June 9, 2014 9:30 AM | By Jeremy Sinek for MSN Autos

2015 BMW i3 first drive



2015 BMW i3 (© Photo: Jeremy Sinek)
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  • 2015 BMW i3 (© Photo: Jeremy Sinek)
  • 2015 BMW i3 (© Photo: Jeremy Sinek)
  • 2015 BMW i3 (© Photo: Jeremy Sinek)
  • 2015 BMW i3 (© Photo: Jeremy Sinek)
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2015 BMW i3

BMW is going for broke with its new EV division

2015 BMW i3 (© Photo: Jeremy Sinek)

Richmond Hill, Ont. -- Has BMW completely wussed out? BMW, home of the ultimate driving machine, recent creator of a 600-horsepower M5 uber-sedan ... is launching a subcompact, hatchback, electric city car?

It’s almost as if Munich is being inspired by the early 50s, when it manufactured one-cylinder bubble cars for war-shattered Europeans who could finally afford the move up from a bicycle.

A more likely explanation is that BMW has seen the future and is confronting it head-on with a bold conviction unique in the industry. After all, BMW already has a well-established green ethos. For eight straight years it was the top automaker in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index.

And it’s not as if the i3 is sweeping aside the types of driver`s cars that established BMW’s street cred in the first place. BMW i is a new, separate brand. And while the first model on sale is this city runabout, the next will be an exotic sports car, the i8.

BMW says “visionary” a lot in its publicity materials for the i brand. Certainly it isn’t doing anything by halves, here. The i3 is not only 100 per cent new hardware; the way it is made is also totally new. Its sandwich construction places the battery pack and running gear in a low-to-the-ground aluminum structure, atop which sits a passenger cell constructed from ultra-lightweight and strong carbon-fibre -reinforced plastic (CFRP),  with plastic outer panels.

Carbon fibre for the people

2015 BMW i3 interior (© Photo: Jeremy Sinek)

Until now CFRP’s costly and slow manufacturing process limited its use to race cars and high-dollar sports cars, but BMW has devised a process that changes all that. Manufacturing of the carbon-fibre begins in Washington state in a plant powered by hydro-electricity; the plant in Germany that assembles the car is also powered by renewable energy.

In base form the i3 weighs in at 1,195 kg – right in the ball-park with conventional cars that share the same subcompact dimensions. That’s how effectively the i3’s feather-light body construction offsets the mass of its Li-Ion batteries.

The i3’s version of BMW ConnectedDrive makes it the industry’s first fully networked vehicle. The i Navigation is available with a range assistant function that displays how far you can go in any direction, and updates it in real time according to driving style, traffic, topography, and route. It also displays charging stations within range.

A downloadable i Remote App makes your smartphone a mobile extension of your i3, enabling you to remotely monitor and control recharging, and pre-condition the cabin while it’s plugged in.

First and foremost an EV

2015 BMW i3 (© Photo: Jeremy Sinek)

The i3 is designed to be a pure EV, powered by a 125-kW electric motor and an 18.8-kWh battery back. The claimed range is 130-160 km in everyday driving, or up to 200 km if you really feather-foot it. For those who expect to venture further, an optional $4,000 gasoline range extender (generator) boosts those claims to 240-300 and 340 kilometres respectively.

That’s still well below the 500-km range of a typical gas-engined car because the gasoline tank capacity is a paltry seven litres. And paradoxically, the 120-kg mass of the range extender diminishes the i3’s EV range, as well as stretching the 0-100-km/h time from 7.2 to 7.9 seconds.

Our first i3 drive was a 60-km loop around the outer suburbs north of Toronto.  There should be no cause for any range anxiety ... until the gauge panel on my test sample greets me with a range-remaining prediction of 36 km. But then I remember this i3 has the range extender. Another IP read-out predicts 88 km of range on gasoline. Perfect: I’ll be able to experience the i3 in both EV and gasoline modes.

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