, you would need to stop at the gas station to fill up almost every day. Not too appealing to me.

If you can charge at work, then you could be fully electric for 120-130 miles.

I forgot to say that I enjoyed very much the review – very useful, as usual. Great. Yes, that’s certainly a point. Of course, everyone has its own priority. For me, to stop even every day at a pump, if on my way (extremely likely, on a 120 miles trip), would be a price I would not mind much paying, in order to be able to drive an i3. It would just be a 2-3 minutes extension of a one and a half – two hours driving, anyway. The only other option I would consider (apart from a Model S) would be a Volt or Ampera (which I also like), since I would not be happy with a lower battery range plug-in hybrid (for the given scenario, at least). In that case, visits at the pump will be much more rare, of course. The main advantage of the i3, though, would be the still lower emissions, very important to me. And, of course, I like very much the i3. That’s certainly an important aspect as well. Also, here in Europe, the i3 would be the most economical choice (actually, not only respect to an Ampera, but, I believe, respect to… Read more »

I wonder what is the cheapest you can get an i3 + rex?

Thanks Tom for the comprehensive first look and drive! I like your photos from the website and every new look opens a few new clues as to this unusual animal called an i3. Your insights reinforce that so many things about the i3 are optional. BMW liked to claim the bare min. MSRP ( don’t all car companies? ) but as I’ve stated in the past, it looks as though things like heated seats also come at a great cost as must be packaged in with things you necessarily don’t want. This all adds up, and I’m sure potential i3 buyers will look much more favorably at the Volt after they realize the car packaged the way that would work for them with ReX will run them well north of $50,000. Add to this the expense of owning a BMW / service + parts and the great unknown of fixing minor to mid body accident damage. Things I like more than b4: I dig the Euro-mod house interior look inside. The bentwood rounding up and down under the flat screens. While the implementation of the flat screens I find questionable ( why use a mouse device when touch is more… Read more »

And did I mention the hokey, tiny rear doors? Believe me,
they will be a point of contention to purchasers who don’t
think these types of things through.

To learn what owning a vehicle with rear doors that cannot
be closed until the fronts are opened ( then reverse order the
process )…Just look to extra-cab pickup trucks of the past
and ask owners how many times they *&@#!ed them out
with kids and passengers flailing away at using them. This
feature gives the i3’s cramped rear seats even less utility.
See that newer pickup trucks went to the conventionally-
hinged rear doors in response to owner complaints. The
gains ( aesthetics and a pillarless door ) won’t mean much
when it’s a b*&^# in daily use.

They still make trucks with doors that are that way. I believe it’s called a ford f150 or something. I think they still sell fairly well though.
I test drove a volt, but I couldn’t sit in the back seat without hitting my head off the roof/rear window. I am hoping this isn’t the case with the i3.

All others have skipped the “SuperCab” and gone to a
front-hinged rear door setup. Why? I can rest assured you’ve
never owned one of those extra-cab trucks with rear doors
that have to be shut in sequence. They are a major pain
in your posterior.

Apparantly the tires have plenty of grip, the wheels are large so the patch is long and thin rather than short and wide as is more usual.

Too poor aero, too heavy, too slow, too expensive and not that good looking. Any questions.

Too Slow? really? have you even driven it? the thing is SUPER FAST, quicker than an M3, i bet its even head to head with a 60kw Model S

Faster than a Tesla 60 Kwh, you are joking right

oh and it looks a lot better in person, and the aero isnt that poor

Nope, no questions. You are dismissed.


cd under 0.3, weighs less than a Toyota Corrolla and almost as quick as an M3. So yes, I have questiobns. How could this or any car meet your expectations???

He’s a troll. Don’t feed him.

There is a video of the i3 out accelerating the M3 so he is definitely not a troll, you are just simply a moron.

Thanks Tom. I was hoping to get out to the auto show last weekend for a test drive, but couldn’t make it.

Tom, how does the interior space compare to the Volt and Leaf? The picture you posted makes it look like the back seats have less leg room than the Volt/Leaf.

i went for a drive in it, the back seats are sort of tight, it will be harder for older people to get in and out but younger people not a problem, and the rear doors have to close first. i’d say the volt and its space are even? the i3 has flat ground so you can slide right to the other side so its not confined like the volt… little more head room in the i3 than the volt.

Great review. Before owning a Tesla, I might have jumped on this car. But now, there seem to be too many ifs, ands or buts compared with a Model S. Yeah, they aren’t in the same league but I hate compromise in a vehicle..

Probably the biggest deye opener to me is the reality of the REX. It doesn’t solve the long distance travel problem which I believe is one of the key issues that people have with owning an EV. I admit I haven’t thought about it much before…

-Waste heat from the REx is not used to heat the cabin.
-In the US the heat pump is standard on all BEV i3′s, but it’s not available on the i3 REx. BMW doesn’t believe it’s a necessary option if you have the range extender.

Why does having a range extender mean you don’t need the heat pump. ?? That doesn’t make sense.

Without REx, saving watts on heating the very important in improving range. With the REx, you have the backup generator that will make up the difference in miles. The biggest reason is that the heat pump is supposedly located in the same spot as the REx.

PS thx for the report Tom. !!

“Waste heat from the REx is not used to heat the cabin.”

“In the US the heat pump is standard on all BEV i3′s, but it’s not available on the i3 REx. BMW doesn’t believe it’s a necessary option if you have the range extender.”

WHAT? So, if you have the REx, you have to use less-efficient heater? How the hell does that make any sense? Even the LEAF SL/SV have a heat pump.

“Heated seats are optional, and this was a bit of a head scratcher: You can’t precondition the passenger cabin with heat unless you get the seat heater option.”

Even the i-MiEV allows pre-heating and pre-cooling your car AND has a heated driver’s seat on the lowest-end model (ES). This is a money-grab.

PS: Thanks, Tom. I enjoyed your write up, even when I don’t appreciate BMW’s packaging. 😉

“Waste heat from the REx is not used to heat the cabin.
In the US the heat pump is standard on all BEV i3′s, but it’s not available on the i3 REx.”


As I stated in my comments re: BMW’s ActiveTourer ( possible plug-in someday ), – these BMWs make the Volt look even more brilliant than before. With things like wide LCD screens and heated seats being optional with bigger packages – and the whole ReX proposition and it’s expense… The good ole American Volt looks better and better. Today, a Volt can be had for a very reasonable price. Not so with this very limited i3. The Volt does away with range anxiety and doesn’t charge you more for it. The inside of the Volt may be a bit more future-cheesy, as the BMW’s interior design is nicely finished off – but when you sit back and contemplate the sheer cost of the BMW – it’s justifiability just goes out the window. The Volt with built-in range-extender just does everything better than i3 with or without ReX. The only thing I’ve concluded is that i3 is a bit quicker 0-60, but since when are you stomping the hell out of the go pedal and expecting it to go far on batteries? So driving like a nut just is counter-intuitive to why you buy an i3 or Volt in the first… Read more »

Agreed – the Volt is certainly a better value for your money. But I’m still considering a BMW i3 for my next car. It will really depend on what the leases end up looking like.

Does it have a Hold Mode or Mountain Mode?

Will it have a 3G or 4G connection? Wifi?

What rate does it charge at on 120V? 240V?



Thanks for all the great information.

It is disappointing that REx’s heat is wasted…

But other than that, it is great.

I am still concerned that 5% buffer is NOT enough to climb the Sierra Nevada and Rocky, especially with heat on…

Sounds like they are hiding the performance with the engine running. I’m suspecting a big performance drop. They are going to 5% state of charge before the motorcycle engine comes on, this sounds fishy now. I hope I’m wrong.


My dealer said we would be able to order, here in Virginia, in January. So can we assume the EPA range ratings will be out by then?

Not necessarily. It won’t be available for delivery until April or May so my guess is the rating won’t come out till March or April

According to BMW sources, the EPA figures could be available a lot sooner than March.

I test drove it at the show and chatted with one of the managers there. He said the EPA figures definitely won’t be announced until spring, shortly before the car is available in the US.

I got in a BMW i3 this morning and it is really worse that what I expected. The doors that can’t close independently, the back seats with only place for two and even that is not comfortable because of the tight foot space. It is a full total mess, I don’t even have to test drive it, it is just completely weird and it would even be for a prototype.

If they wanted to sabotate the EV with Rex concept, they couldn’t do a better job. It is really shameful to dare do something like that.

It has plenty of foot space, what the hell are you talking about? No one listen to this guy.