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


A Wolf in Lambs Wool…for the city



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.



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

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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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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… Read more »

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.

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.

This BMW owner agrees 100% with your statement Brian

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.

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… Read more »

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.

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

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

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

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!

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.

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.

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. 😉

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

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

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 ?

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.

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

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….