BMW i3: Silent, one-pedal operation with a security blanket hidden in the trunk

The 2014 BMW i3 is available as an all-electric vehicle or as a plug-in hybrid. The grille and hood badge are familiar, above, but the carbon-fiber passenger compartment over an all-aluminum platform and battery set it apart from the German automaker's other cars.

The production car, new this year, looks much like the concept that was shown in 2011. The rear doors on the four-door hatchback can be opened and closed only when the front doors are open, below.

The silver latch for the rear passenger-side door. This was the same system used in the Honda Element, a boxy SUV that went out of production in 2011. In fact, when you see an Element on the road, the styling will remind you of the sleeker BMW i3.


You don't have to drive the new BMW i3 very far before you discover several remarkable features in this all-electric car, which is also available as a plug-in hybrid.

The one I like best is the possibility of one-pedal operation: 

When you lift off of the gas pedal completely, the car slows to a stop, generating energy that recharges the battery.

And, yes, the brake lights do come on, even though you might never touch the brake pedal. 

Another great feature is the silence -- a complete absence of mechanical noise and transmission shifts.

On a smooth road, the car, rated at 170 horsepower, accelerates quickly and quietly, and you might find yourself inadvertently driving over the speed limit. 

The BMW i3 in my garage, next to my wife's 2007 Toyota Prius. The i3 is shorter than my 2010 Prius, a gas-electric hybrid, but a few inches higher with a higher seating position, and I kept on hitting my shoes on the sill as I got in.

Two days with the i3

I've been trying without success to borrow an i3 from BMW's U.S. headquarters in Woodcliff Lake.

But Park Avenue BMW in Maywood offered me an extended test drive of the i3 with the optional "Range Extender" -- a 2-cylinder engine that uses premium fuel and recharges the battery, if you exceed the all-electric range of 81 miles.

With that option, you go from all-electric operation to an electric-gas hybrid.

BMW says the Range Extender adds up to 69 miles on 1.9 gallons of gasoline, and boosts the MSRP of the base model to $45,200 from $41,350.

I was told this security blanket is hidden below the floor of the rear hatch area, but it never kicked in while I had the car.

I put on only 55.4 purely electric miles in two days, doing the usual errands of a retiree, including food shopping in Paterson; meeting a friend for lunch at a Route 17 diner and taking him for a spin, and driving my wife and son to and from the dentist in Fair Lawn.

The bottom line

After 14 years of driving Toyota Prius hybrids, I plan to make the natural transition to an affordable zero-emissions, all-electric car.

The i3 can certainly be considered "affordable," but its limited range takes it out of the running, and the Range Extender defeats the whole purpose of wanting to kick the gasoline habit. 

We usually drive up to Montreal in late June for the International Jazz Festival, a round-trip of more than 700 miles.

In a BMW i3 without the Range Extender, that trip would take a lot of planning.

A full charge takes 3.5 hours at a special charging station or at one installed in your home.

I got another 33 miles of range by plugging the i3 into my 110-volt garage socket overnight.

You could joke the 2014 BMW i3 was born electric, but proved anemic and got an operation to graft on the optional Range Extender. The charging port is on the rear passenger side fender, above, and the gas cap in on the front passenger-side fender, below.

BMW i3 v. Toyota Prius

On Thursday, I drove my 2010 Prius to Park Avenue BMW's service department in South Hackensack, parked my Toyota and got the key to an i3 that turned out to be covered with lettering -- a rolling advertisement for the car and dealer.

Client Advisor Craig Cayetano gave me a quick tutorial and I was off. 

I had read about the strong regenerative-energy system and feared it would take a lot of getting used to, but it was a snap to operate and I loved how the car slowed and came to a stop when I lifted my foot off of the gas pedal.

The regenerative system is progressive -- release pressure on the gas pedal a little and the car slows a little, such as when you enter a curve.

The i3 is stiffly sprung and corners on proverbial rails, despite narrow tires.

The narrow 19-inch tires have low rolling resistance.

In front of you is the screen displaying your range in miles. The screen said 50 miles on electric, 44 miles on gasoline.

A second screen is devoted to navigation, media, radio and so forth. The base model I borrowed does not come with a touch-screen navigation system or a back-up camera, two optional features I have in my 2010 Prius.

The shift lever for the one-speed transmission is visible through the adjustable steering wheel, but you have to reach around the wheel to use the start-stop button, shift the car into gear and put the transmission into park. The parking brake is located on the console below.

This infernal dial is nowhere near as intuitive as the controls in a Toyota Prius or any other Japanese car. There are other controls on the steering wheel, such as cruise control and a button for answering a Bluetooth-connected mobile phone.

Three driving modes

There are three driving modes -- Comfort, Eco Pro and Eco Pro+, but you have to select one each time you start the car, in contrast to the Prius.

The most economical in the i3 is Eco Pro+, but that shuts off the climate system and limits the top speed to 56 mph -- not an option with outside temperatures in the 30s and 40s.

The interior of the base model (Mega World) is spartan, and employs recycled material. 

The seats aren't electrically adjustable, but they can be heated.

A nice touch is that when you unlock the car, the exterior door handles are illuminated.

The BMW i3 is fast and quiet.

The roomy rear seats.

Rubber straps under the hatch and security cover helped secure 3-liter glass bottles of extra-virgin olive oil -- for my kitchen, not the car. The Range Extender, a 2-cylinder gasoline engine that is the electric car's security blanket, is hidden out of view.

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