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BMW i. (Petrina Gentile for The Globe and Mail)
BMW i. (Petrina Gentile for The Globe and Mail)

First Drive: BMW i3

Bimmer's i3 electric vehicle goes the distance Add to ...

All-electric emission-free cars are in fashion. The latest to hit the road is the i3, BMW’s first electric car under the “i” umbrella.

Two years after the i3 concept debuted at the Frankfurt motor show, reviewers finally had a chance to take the car for a spin in Amsterdam.

Powering the i3 is a rear-mounted electric motor, which generates 170 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, and drives the rear wheels via a single-speed transmission.

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The 22 kWh lithium-ion battery pack provides a range of up to 160 kilometres while driving in Comfort mode. But that number can be improved with brake energy regeneration as well as two other driving modes: EcoPro and EcoPro+, which increases the electric range by about 30 per cent to nearly 200 kilometres.

Performance wise, the 2014 i3 isn’t a typical electric car. It’s sporty and fun, true to BMW’s roots. Off-the-line acceleration is instant and quick, launching this little four-seater hatchback from 0-100 km/h in 7.2 seconds.

Lift your foot off the throttle and it immediately slows down. I didn’t have to use the brake often – it was one-pedal driving much of the time. A bizarre sensation, but you quickly get used to it. Comfort mode is more spirited and lively than EcoPro and EcoPro+, but I switched over to extend the range.

Inside, the cabin is eerily quiet. On the road, I worry about driving in Amsterdam’s bustling downtown core littered with pedestrians and cyclists as far as the eye can see. I wonder if they can hear me coming or whether they just don’t care as they defy death and cut off cars from every direction. A makeshift driving course in a closed parking lot lets me test the i3’s manoeuvrability. On the slalom, its weight is evenly distributed with little body roll despite its tall frame and skinny 19-inch wheels. A low centre of gravity and compact size give it a tight turning radius.

What’s most impressive is the i3’s range – it actually corresponds to your real-life driving distance, which isn’t the case with most electric cars. In the past, I have suffered serious range anxiety driving electric cars, which displayed a 140-kilometre range that quickly dropped to 80 km after a five kilometres on the highway listening to the radio. That wasn’t the case with the i3. We started off with a 133-kilometre range, drove two hours and still had about 30 kilometres to spare when we reached our destination thanks to the EcoPro+ mode, regenerative braking and coasting down hills.

There’s no denying driving an electric car in cold Canadian weather has its challenges – using the heater, windshield wipers, seat warmers – all deplete the battery and driving range. If you run out of juice, you’re out of luck. CAA isn’t going to come and bail you out with a can of electricity. But BMW has a solution: an optional range-extender model. It adds a 34-hp, two-cylinder, 650-cc, gas-powered engine to relieve range anxiety. The combustion engine drives a generator to produce electricity, increasing the maximum range by about 300 kilometres.

Charging the i3 is simple – plug into a standard 110-volt outlet for eight to 11 hours for a full charge. You can cut that time to three hours with a wall-mounted charging port installed in your home by BMW.

Visually, designers tried to retain some of BMW’s halo characteristics at the front end, while adding distinct features to distinguish the “i” sub brand. The BMW badge is surrounded by a blue ring specific to the i. The i3 has a long wheelbase, short overhangs on the front and rear, and a so-called “black belt” that runs from the hood over the roof to the rear of the vehicle to create a unique look.

Opposing suicide doors create a large opening to enter the rear seats, but it’s not as easy as it looks to get inside. The roofline is low and it’s easy to hit your head every time you enter the rear – at least, I did. Once inside, there’s sufficient head and legroom for two.

Inside, the i3 isn’t as upscale as other BMWs – cloth seats made of natural fibres and materials made from recycled items are everywhere – all in keeping with the environmental image of the i. Still, the interior is well laid out and well equipped with BMW’s ConnectedDrive tailor-made for EVs, navigation with range assistant and a display of charging stations, cruise control, heated seats, and steering wheel audio controls. BMW’s i Remote app also brings vital driver info about your i3 right to your smartphone.

The i3 will go on sale in the spring of 2014, starting at $44,950. Add another $4,000 for the range-extender engine, which is a must-have in Canada. Thankfully, provincial subsidies are available to offset the high price tag. In Ontario, you can qualify for $8,500 in rebates, $8,000 in British Columbia and up to $5,000 in Quebec.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

Tech specs

2014 BMW i3

  • Type: Four-door, four-passenger, all-electric hatchback
  • Base price: $44,950
  • Engine: 22 kWh lithium-ion battery pack and electric motor
  • Horsepower/torque: 170 hp/184 lb-ft
  • Transmission: Single-speed automatic
  • Drive: Rear-wheel
  • Alternatives: 2015 Audi A3 E-tron, Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Spark EV, Ford Focus Electric, Smart Electric Drive, Mini E, Mitsubishi i-MiEV

Follow on Twitter: @PetrinaGentile

Globe rating for the 2014 BMW i3

Our ratings guide
9.5

Ride

Not your typical ride. Outrageous off-the-line acceleration and range is true to your driving distance, unlike most electric cars.

9

Looks

Retains some of BMW’s halo characteristics at the front end, while adding distinct features such as a blue ring around the BMW badge to distinguish it as an “i.”

7

Interior

Spacious cabin and ample room for four passengers, but getting into the rear seats through the suicide doors is challenging.

8

Safety

Passenger compartment is made of carbon – carbon is as strong as steel, but 50 per cent lighter.

8

Green

All-electric, emission-free – Mother Nature would approve.

9

Overall

(out of 10 / Not an average)

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