2017 BMW i3 REx: drive review of range-extended electric car

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When the history of modern electric cars is written, the BMW i3 will likely go down as something of an anomaly.

Its carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic body shell, aluminum underpinnings, and battery-electric powertrain with an optional range extender are a combination not offered by any other maker, now or perhaps ever.

We spent four days and 316 miles with a new 2017 BMW i3 REx model this past August, and have been mulling over our impressions of the car ever since.

DON'T MISS: BMW i3 REx: owner's 3 years with range-extended electric car

Our test 2017 BMW i3 came with the optional REx range-extended two-cylinder engine, and the body panels carried a striking Protonic Blue paint color.

For the last model year, the 2017 BMW i3 REx got a range upgrade from 72 to 97 miles, due to a battery pack that grew in capacity from 22 kilowatt-hours to 33 kwh.

(The battery-electric version without the range extender saw a range increase from 81 miles to 114 miles, because it's lighter without an engine, generator, and gasoline tank.)

NOTE: While our car was the same Protonic Blue color as shown in these photos by reader and BMW i3 owner Chris Neff, they actually show his car. We decided to use his photos because they're more compelling, taken in a variety of parks and bird sanctuaries he visits as part of his job with the New Jersey Audobon conservation group. We thank Chris for letting us use his images.

2017 BMW i3 REx range-extended electric car [photo: Chris Neff]

2017 BMW i3 REx range-extended electric car [photo: Chris Neff]

Our impressions of the car were a mix of things we remembered from our 2014 test and some changes, of which there have been quite a few, most of them relatively invisible from the outside.

The i3 is still both distinctive and polarizing in shape; it's a tall hatchback with two long front doors, two shorter rear doors that can only be opened if the front is opened first, and no central support pillar (due to the strength of its body shell).

The interior, as before, is both comfortable and calming, with a wide cabin, an expansive dash with optional open-pore wood trim, and controls largely centered around its pair of digital displays, one behind the wheel and the other standing proud of the dash center.

READ THIS: Chevy Bolt EV reviewed by BMW i3 driver: electric cars compared

On the road, the steering feel is heavier, which makes the whole car feel somewhat more substantial.

We also felt the sound of the range extender was better suppressed. It retained its motorboat-engine thrum from under the cargo deck, but seemed less loud than the comparable unit in our 2014 test car.

The BMW i3 remains one of the most energy-efficient vehicles on the market.

2017 BMW i3 REx range-extended electric car [photo: Chris Neff]

2017 BMW i3 REx range-extended electric car [photo: Chris Neff]

Over the 540 miles indicated on the car's trip computer (which we hadn't reset on taking over the car), the car delivered 4.1 miles per kilowatt-hour of battery energy.

That's roughly the same usage we recorded in a 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, albeit over a different route, and the BMW i3 REx is rated at 111 MPGe, while the Bolt EV comes in at a slightly higher 119 MPGe.

Miles Per Gallon Equivalent, or MPGe, is a measure of how far a car can travel electrically on the amount of energy contained in 1 gallon of gasoline.

CHECK OUT: BMW i3 REx range extender: owner assesses pros and cons of limited-power engine (Aug 2016)

Our time in the BMW i3 REx test car spanned a pair of overnight recharges at home on a 240-volt Level 2 charging station, giving us 263.9 miles (83 percent) of our miles on battery power alone and 52.4 miles (17 percent) with the range extender running.

While the i3 REx is rated at only 35 mpg when running in range extender mode, we were able to cover those gasoline miles using only about half the indicated gas-tank capacity.

We largely ran the car in Comfort mode, with perhaps a third of our miles in EcoPro to test out that mode—though we stayed away from EcoPro+, which lowered cabin ventilation to an uncomfortable point during a pleasant, warm August.

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