Skip to main content
opinion

BMW i3 REx.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The BMW i3 was by far the weirdest, most radical electric car ever put into mass-production, which also explains why it’s now dead with no heir apparent. There has never been anything like it – a friendly little battery-powered pod made of plastic and carbon fibre – and there probably won’t be anything like it again.

As of 2022 the i3 is being discontinued in Canada, a spokesperson for the company confirmed. The car has been erased from the brand’s website, replaced by higher-priced electric vehicles – the iX SUV and i4 sedan – that will surely be more successful. Newer EVs are better than the flawed i3, but they’re not as optimistic.

To drive an i3 was to enjoy a brief glimpse into a more utopian future, one in which cars are designed for cities and not the other way around. From the driver’s seat the dinky BMW felt very un-car like. The flat wooden dashboard was like a desk and the unusually large windows gave an excellent view of your surroundings, and of cyclists and pedestrians. It offered a counterpoint to gargantuan vehicles that let you roll through a city as if you’re in an armoured personnel carrier. (Hello Tesla Cybertruck.) The i3 took up as little space as possible while still providing room for four people. Some would argue big cities are better off without cars, and the i3 wouldn’t necessarily disagree. Its navigation system could suggest multi-modal routes. For example: park the car there and take the subway to your destination.

The i3 didn’t need to be fun to drive, but it was. In 2013, driving it on the press launch around ordinary suburban streets near Amsterdam, I remember thinking, almost begrudgingly, that EVs are going to be amazing. The little BMW had issues, sure, but it had potential. Apart from Teslas, most other electric cars back then were sad and frumpy with all the charisma of a milk crate, but the i3 could turn on a dime and zip from 0-30 km/h quicker than many sports cars. It was a riot.

To drive an i3 was to enjoy a brief glimpse into a more utopian future, one in which cars are designed for cities and not the other way around.

The idea for the car was born in 2007, when BMW’s management tasked a small group of 20 engineers and designers to create a more sustainable vehicle, something for mega-cities, a product that could future-proof the brand.

The vehicle that emerged years later was strange not just because of the way it looked – either ugly or interesting depending on your taste – but because of how it was made. Tesla used underfloor batteries too, but BMW decided to top the battery pack with an exotic carbon-plastic passenger pod. No other mass-market car is built like that; it’s supercar technology in a family hatchback. Weight is the enemy of EV efficiency, and the lightweight carbon structure helped offset the heavy batteries.

BMW’s Digital Key is evidence we’ll soon be able to control many car features with just our voice

From a used-car price crash to Tesla video games, predictions and resolutions for 2022

After more than a century of making cars more-or-less the same way as the Ford Model T, here was something totally different. But, as it turns out, the vast majority of drivers in North America didn’t want different. Or, at least, they didn’t want the i3, and who could blame them.

The public got its first look at the concept car in 2011, but the final product didn’t land in Canada until 2014. At $44,950 it was cheap for BMW, but pricey for a sub-compact car. Shoppers discovered the i3 only had four seats and an extremely small trunk. Its driving range was around 160 to 200 km on a charge, which – while on par with some half-baked early EVs – limited its usefulness. A nifty i3 hybrid was offered, but it didn’t have significantly more driving range. The car demanded too many compromises.

Like they say about the Velvet Underground, the band didn’t sell many records but everyone who bought one went on to start a band. Many of the people who created the i3 went on to make other ambitious EVs. Ulrich Kranz, who led Project i beginning in 2007, did stints at EV upstarts Faraday Future and Canoo before joining Apple to work on its self-driving car project. Richard Kim, who designed the exterior of the i3, is Canoo’s chief design officer. Simon Ellgas, one of the original engineers, is reportedly working on Google’s self-driving car team. And lead designer Benoit Jacob left BMW for would-be EV maker Byton.

In late 2016, Rich Steinberg, then manager of product planning and strategy for BMW North America, admitted the obvious: the i3′s polarizing looks, price, limited range and the fact fuel prices were low all worked against it.

In the U.S., sales peaked in 2015 at just over 11,000 units and dwindled to less than half that by 2019 and just 1,500 units in 2020, according to GoodCarBadCar data.

“I think we were ahead of the curve and it didn’t quite yield the results we were hoping for,” Steinberg said in 2016. Car company executives are rarely so honest. The i3 wasn’t a total flop. Nevertheless, it prompted some “head-scratching and hesitation to reinvest,” he said.

That explains why the company is now discontinuing the i3 without a direct successor, and perhaps why it’s taken so long for BMW to launch another EV in the U.S. and Canada. The 2022 BMW iX costs roughly double what the i3 did, but it’s much larger and has more than double the range. The iX ditched the carbon-plastic passenger cell so it can be built on any of BMW’s regular production lines. It is, to put it simply, more like a normal SUV.

The EV market in Canada is more than 13 times bigger than it was in 2014. Could an updated i3 with 400 kilometres of range could be a viable product in 2022? We’ll never know.

The shift to electric vehicles seemed, for a moment, like an opportunity to reimagine the automobile, our relationship to it, as well as cities and how we move around them. At the very least it seemed like an opportunity for car designers to go wild.

What’s clear now, a decade after the radical i3 made its debut, is that the shift to electric vehicles isn’t going to change much as far as Canadian drivers are concerned. Big gas-powered SUVs and trucks are slowly being replaced by big electric SUVs and trucks; instead of filling them up you’ll just plug them in – assuming you can find a charger.

Over the last century automobiles shaped cities and suburbs, but, in this century, cities will need to change before cars do.

Shopping for a new car? Check out the new Globe Drive Build and Price Tool to see the latest discounts, rebates and rates on new cars, trucks and SUVs. Click here to get your price.