Is The BMW i3 The New Isetta?

MAY 20 2015 BY STAFF 48



BMW i3

BMW i3

Over sixty years ago, BMW bought a then rights to produce a tiny little Italian car called the Isetta. It was a massive hit in Europe, selling over 160,000 units. It brought BMW back from the brink of bankruptcy. The Isetta was a cheeky, fun little car that, despite its 70 mpg, Americans seemed to dislike.

There seems to be a consensus amongst American enthusiasts that if a car has any fewer than eight-cylinders under its hood, it isn’t worthy. So the little Isetta, despite its overwhelming admiration across the Atlantic, never got the love it deserved here in the States simply because it was a small little car with less than 400cc’s under its bonnet.

*Editor’s Note: This post appears on (and is the opinion of) BMWBLOG. Check it out here.

It was a misunderstood car in the States, the little Isetta. I think BMW currently has a similarly misunderstood car at this very moment — the i3.

The i3 has won over journalists the world over and has won many awards. Yet despite all of its brilliance and innovation, Americans still seem to steer towards the Tesla. At least for now. While the Tesla doesn’t have eight-cylinders, or any for that matter, Americans still prefer it because its batteries are bigger than the i3’s, making it more powerful and giving it a better range. It’s also a much bigger. But like the Isetta before it, the i3’s goal isn’t to create the biggest and best numbers on a spec sheet. The i3 was designed to push the automobile forward and introduce a new way of thinking about the automobile.

The Tesla is a remarkable car, there’s no two ways about it. But the Tesla seems like an old-school way of thinking about the electric car. It’s massive and heavy, with the biggest motors and batteries Elon Musk can fit. There’s no doubt Musk, and his engineers, are working towards a better, more efficient way. And I don’t doubt that Musk and Tesla will be a huge part of creating a new future for the automobile. But as it stands now, the i3 is the car that looks toward the future, by being different. Just like the little Isetta.

Categories: BMW


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48 Comments on "Is The BMW i3 The New Isetta?"

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Problem with i3 is that it is very ugly! An electric car does not have to be ugly and unusual looking. And that’s one of he key points leading to Tesla’s success (among others):-)

Not this tired line again.

The i3 is gorgeous to my eyes. Muscular if stout, sleek, futuristic. Stop trotting out opinion as if it were fact.

It is not a fact . . . but it is certainly a very common opinion.

+1 – Agreed. The i3 looks really cool. And there’s not a single car ever been produced that somebody didn’t think was ugly.

there are a lot of (what i consider to be) weird looking cars out there…but they tend to sell for half the price of the BMW i3.

I3 is Fugly

Klingons could never die with honor in an Isetta. 😛

But seriously, Americans just like cars with full sized tires. And waterproof frunks.

I didn’t by the i3 because the Nissan Leaf fits my needs better than the BMW 95% of the time… and for $10k less.

. . . . . ditto . . . .

Leaf: DC quick charging. $1000’s less.

Like the i3 a lot, but no go!

“…despite all of its brilliance and innovation, Americans still seem to steer towards the Tesla…”

The BMW i3 is production limited. Implying that demand is low for the i3 requires ignorance.

Granted, the i3 breaks new ground in its use of carbon fiber and employs some noteworthy structural engineering. But it is demonstrably false to claim that it introduces “a new way of thinking about the automobile.” The EV version is just that — another EV. And the Rex version simply follows in the Volt’s footsteps — and in a piss-poor way, at that.

Move along folks. Nothing to see here.

It’s a new way of thinking on how the car is built… from the materials used, the renewable energy in the plants, to the driver experience (you have to sit in it to understand that part).

Anyone who thinks the reason Americans didn’t go for the Isetta doesn’t understand American car culture at all. Americans identify themselves with their cars; they want their cars to represent what they’d like to be. An incredibly tiny (by American standards), weak, very unstylish car is something we would never go for. The closest thing Americans ever came to loving a European microcar was the VW Beetle, and even that car — scarcely shorter than a full-sized car, despite its compact-sized interior — came to be associated more with counterculture than mainstream American culture. Contrariwise, the BMW i3 isn’t a “dorkmobile” like the Isetta. But where’s the appeal? Setting aside the rather outre looks (“ugly” is in the eye of the beholder, just like beauty), it has very nearly the same range as the Leaf, at twice the price. Why pay 59% of the price of a Tesla (ignoring any incentives) to get a car with only a third of the range of a Tesla? If you want cheap, go for the Leaf. If you want luxury and range, go for the Tesla. The BMW i3 is awkwardly in the middle, appealing to neither group. I find it odd that… Read more »

Oops… editing error.

Anyone who thinks Americans didn’t go for the Isetta merely because it didn’t have a huge motor… doesn’t understand American car culture at all.

I wouldn’t want to get into a accident in one of them on a American road in the 1960’s or even now.

yeah, the range is the only thing that stops me from getting one, I’ll keep my cheap leaf.

Yes, yes, yes, especially on the notion that the i3 is a car stuck in the middle, and therefore doesn’t present a compelling value proposition. If my Leaf were to disappear today (stolen, crushed by an alien spaceship, whatever), forcing me to shop for a replacement, I wouldn’t consider an i3 simply because in terms of cold, hard utility/$ it’s a bad deal. A Tesla would be out because of the price and the lack of a service center acceptably close.

And for the record, I like the looks of the i3, and I have a real affection for BMWs in general, having at one time owned a 325is that I loved and hated to part with years sooner than planned. But the basic feeds and speeds of the i3 means it makes less sense for me than simply buying or leasing another Leaf, in my hypothetical situation.

The i3 is definitely a step forward in manufacturing a car, but it is the “me too” car for everything else.
It has the same or less range than every EV except the iMiev.
It has a next to useless range extender (in the US) compared to cars like the Volt or any plug hybrid.
At a time when almost every EV maker is working on extending range, BMW give us the i3.

Not everything else, but everyone else- 6 billion elses.

BMW’s internal project name (and public name, briefly) was MCV (Megacity Vehicle), the first new release in the Megacity Project. Yet, the US has one megacity, NY/NJ/SW CT, and San Fernando/LA/Orange is borderline. Is this a hard concept? No, Seattle is not a megacity. Yakima is definitely not a megacity, that’s delusional.

Not everything is meant for everybody. And not everyone’s heard of Betteridge’s Law, apparently.

I hadn’t until you mentioned it. Now I’ll know to ignore any article that has a headline ending with a question mark. 🙂

Sorry. The i3 is nothing like the Isetta. That would be the Google car.

The i3 is clearly the Citroen 2CV of the 21st century.

We test drove the i3 Rex. Best car in 30 years. If none of the 200 mile range EVs coming down the pike are as small and efficient as the i3, we’ll be buying a used one. Should be pretty affordable in two years.

“Best car in 30 years”
Did you drive a Tesla yet?

Way too big. The efficiency sucks. Only for the rich.

My electric assist bike is over 100 times more efficient. Yesterday I rode 30 miles to a restaurant in the country, overlooking rolling hills. I ate a fabulous lunch on the patio for what the electricity to charge an 85 kWh Tesla would cost me.

Oops! Make that 33.7 times as efficient. More coffee needed.

27 times, using the numbers from your post below. But who’s counting? (Oh, right, you are.)

I notice you didn’t answer the question.

Your fabulous lunch at the restaurant on the patio only cost you $1.19? What did you tip, a nickel?

Because $11.90 is about what 85 kilowatt hours costs. Fourteen cents a kilowatt hour. And that $11.90 gets more than 400 miles at the pace you surely took on your electric cycle. If your trip was 30 miles, that’s definitely under about a buck and a half worth of electricity in a Tesla, including charging inefficiencies, to ride in comfort.

If you’re going to distort reality by considering only the efficiency, then at least get the competitive comparison correct so that everyone (including yourself) can see you’re burning valuable hours quibbling over pennies and nickels in a cost equation typically rounded to nearest dollars.

The Isetta – Google pod is a great comparison Warren, one that I hadn’t considered but now won’t be able to forget.

I have to agree with Philip though. Although I respect and admire BMW for the i3 innovation, the “best car in 30 years” award would have to go to the Tesla Model S.

That’s a game changer.

Just got back from a 66 mile lunch ride. Used 776 Wh. Even with a cheap Chinese charger that is under one kWh, less than 13 cents from the wall. I dare Michael to drive these back roads at 20 mph in a Tesla. Redneck truckers will run you in the ditch. 🙂

Sorry, I don’t see Tesla S changing anything. It is a huge, inefficient vehicle to haul around one or two people the vast majority of the time. Only the very rich could ever own one. Everyone else will be paying interest to borrow it from the finance company, like the vast majority of Americans do now.

Spending hours a day sitting in and working to rent a vehicle, just for the privilege of getting to your job, is a lousy way to run a country. But that bit of history is almost over.

I was pretty excited five years ago when it looked like Aptera, Edison2, and others might actually produce the electric equivalent of 100 mpg cars. But government incentives intended to maximize battery size instead if efficiency sent us down a dead end. We will fritter away the next 10-20 years on electrifying our 1950’s fantasy, until the ice sheets slide into the sea.

Let’s accept your premise that you have to compare a Model S at 70 mph to your electric assist bike number. That works out to around 21 kWh or about $2.73 worth of juice. I think Michael’s point about missing the forest for the trees still applies, even playing by the rules you’ve proposed.

I have to say, when I saw your “Way too big. The efficiency sucks. Only for the rich” post, I assumed it was tongue-in-cheek and you were riffing on the famous “No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame” quote. (If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the reason given by the technorati of the time for why the iPod was doomed to fail.)

I ride electric bikes every day too Warren. And I love that they are so efficient. But when I want to get from Seattle to Mt Shasta or further south, they don’t work too well (I do sometimes go on distance trips on the bikes, but for recreation, not transportation).

The Tesla does very well on 1,000 mile trips. Efficiency is not really the only metric. Safety counts too. I feel great, but not so safe, on my electric bikes. Especially at night.

Try your electric cycle in a heavy thunderstorm. Or even a strong rain. Or high winds. Or a dust storm. Try it at night.

Try your 66 mile electric cycle ride in 35 degree weather, as it is frequently for five months out of the year in most of the country.

Try your electric cycle ride when you don’t have all day to kill.

Try it when you have a sprained ankle.

And don’t even think redneck truckers won’t run you over even more easily and even more probably than someone in a Tesla who is going 20 miles per hour.

Fatal bicycle accidents are far more common per mile traveled than fatal car accidents, and barring a single high speed incident of a stolen Tesla, there has not been a fatal Tesla accident.

Do you really want to continue the argument that Tesla cars are evil because they have the size to be most useful to some buyers?

Standard electric cars continue the lie that we can have happy motoring on into the future. Our current lifestyle is totally unsustainable, and will end within the lifetime of our children. The only question is how bad will it be. Pretending we don’t need immediate and drastic changes, on the level of WW II is condemning future generations.

What does the i3 do that is so remarkable? It uses carbon fiber, making it the cheapest car to do so, but it doesn’t have any longer range than the much older Nissan Leaf, so there’s no real advantage. The future is doing what Nissan did five years ago, for $10k more? No…

On the other hand, the Tesla can fully replace an ICE, and THAT’S remarkable. Having an EV charging infrastructure that allows you to drive across the country instead of staying in the city, that’s remarkable. Having available seating for seven in a sedan, that’s remarkable. Making a car slightly lighter, but not increasing its range… that’s unremarkable.

I would add that having a ridiculous amount of trunk space is also a key differentiator. GM had the right idea with the skateboard chassis. Glad that Tesla actually did something with the idea.

Compare the interior space of the Volt and the Tesla – it’s just astonishing the the differences those two approaches deliver.

The very real advantage of the i3 is its efficiency. A big, heavy and not very efficient vehicle that only the top 3% can afford is no solution to the bigger problems of climate change and dependency on fossil fuels.

No adult wants to drive a Little Tike:

The tires of this thing may be smaller in diameter, but they are much wider than the i3’s 😉

As if now several different things need to happen before they can even get the idea that the BMW i3 will sell a 100,000 cars a year.

The first thing is raise the range to 200 miles considering you are paying $42,000 for it double that of a leaf and yet it only has the range of a leaf.

The second thing is build 10,000 CSS Quick chargers or offer a Chamo to CSS atampter and then build 10,000 quick chargers.

The last thing you have to cut the price to 35,000.

Other then that I did ride in one of these cars and I liked it’s power and the looks were not to bad.

Any excuse is a good time to talk about the quirky cool isetta. Economy cars in general have never been that pop here in the states. Even the Nash Metropolitan or the Ramblers were never pop. FIne economical cars for their days but not popular. Mericans seem to like to drive yesterdays tech today. Fat, stupid, Hummers and other brain dead truck tech from the 40s or 50s. 90% of them that have to be able to haul 8 butts and tow 6000 lbs rarely if ever do actually. i3 has many features but for the money… eGolf is as nice a car… Leaf is a nice car, Soul EV is a fine car, iMiev is a nice little cheap electric car… other than the CF plastic body it is not remarkable. Thus you have to want the BMW cache to make it worth it. I drove it. Liked it and then bought another LEAF. Would have bought an iMiev if they had offered a somewhat denser battery pack to go more miles than Soul EV. Additionally the BMW and VW have the wrong DC Quick charger sockets on them. They would have been much more useful with CHAdeMO connections… Read more »

The Smart Electric Drive is far more oriented towards the “just enough to get the job done”. It is small, efficient, and less energy used to produce it than any other EV.

The BMW i3 is nice, but over priced and therefore not a good comparison to the Isetta.

You can buy two Smart ED’s for one i3.

I think the better comparison to the Isetta would be the MB Smart car. It, too, is quite popular in Europe but flopped in the US.

I agree with most of what Jeff S. said. I myself opted to lease the FIAT 500e based on range. RANGE! Other than the Tesla and Toyota RAV4EV there was no car that had better range at a price that was acceptable. Had the Soul EV been around 20 months ago that would have been the one. While the Leaf broke the ice for making EV’s acceptable, the Tesla made the EV desirable. Tesla showcased the fact that American engineering is capable of producing a compelling, efficient, reliable, BEAUTIFUL and therefore desirable vehicle that most of us would love to own. While it may be more than many of us would care to afford, it has at least fueled the conversation of what is possible in an EV that can truly make ICE unnecessary. BMW on the other hand, with all their engineering prowess, took their 1 series based ActiveE that I believe had near 100 mile range and wrapped it up in a so called efficient CF cocoon that doesn’t improve on what they learned other than manufacturing processes that are meaningless to the consumer. No greater range, no desirable got to have it body, so no dice…

Both cars can be considered a part of BMW’s “Think different” approach, but they are also very different in their inception. BMW inherited the Isetta design and improved upon it in a post WWII ravaged Germany while the i3 was born at times when both Germany and BMW are at the top of their game.

The i3 is a great car and it is critical that BMW keeps improving upon it unlike VW with the XL1.

Despite the whiney diatribe in this article, Americans aren’t all the piggish energy waster the Europeans make us out to be. We buy around 1,000 BMW i3s per month, which used to be more than the entire Eurozone. We would probably buy a lot more i3s, if the car had more range and less-polarizing looks.

Tesla beats the i3 in sales for the obvious reasons that it is gorgeous, has range and performs like a high-end luxury car. Yes, it is big, but so is the 7-Series BMW that it competes with. The i3 is no competition for Tesla, which is why Elon Musk chuckled at it. Maybe, if they improve the styling and double the range, it could compete with the Model 3.

Jay gave the biggest insult I’ve ever seen against the I3. BMW of course at the time had to produce anything it could, being manufactured in bombed out Germany. But comparing a 1 cylinder 13 hp car to the 2 cylinder I3 is a huge insult. The early nes didn’t even have a reverse gear. The 4 cylinder, 25 horsepower VW ‘type A’ (Beetle) was essentially unchanged from the 1930’s until the late 50’s /early 60’s when the hp ramped up to 36 and then 40 in my 1964 version. Jay Leno test drove a very old restored beetle and it seemed almost identical in ride and sound to my ’64, which millions loved. I believe it is THE most popular car of all time, and not because it had much power, nor accoutrements, but mainly because it was fun to drive, substantially built, not too expensive to fix, and was a very practical, finished design, and very affordable. (I believe VW’s first mistake was ‘Americanizing’ the car in later years, making everything bigger and more gadgety, something their advertising used to pick fun at other cars). Its high profile meant even very large males could sit comfortably in the… Read more »