This past Wednesday, May 21, I picked up my shiny new 2014 BMW i3 REx range-extended electric car from JMK BMW in Springfield, New Jersey.
The car, in Laurel Grey, was the first range-extended i3 delivered in North America, and I will always appreciate that BMW gave me the honor of being the first delivery. More than two years ago, I had been selected to receive the first BMW ActiveE delivery, also a great honor.
2014 BMW i3 REx range-extended electric car - buyer Tom Moloughney with salesman Manny Antunes
Over the next year, I'll be writing a series of articles that document my experiences and thoughts owning the i3 REx. My goal is to report back about every 5,000 miles. I'm happy to take suggestions for specific tests and pictures that readers here would like to see.
Today, I'll discuss my initial impressions after two whole days of owning the first electric car in the U.S. to be fitted with an optional range extender--unlike the Chevrolet Volt, Fisker Karma, and Cadillac ELR, in which the range-extending engine comes standard.
2014 BMW i3 REx range-extended electric car owned by Tom Moloughney - in garage with BMW ActiveE
First, I'd be remiss if I didn't discuss the i3's appearance. It has been called everything from ugly through polarizing to award-winning. In fact, it did indeed win the World Car Design of the Year award--but for many people it is just too "un-BMW-like" for their taste.
I'll acknowledge that it doesn't have the sexy lines of a Ferrari, but I don't think it's ugly at all--and I also believe (as many others have pointed out) that it looks better in person than in pictures.
The interior is a totally different story. I really love what BMW has done with the interior design. The seats are comfortable and the interior seems almost Tardis-like: Somehow the i3 feels as if it has more interior room than its small size should allow. It certainly has much more room than my ActiveE (based on the BMW 1-Series), and the company says its interior volume is nearly as great as that of a 3-Series.
2014 BMW i3 range-extender EPA window sticker (Image: Tom Moloughney)
That's surprising when you consider how much shorter an i3 is (157 inches) against a 1-Series (172 inches), let alone the 3-Series (183 inches). No doubt the i3's height and large windows help here. The net result is a feeling that you're driving a much bigger car than you actually are.
Extensive use of carbon fiber and aluminum lets the lightweight i3 run on a relatively small battery (21.6 kilowatt-hours of capacity, with 18.8 kWh usable) and gives it an EPA range rating of 81 miles. My REx version, which is heavier, was rated at 72 miles per charge. And so far, that rating seems pretty accurate.
I got 83 miles on Thursday before the REx turned on, but that required efficient driving and keeping my highway speed down to 65mph.
Later that day, when I was driving normally, it turned on after 69 miles--so I suspect the 72-mile EPA rating is about what I should expect under normal conditions in mild weather. When the winter rolls around, I'll be sure to report how much impact the cold temperatures and snow have on the range.
One positive aspect of having a small battery is that it recharges quickly. The i3 can charge at up to 7.4 kilowatts, and I've observed it charging at my house at a rate of roughly 6.9 kW. Even when fully discharged to the 6-percent level at which the range extender turns on, it will recharge fully in about three and a half hours.
It charged to 90 percent in less than 3 hours, but that last 10 percent takes nearly 40 minutes as the charge rate tapers off to prevent overcharge in any of the cells. This is common in electric cars; I noted the same rate drop on both my BMW ActiveE and the MINI E that preceded it.
2014 BMW i3 REx range-extended electric car owned by Tom Moloughney - interior with four doors open
So far, the driving experience has lived up to my expectations. The BMW i3 s definitely much quicker than my ActiveE was, and the handling seems very good.
I drove it for about an hour at highway speeds in pelting rains last night, and it felt very well planted on the pavement--and never seemed to lose any grip.
I suspect the i3's tall, narrow tires will perform very well in wet and snowy conditions, but I have yet to really push them on dry pavement. I plan to do just that, soon!
Importantly, I had the opportunity to give the range extender its first workout.
I took my new i3 out on New Jersey's Interstate 80, and drove it west, almost from the George Washington Bridge (connecting to New York City) to the Delaware Water Gap on the other side of the state. I stayed almost entirely at highway speeds--from 65 mph to 80 mph--and most of the time it was raining.
2014 BMW i3 electric cars waiting at East Coast shipping port for distribution, May 2014
On that trip, the range extender came on after 69 miles--and I didn't even hear it when it did. I actually got worried that it wasn't working, because I hadn't heard it come on, but after a few minutes I realized the bar graph that showed the battery's state of charge had stopped falling. That meant the REx range extender must be holding the battery charge at a steady state.
I drove for about 35 miles with the REx running before I left the highway to test the BMW i3 on secondary roads. I carried my speed from 65 mph to 80 mph, and the car never flinched. Running on the range extender, it felt about 85 percent as powerful as it did in full electric mode--and, crucially, it was easily capable of accelerating and passing even at those speeds.
Once the REx had been on for a few minutes, I started to hear it as it revved up to a higher output. It seems there may be three distinct power levels, and after driving at high speeds for a while, it kicked into its higher speed to generate more electricity. You could then hear it running from inside the cabin--but with the radio on, it is barely noticeable and really only sounds like a slight background hum.
2014 BMW i3 REx range-extended electric car owned by Tom Moloughney - in dealership showroom
When you slow down to less than 15 mph, the REx shuts off unless battery charge is very low (I would guess less than 3 percent of usable capacity), but you'll have to drive it hard to get the battery that low, because the REx provides enough energy to let the battery hold the minimum charge level well. I tried to overwhelm it with high-speed driving, although I wasn't able to because of the rain and traffic.
All in all, I drove 115 miles (69 miles in all-electric mode, plus 46 miles more with the REx running). The car performed flawlessly, and other than the slight hum you can hear inside when the range extender operates at its high speed, you wouldn't even know the i3 wasn't running all electric.
I'll be testing my new car a lot more, but as far as I'm concerned, this should lessen worries and talk about any kind of "limp mode" from an overwhelmed range extender.
I'm personally convinced the car can do anything in extended-range mode that I need it to do, without compromise. I think customers are going to love the feature, especially in the U.S. where we drive longer distances. That said, I am sure I will be able to overwhelm the REx if I set out to do so--and I plan to do just that in testing soon.
2014 BMW i3 REx range-extended electric car owned by Tom Moloughney - famous EFOPEC license plates
Also, the route I was on had hills and downgrades, but it certainly wasn't severe mountain driving, which may have an effect on what the REx can and can't do. Clearly the range extender will have some limits, but for how I'll use the car, I'm certain it can do what I want without problems--including regular 230-mile journeys to my in-laws in Vermont.
Other than having to stop to fill the 1.9-gallon gas tank three or four times on longer trips like those, I'm sure the i3 will be fine, even if the final portion of that trip is mostly uphill. Filling the tank will likely take me all of three minutes, so once-an-hour stops aren't likely to bother me much.
If I were doing those kinds of trips every day, though, I would likely choose a different plug-in hybrid or range-extended vehicle--a Chevy Volt, for instance--but for long trips that happen every month or two, this will work just fine.
Take a good look at the pictures, because in the next photos you'll see, the car will look totally different: Today, I'm taking it for a full body wrap. That shop is more than 130 miles away, so once again, I'll get to test out the REx.
Stay tuned for my next update, and please post any information you'd like to see in my next installment.