The brand-new, all-electric BMW i3 just got here, and it's already driving away with awards, winning two categories at the 2014 World Car of the Year Awards (World Green Car and World Car Design) and two categories in the first U.K. Car of the Year Awards (Car of the Year and Best Supermini).
Light but powerful engine
All the hoopla is because of the i3's revolutionary use of aluminum/carbon fiber construction to keep the weight down (2,900 pounds) and the range up: 80-100 miles on a single three-hour charge. The motor is good for 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, which BMW claims will propel the i3 to 60 mph in just 7.2 seconds.
(Drivers choosing what BMW calls "Eco Pro" and "Eco Pro Plus" modes will eke out an additional 12 percent to 25 percent improvement in range, and an optional two-cylinder gas engine powers the electric motor an additional 300 or so miles.)
The i3's chassis is also revolutionary, using a carbon fiber "tub" — familiar to supercar aficionados — to house the passenger compartment. The trend toward carbon fiber is irreversible and explains BMW's investment in a Washington state manufacturing plant to expand the material's use and, therefore, lower the cost.
A roomy interior
The four-seat interior is surprisingly spacious, unless you have two 6-footers sitting in front. Niceties abound, such as the rear-hinged rear doors that open the cabin up for easy access, and the free-floating iDrive screen that looks like something out of "Blade Runner." Four levels of interior design offer an increasingly rich experience, starting with the basic Atelier level and moving up through Loft, Lodge and Suite — the last two offering sustainable eucalyptus wood for the dash panel. The base price is $41,350 ($45,200 with gas engine range extender).
Pros and quirks of going electric
Because it's an electric car, acceleration is instantaneous and plentiful. Handling is superbly balanced and the i3 feels BMW-solid and confident. The turning radius is incredibly tight, making the i3 well-suited for city driving. Overall visibility is great, and there's no vacuum-cleaner whoosh to signal your arrival. In fact, there's hardly any sound at all, which is kind of eerie, especially on the highway. You just get in and go, silently.
With state-of-the-art engineering like this comes a need to get used to things like BMW's regenerative braking system. More so than the Tesla or the Volt, significant braking begins the instant you take your foot off the accelerator. Once you're used to it, though, the i3 becomes a single-pedal car, and brake pads should last a bazillion years. On the other hand, when idiot tailgaters use your rear red lights as their cue to stop, some angry finger-pointing might ensue.
The column-mounted shifter looks like it came straight out of "Forbidden Planet," which is very cool, but its operation is a little less so. Rotate to go backward or forward. But wait — you have to punch a button on top of the fixed stalk to park, then punch another button on the stalk's face to turn the car on or off. What? Is this really necessary?
But those are minor quibbles. As usual, BMW is in it to win it with the i3 and has thrown down the gauntlet of "ultimate driving machine" to the entire electric car industry. Luddites, beware: The future is here, and it's got BMW written all over it.
Where to find it
BMW of Catonsville
6700 Baltimore National Pike, Baltimore 21228
BMW of Towson
700 Kenilworth Drive, Towson, 21204
BMW of Bel Air
1705 Conowingo Road, Bel Air, 21041