2016 BMW i3 Quick Review

Critic's notebook takeaway: Plug ugly future shock

BMW i3 review
Brendan McAleer/TheDrive.com

Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff collection of impressions, jottings, and marginalia on whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: The 2016 BMW i3.

I think we can call the i3 weird without offending owners, Bavarians, or Bavarian owners. If the i8 is a fractal rendering of a swan, then here's the fuzzball cygnet before it hit puberty. Pug-nosed and skinny-tired, with an odd greenhouse and a broken up two-tone paint, it's very strange indeed.

But this isn't the otherwise skin-deep futurism of a conventionally-powered Lexus crossover's floating roof line, this is a genuinely futuristic car. Built largely of carbon-fibre and aluminum on a skateboard-like chassis, the i3 is only strange because it's a glimpse of what all BMWs might be like in a couple of decades.

Good news, everyone! The future's not that bad (though there are fewer sarcastic bending robots than expected). The i3 scoots along with excellent initial torque and the steering feels quick to respond. In urban settings, the tall seating position and right-now electric response of 170hp and 184 lb-ft of torque make the i3 easily capable of lickety-split cross-town sprints. People are also a great deal nicer about letting you cut in than if you were driving the foil-wrapped-zucchini on wheels that is the X6M.

Brendan McAleer/TheDrive.com

Leave the concrete jungle for a tarmac thread cutting through a Pacific Northwest rainforest, and the i3's quick steering proves to be slightly fidgety in a straight line. However, the ample torque lets it zip up hills and those skinny-looking tires grip just fine. After some time behind the wheel, the strong braking effect of engine regeneration feels entirely natural. Get back into a conventional internal combustion engined vehicle and regular braking feels like an annoying waste of joules.

Inside, the i3 is quite roomy, with a flat floor and proper seating for four. The rear opening half-doors are tricky to use if everyone's piling out in a tight parking space, and the front doors close with a shimmy rather than a satisfying thunk of solidity. The instrumentation layout is at once interesting enough yet quite conventionally BMW.

This particular version came fitted with BMW's optional range extender, which comes on with a noisy roar when the battery is nearly depleted. The range-extender just about doubles the i3's distance capabilities to 150 miles, and you probably shouldn't bother with it.

Brendan McAleer/TheDrive.com

If you're worried about wandering the wilderness with a jerry-can, looking for electrons, buy a conventional BMW instead. There's nothing wrong with the range-extender in the i3, but it feels like the fake horsehead you used to be able to buy for your newfangled horseless carriage - city-dwellers needn't be afraid of the new technology. I spoke to at least a half dozen long-term i3 owners, and not a single one of them needed more than the 80-odd miles of range their i3 afforded.

In the near future, BMW will sell a lot of crossovers. Further out there on the horizon, the i3 apes the Isetta and theneu klasse by moving the narrative onward. Maybe we're not quite ready for the looks yet, but the rest is right there for the taking.

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2016 BMW i3 w/ REX
PRICE (as tested): $53,915 ($54,310)
POWERTRAIN: 170 hp AC, 22kWh Lithium-ion battery; 647cc 2cyl 34hp range extender
0-60 MPH: 7.0 seconds for pure EV, 7.9 with the range extender
MPG: 127MPGe
STYLING SUGGESTIONS: Attach fake horsehead.