BMW's i3 Challenges Tesla for Hollywood's Premium Electric Car Crown

The first car from BMW's division dedicated to "sustainable mobility" is a masterful blend of performance and green aesthetics with a price -- $41,000 -- that could make it Hollywood's next electric car du jour.

The first thing you notice about the BMW i3 -- if you've wondered what, exactly, BMW was thinking fielding a stubby all-electric hatchback -- is that it is much more plausible in person than in print.

Yet even as it finally arrives in U.S. dealers this week after years of development, the i3 remains a koan of a car, and it reveals the answer to the riddle of its existence by degrees as you experience it.

The i3's pugnacious snout, dressed in BMW's signature twin "kidney" fascia, reassures that this is not, in fact, a rogue Nissan Leaf. Yet on the i3 those familiar ovoids that in conventional BMWs allow air to flow to the engine are purely decorative -- pop the i3's "hood" and you'll find only a smallish cubby.

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The nearly silent 125 kw motor that drives the i3's rear wheels is hidden in the nether reaches of the aluminum chassis, a material -- along with the carbon fiber that comprises the passenger cabin -- used extensively in modern airliners. As on the flying machine, both provide strength, rigidity and weight reduction, allowing this greenest of BMW's driving machines to weigh in at a svelte 2,700 pounds, 300 less than a Prius, helping make possible a respectable range of 80 miles on a single charge. (An optional two-cylinder gasoline motor that recharges the battery while driving roughly doubles that.)

Both the i3 and i8 high-performance plug-in hybrid sports coupe arriving later this year were conceived as part of BMW's Project i,  launched in 2007. Project i's mission statement of sustainable mobility informs the production of both cars throughout, from manufacture --which BMW claims uses 50 percent less energy and 70 percent less water compared to conventional factories -- to the materials in the passenger cabin, which rely heavily on natural fibers and reclaimed materials.

In the i3 this translates into open-pore curved eucalyptus surfaces on the dash, fibers derived from kenaf (a highly sustainable plant in the cotton family) for the door panels, and seats upholstered in leather tanned with olive leaf extract. Fully 25 percent of the weight of the plastic used in the interior comes from recycled materials or from renewable sources.

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While this might sound excessively granola-driven, the cabin's break with the leather-chrome-birdseye-maple luxury-car leitmotif seems premium without the pretension, like checking into a junior suite at a four-star Swedish spa. For a car 1.5 feet shorter than the Leaf, the cabin feels remarkably spacious. There is no central "tunnel" dividing the interior as in other electric cars, and the seating is raised to give drivers and passengers an expansive perspective. The usual instrument cluster and infotainment stack are replaced by two rectangular screens; the latter seems to float above the climate controls and is controlled by BMWs once-maligned but now fairly intuitive iDrive module. Access to the rear seat is eased by a pair of "suicide" doors hinged at the rear that will be familiar to anyone who's ridden in a vintage Lincoln Continental or a new Rolls-Royce Wraith.

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The i3's wonky exterior styling might suggest otherwise, but once the traction-controlled wheels start turning, the car reveals its BMW parentage with typically taut handling and muscular acceleration, with zero to 62 in about 7 seconds and a top speed of 93 m.p.h. Despite its size, the i3 feels substantial and centered on the open road. But BMW purpose built the i3 as a "megacity" car expressly to negotiate the clotted traffic, impossible parking and other indignities of driving in Rome, London, Tokyo...or Los Angeles. The relatively swift charging times --six hours from a standard household outlet, 30 minutes from a 50KW fast charge -- and decent range would seem to bode well for the car in EV-literate cities like L.A. 

BMW has a lot riding on the i3 and i8, having seven years ago made the corporate decision to future-proof the marque in the face of tightening emission standards and dwindling natural resources. The great unknown is whether the public will embrace automobiles that wear their eco-cred as prominently as the propeller badge attached to the hood of every BMW. Given Tesla's runaway success in Hollywood with its Model S--and with its comparably priced Model E sedan still mired in development and years from production--the answer to the koan of the i3 would seem to indicate BMW might be on to something.