BMW’s All-Electric I3 Slips Easily Into New York State of Mind

Automakers love concept cars and, as per usual, you’ll find an oddity or two at this week’s New York International Auto Show. Of those concept vehicles, few are unlikely to ever get off, or rather on, the ground.

Bayerische Motoren Werke AG has teased its own oddity at various auto shows for the past three years, a snub-nosed electric vehicle called the i3. It looked as akin to a regular Bimmer sedan as a duck to a platypus.

Go figure that the i3 heads to U.S. showrooms in May. Officially a five-door model that seats four, it’s roughly the same size as a Mini Cooper Countryman. With a starting price of $41,350, it’s far pricier than the Mini despite a limited range of 100 miles (161 kilometers) or less on a full charge.

Urban dwellers from Shanghai to London, this one’s specifically for you.

Manhattan is the kind of place one might suppose the i3 would be in its glory, so I spent a few days around town in a pre-production i3 just before the auto show. I was curious how BMW-like this car really was.

Would BMW’s city car and Manhattan be a marriage made in heaven, or more of a regular matrimony -- with requisite ups and downs?

Full-On Funky

Designers at Munich-based BMW went for full-on funky. The novelty factor is announced in every angle and detail. A jarring juxtaposition of irregularly shaped body panels, shiny glass and tall skinny tires, the i3 is a free-form jazz composition, sometimes groovy, other times squealing and dissonant. Passersby do an amusing double take, but time will tell whether the i3 will age gracefully or grate on the eye.

The only real clue to its origin as a BMW is the faux (and tiny) twin-kidney grille in front. A grille usually lets in oxygen to allow a gasoline-burning engine to breathe, but no need for that here. The electric motor is in the rear and produces 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. A 22-kilowatt-hour lithium battery pack that weighs 450 pounds (204 kilograms) runs under the floor.

The vehicle has two full-size doors and two sub-doors with rear-facing hinges that open suicide style. The front doors have to be opened first. When you do open the doors, you’ll notice that the sill is an unpainted strip of carbon fiber, one of the car’s exotic calling cards. Along with aluminum, this material keeps weight down and helps to improve range.

The interior is as novel as the exterior. My test model had the Giga World-level interior, a $1,700 surcharge over the base i3. It’s an unlikely mix of unvarnished eucalyptus, wool cloth infused with recycled plastic and a hemplike material. Think of a science-fiction design seen through a 1950s lens. Steampunk for the “Mad Men” set.

Accepting Compromises

I liked it. There is no center console separating driver from passenger -- an advantage of an electric vehicle’s mechanical design -- so there’s copious foot room. The roof is tall and the front window large. The airiness is one of the most desirable aspects of the car.

The back seats are cramped, though, and the rear windows don’t roll down. Rear storage space is also compromised.

In fact, the car is a series of compromises. While Tesla Motors Inc. has proved that it’s possible to make a desirable electric sports sedan -- the Model S is a competitor with the BMW M5 -- the i3 is a different proposition altogether. As a city vehicle, its mandate is circumscribed. With the smaller (and easier to park) footprint, comes less space, a smaller motor and battery pack, and reduced range.

I picked the vehicle up at BMW’s North American headquarters in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, and drove the 20 miles to Manhattan over the George Washington Bridge. The computer told me I had a starting range of 88 miles.

Range is dependent on the type of road, driving style and weather. After our “Game of Thrones”-worthy winter, it was finally temperate out, so the greatest enemy to range was my leaden right foot.

In the future, the i3 will also be available with a 34-horsepower, two-cylinder gasoline engine expressly used to recharge the batteries on the go in emergency conditions. The range extender option will cost about $3,800.

Adaptive Driving

Unlike, say, Daimler AG’s tiny Smart, the i3 does fine on the highway, though top speed is limited to 93 mph. (The doors clunk with authority; this feels like a real car.) It’s even rear-wheel drive, like any BMW should be. Less pleasing was the synthetic and twitchy electric steering.

Owners of the i3 will need to change their style of driving, as the system relies heavily on regenerative braking. In effect, every time you take your foot off the accelerator pedal, especially in slower traffic, the car radically slows, sending extra juice to the batteries. The upside is you find that you’ll usually drive using just the accelerator pedal and only using the brake for sudden stops. It’s quite elegant.

As far as BMW-worthy thrills, the electric motor delivers its full torque from the moment you step on the accelerator, so the car is very quick up to about 40 mph. This is brilliant in New York City traffic, where zipping into spaces is an art. The turning radius is also tight. No question, the i3 is a fabulous city car.

Over several days, I ran errands I’d normally do by foot or subway, without guilt, since I wasn’t burning gas. I got groceries at the Fairway in Harlem. A friend was hungry for Peruvian food, so I picked him up and we went to a place on the Upper East Side. We slipped into a tiny street parking spot.

But I was parking in my regular garage, which had no facilities to recharge, and my range was rapidly slipping away. Where to recharge in a city where space is a serious commodity? (Gas stations are also being rapidly replaced by new construction. Chelsea has lost two in recent memory.)

Elusive Outlet

The BMW’s standard navigation system lists charging points under the points-of-interest menu. But I found that most garages near me listed the type of charge as “household socket.” In other words, pretty much useless.

The nearest place listed with a 220-volt, 32-amp charge point was a garage on Columbus Avenue. I motored over. When I asked the attendant, he shook his head. Nope, it was broken.

I still had 20 miles left, but the car had to go back to New Jersey, and preferably not on the back of a flatbed truck.

So I turned south and shot down the West Side Highway, whispering through traffic and to Chelsea. A garage near the Tesla showroom on West 25th Street had a charge point that I’d used before.

The attendant directed me into a narrow slot between a big truck and a column. I plugged in. Success.

Finding a good garage is always a chore in Manhattan. If I owned a car like the i3, I would surely figure it out. The question is, do I really need a BMW for running city errands?

The BMW i3 at a Glance

Engine: Electric motor with 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, and 22-kilowatt-hour lithium battery pack.

Transmission: Single speed.

Range: 100 miles or less.

Price as tested: $49,325.

Best feature: Zippy city car that’s easy to park and maneuver.

Worst feature: Some consumers will find range and compact size too limiting.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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