Automotive

BMW's i3 Could Steal Some of Tesla's Buzz

The carmaker's electric model is the first of planned line of super green machines.
BMW's design legacy is evident in the i3's futuristic styling.

BMW, that bastion of the high-horsepower internal combustion engine, has thrown its hat into the electric car wars with the unveiling of its i3 electric car this week, part of a concerted effort by the Bavarian brand to field an entire electric car platform, of which the i3 is the first. It is scheduled to arrive in showrooms in 2014.

The i3 is BMW’s first all-electric car, and issuing as it does from a mainstream luxury automaker confers an aura of legitimacy to the tiny electric car market -- only 53,000 electric cars were sold in 2012 in a market of 14.5 million. With its exaggerated proportions, massive wheels and over-the-top exterior styling, the car looks like a postmodern repurposing of the BMW 135i coupe.

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With a price tag of $41,350 -- less than half the price of Hollywood’s dominant electric vehicle, the Tesla Model S -- the i3 has a chance to win over Nissan Leaf, Fiat 500e and Chevrolet Volt owners with its mix of low price and outre design. The i3 isn’t an electrified version of a regular car, "but rather a vehicle built and designed from the ground up to be an efficient, affordable and futuristic form of transportation," points out Jalopnik editor in chief Matt Hardigree. "It's aimed at buyers who want something more interesting and lux than a Nissan Leaf but not as expensive as a Telsa Model S."

The i3 is also the first purpose-built electric to be made primarily of carbon fiber reinforced plastic, which is much lighter than steel or aluminum and the underpinning of exotic and far more expensive cars like the Lamborghini Aventador, a nearly $400,000 exercise in speed and ostentation. In keeping with the i3’s eco motif, renewable materials are used throughout -- the dashboard’s wood trim is from responsibly forested eucalyptus trees.

While the i3 looks compelling, it is no Tesla in terms of performance. With its tiny 22-kilowatt, 450-pound lithium-ion powertrain and battery, the i3 can scoot around town for 80-100 miles on a full charge and has a spry 0-60 time of around seven seconds with a top speed of 93 miles per hour. A Range Extender option adds a 34-hp, 650cc two-cylinder gasoline-powered engine that charges the battery but doesn’t power the wheels and boosts range an additional 80 to 90 miles.

The i3 was known during its development as the “megacity vehicle,” and BMW says it was designed specifically for congested city driving. Those looking for a less selfless green Beemer might want to consider the next car in the i-series: the superslinky i8 plug-in hybrid sports car, available later this year, which Hardigree likens to "something Tony Stark would drive if he suddenly found himself transported to the Tron universe."

Except that Tony drives an Audi. For now.