2014 BMW i3: First Drive Of BMW's Radical New Electric Car Page 4

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2014 BMW i3 (German-market version), Amsterdam, Oct 2013

2014 BMW i3 (German-market version), Amsterdam, Oct 2013

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The result is a cabin that feels spacious, gracious, and simple.

That was a challenge for the company: “We are not good at subtracting things from the cars that we make,” admitted one designer in conversation.

Free-floating displays

Both displays on the dashboard—a 10-inch central screen and a smaller one visible to driver through the steering wheel—float above the dashboard surface on stalks.

That keeps the dash top low; it also extends a long way forward to the base of the windshield, amplifying the openness.

The woven seat fabric somehow conveys luxury even in its simplicity, and open-pore eucalyptus wood on the flip-up glovebox door erases any hint of glossy wood finishes.

Contrasting stitching on leather surfaces, which are tanned using non-toxic olive dyes, and a variety of textures and materials come together in a way that really does make the cabin a calming and soothing place.

Unfinished surface?

To our eyes, the one dissonant note is the kenaf renewable-fiber material used for both the farther reaches of the dash top and the forward portions of the door interiors.

Frankly, it looks as though it’s the backing material that sits behind a covering—that the factory somehow inexplicably omitted.

Even after a day of watching out for cyclists, traversing hundreds of traffic-calming speed bumps, and shooting down narrow one-way canal-side one-lane streets, the BMW i3 was easy, predictable, and relaxing to drive.

It’s hard to imagine the extra effort that would have been required to cover the same route in, say, the typical European diesel subcompact hatchback—especially one now fitted with a start-stop system.

Push to go

Like any battery car, the BMW i3 utterly dispenses with engines turning on and off, transmissions shifting, and all the other drama we’ve accepted in cars with combustion engines.

It’s simplicity itself: With the proximity fob in your pocket or in a cupholder, push the start button that’s on the rotary drive knob behind the steering wheel, release the parking brake, rotate the knob to “D”—and drive.

Push the accelerator to go, let up slightly to slow down or stop.

That’s really all there is to it.

Achilles’ Heel: handling

If the 2014 BMW i3 has an Achilles’ Heel, it’s the handling and roadholding at higher speeds. It’s fine around town, and adequate in large-scale suburban sprawl, but tight turns and switchbacks are not its happiest ground.

The tall, narrow tires (to reduce aerodynamic drag at high speeds) have a contact patch that’s much longer than it is wide—the reverse of most modern tires. In corners, it’s surprisingly easy to make them squeal in even halfway aggressive driving.

The car does actually hang on, but the high seating position exacerbates the feeling of body roll. BMW quotes a cornering force of about 0.80 G, but we experienced regular rear-wheel hop and back-end jitters while accelerating out of tight corners or tightening our line on turns.

If you drive smoothly, you may not notice the handling, but this car is simply not a road warrior. And it will never go up against BMW’s M line of performance cars—or even against a well-driven Mazda 3.

But that was never meant to be its mission in life. BMW has built a very good city car, one that does something that no other electric small car does: actually makes the driver willing to tolerate congestion and chaotic urban traffic.

How applicable that is to the majority of Americans who live in suburban sprawl remains to be seen.

If you want an electric car with a range of less than 100 miles, this is a very good one.

If you want a Tesla Model S competitor, however … keep waiting. This isn’t it.

BMW provided airfare, lodging, and meals to enable High Gear Media to bring you this first-person drive report.

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