2014 BMW i3: First Drive Of BMW's Radical New Electric Car Page 2

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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 i3 has by far the best, and best modulated, regenerative braking we’ve driven. The 125-kilowatt (170-horsepower) motor delivers up to 50 kW of regeneration to recharge the 22-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack in the floorpan. (BMW says 18.8 kWh of the pack capacity is available to propel the car.)

That turned out to be enough to slow the car to a standstill, even on a steep downhill parking ramp—to the surprise of the driver.

Unlike the old Roadster, the BMW i3 regeneration can slow the car right down to a stop. Once a driver gets used to the characteristics of the accelerator pedal—and learns to look for the gliding mode on the power-delivery meter—it’s rarely necessary to touch the brake pedal at all.

This stands in sharp contrast to electric cars like the Chevrolet Volt, the Nissan Leaf, and even the Tesla Model S. Those cars all, to various degrees, mimic the behavior of a conventional car with an automatic transmission.

The i3 has no idle creep, and after a day of driving with one pedal, you’ll wonder why any other plug-in car would bother with it.

Providing such aggressive regen means the braking system is entirely conventional; it need not blend regenerative and friction stopping, as other cars—including hybrids—do. It’s really just for sudden maneuvers and panic stops.

We did, however, notice a distinct creaking as the car came to a stop using the brake pedal. BMW chassis engineers said it was a known issue having to do with a slight slippage of the brake pads on the discs at the point just before the car stopped entirely, and that they were working on a fix.

Range around 80 miles?

The EPA has not yet released its range and efficiency ratings for the U.S. version of the 2014 BMW i3. Our two test cars started with indicated ranges of 82 and 88 miles, and their end-of-day ranges and distance covered largely confirmed the accuracy of the estimates.

BMW says it’s completed the EPA test cycles and that official range and efficiency ratings will be released “soon.” If we had to lay money, we’d bet on 75 to 85 miles—BMW blithely quotes “80 to 100 miles” based on less aggressive European test cycles.

We should note that our two days of driving were on almost entirely flat terrain (that’s Holland), and that while we had a few segments of highway speeds, most of the driving was from 20 to 50 mph. Driving the car largely at highway speeds will obviously reduce range.

On the European test cycle, BMW says the i3 covered more than 4 miles for every kilowatt-hour of usable energy in the battery. That would put range around 80 miles, perhaps more.

And range of around that level—comparable to the 2013 Nissan Leaf’s 75 miles, or the 62 to 105 miles for a variety of much lower-volume battery electric cars—means that the 2014 BMW i3 simply isn’t a Tesla Model S competitor.

Not to mention its bread-van shape, its heavy focus on multi-modal urban transport, and its relative lack of cargo capacity.

Range extender: the big unknown

All of the BMW i3 test cars in Amsterdam were the battery-electric version. This is the version the company expects to predominate in European sales.

BMW executives acknowledged that North American buyers will likely want the added security of the 25-kW (34-hp) range extending two-cylinder engine and generator—which adds $3,850 to the price—although they stress that it will increase weight, reduce electric range, and probably not be used as much as owners imagine.

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