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

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You may have read stories lately that suggest the BMW i3 is the first luxury competition for the Tesla Model S electric car.

It’s not.

You may also have read that it’s the first range-extended car to go head to head with the Chevrolet Volt.

It’s not.

In building its first battery-electric vehicle, BMW has done precisely what it has been saying for three years it would do: build what may be the world’s best electric city car.

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

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

The question is simply whether that’s relevant to a country where no head of household in recorded history has ever said, “Honey, let’s go buy a city car.”

Calming chaotic city driving

In two days of test-driving in and around Amsterdam, the i3 provided a driving experience that was both unexpected and quietly wonderful: It made chaotic stop-and-go traffic tolerable.

The design, sound insulation, and materials of the cabin simply calm occupants, an effect we’ve never experienced in a car before. And the quiet, effortless power and small dimensions make it easy to use even in crowded precincts.

MORE: 2014 BMW i3 Review

The roads of Amsterdam are occupied by pedestrians, bicycles, mopeds, motorcycles, private cars, commercial trucks, buses, and trams—often just inches from each other.

In that environment, the i3 showed its ability to accelerate rapidly, decelerate strongly enough to offer one-pedal driving in all but emergencies, and soothe the anxieties and irritations of driving in the chaotic traffic conditions of a crowded modern city.

But a soothing Scandinavian modern interior, in a car that’s probably at its best from 0 to 45 mph, will likely come as a very big shock to BMW’s loyal followers in the U.S.

For 30 years, they have thrilled to the idea of owning an “Ultimate Driving Machine”—and BMW has mostly delivered on that promise.

So the 2014 BMW i3 poses a ferocious challenge for BMW’s marketers in the States. We’re going to be very curious to see how the company positions, markets, and sells it smallest and most technologically advanced vehicle.

Constant stares

Our test drives, totaling more than 100 miles over two days, were in two German-market BMW i3 cars, one striking bronze, one a more predictable silver.

They drew stares wherever we drove, likely for the unusual upright shape and a design language for all BMW “I” vehicles that mandates a glossy black hood, roof, and tailgate—regardless of the color of the body sides.

The i3 is wide for its length, and two front-seat occupants have noticeable space between them. The wheels are pushed out to the corners, meaning the longest possible wheelbase for the length.

And indeed, BMW’s electric car “drives small”—you can place it fairly easily and, once you learn how wide it is, park it with ease.

Superb one-pedal driving

It’s the driving experience—specifically the aggressive regenerative braking—that sets the BMW i3 apart from any other electric car. We haven’t driven a car that makes one-pedal driving this easy since the original Tesla Roadster.

The company clearly spent a great deal of time refining the motor control software and pedal feedback over earlier versions used in the BMW ActiveE test fleet. (We’ll pass swiftly over the distressing driving characteristics of the earlier MINI E test fleet.)

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