Bridging the Generation Gap
Watching the evolution of electric cars is a lot like watching the evolution of fighter jets. The first generation of fighter jets, such as the Bell P-59 Airacomet, could travel at high-subsonic speeds, but otherwise early fighter jets largely followed the design principles of piston-engine fighters before it. If we break Electric Vehicles (EVs) into generations, the first typically followed the design principles of Neighborhood Electric Vehicles such as the GEM, with quirky golf cart–like shapes and less than 80 miles (129 km) of range. Like the supersonic and delta-winged second and third generation of fighter jets that followed, the second generation of EVs and onwards saw electric cars grow more assertive in design and ranges increase up to 99 miles (159 km). Some second-generation EVs, such as the 2017 BMW i3 Range-Extender (REx) I’ve spent the past few weeks driving, are the beneficiaries of advancement in battery chemistry, upping their ranges above 100 miles (161 km) per charge and into third-generation EV territory.
Excuse the admittedly messy analogy, but electric cars such as the 2017 BMW i3 REx are the MiG-21s of the EV world. The second-generation Soviet fighter first flew in 1956, but it’s evolved with the times. Later models upgraded to become third-generation fighters in their own right. MiG-21s still serve in many air arms around the world. This is all a roundabout way of saying that despite 200-plus-mile (322-plus-km) fourth-generation EVs such as the Chevrolet Bolt and Tesla Model S and X being on the road, third-gen electric cars such as the BMW i3 are still relevant today.
The range-extended i3 such as the “Giga World” model I’ve been driving is arguably the most relevant of the bunch. Utilizing BMW’s new-for-2017 94 Amp (or 33 kWh) battery, which ups electric-only range from 72 miles (116 km) to 97 miles (156 km) (full-electric i3s see a range increase from 81 to 114 miles (183 km)), the i3 range extender supplements its battery pack, 170-hp and 184-lb-ft electric motor, and one-speed automatic transmission with an 0.6-liter 38-hp I-2 from the manufacturer’s C600 scooter and a 2.3 gallon fuel tank. Combined range is an EPA-estimated 180 miles (290 km).
Although owners of European-spec i3 REx models can fire up the little scooter engine at will in a charge-sustaining hold mode, the engines on U.S.-spec i3 range extenders only fire up once the battery is completely drained. The engine has no mechanical connection to the rear drive wheels and functions purely an electrical generator, technically making the i3 a series hybrid rather than an EV or plug-In Hybrid such as the Chevrolet Volt.
Largely made up of carbon fiber and plastics mounted on an aluminum frame, the i3 exhibits the BMW i-Division ideology for not only EVs but also for the future of cars. The i3’s sneakerlike compact dimensions encompass a fashion-forward cabin largely made up of renewable materials including the hemp-derivative door panels, fabric and leather seats made from recycled bottles and tanned with olive oil leaf extract, and the dash covered in gorgeous open-pore Eucalyptus wood.
It’s all painfully hipster L.A.—but it works because BMW gets the little stuff right, too. The front seats are comfortable, with a high SUV-like driving position and the car’s large greenhouse giving the driver excellent visibility. The fold-flat backseats, accessed through suicide doors, are roomy enough to take two extra passengers on short around-town hops. The digital instrument cluster displays battery charge, gas tank level, and motor usage information efficiently and without overwhelming novice EV drivers, and the iDrive infotainment system includes a range assistant to help navigate city streets in the most efficient way possible.
Given its city-slicking and tree-hugging nature, the 2017 BMW i3 REx was a bit out of its element at our test track. The i3 accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 7.0 seconds, and needs 14.9 seconds to pass through the quarter mile at 84.7 mph (136 km/h). Compared to our new loaded 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV Premier long-termer, the i3 REx is 0.7 second slower to 60 mph and almost 1 second slower through the quarter mile. With 19-inch wheels wrapped in what are essentially bicycle tires (I kid, but this BMW’s 155/60R/19 front and 175/70R/19 rear tires are super narrow), braking and turning aren’t the i3’s forte. The 60-0-mph braking test took the i3 125 feet, and the figure eight took the i3 28.1 seconds at 0.61 g average. Our 362-pound-heavier (164-kg-heavier) Bolt needed 128 feet for the 60-0-mph stop test, and 27.4 seconds to complete the figure eight at 0.63 g.
Back in its urban habitat, the BMW i3 shows its age a bit compared to some more technologically advanced EVs. Sure, around town its quick off the line, and like the Tesla Model S, BMW’s tuned the i3 for one-pedal driving so that easing off the throttle results into the Bimmer slowing down like a big slot car, but it’s a one-trick pony. At freeway speeds, the ride quality deteriorates, and the quick steering rack and narrow tires make the i3 darty and uneasy.
Highway driving has another downside, too—it quickly eats into the i3 REx’s 180 miles (290 km) of range. For those like me, whose daily commute is mostly on congested surface streets, EVs like the i3 are ideal. I could typically go about three days or so of commuting and running errands before plugging into our office Level 2 charger with around a dozen miles (19 km) to spare. About five hours later, the battery is good to go another 97 miles (156 km). If I needed to go farther, the i3’s range extender gave me the peace of mind that I’d never be left stranded looking for an electric outlet.
I didn’t ever need to push the i3 past its battery’s range, so I tossed the keys to testing director Kim Reynolds to see if his highway-heavy commute could get the BMW’s range extender scooting:
“I had the i3’s range extender start twice at least—once on the freeway where I didn’t notice it at all due to wind, tire, and traffic noise. The only evidence of the big event was the gas/fuel level graphic coming to life and its range number starting to descend. I thought ‘Hey, what’s the big deal here? It isn’t noticeable at all.’
“It was noticeable on the second occasion, though, when it fired up while paused in a left-turn lane. There was some vibration, but the big thing was its generator-like noise. Like a generator running in the backyard to keep a kid’s bouncy house inflated. It is kinda ridiculous, but also—in a weird way—endearing.
“EV’s are often attacked for being lifeless, soulless, silent transport. In range-extender mode, the i3 doesn’t just have the endearing heartbeat of an internal combustion engine—it also has it in full-blown, frantic palpitation. This solution to extended-range EVs is a dead end, but it’s sure an entertaining dead end to pause at and soak in.”
Reynolds makes an excellent point. At the rate battery chemistry is currently advancing, there will be no need for range-extending engines in the near future. In the short few years that have passed since the i3 went into production, Chevy now offers up the 238-mile (383-km) Bolt EV and Tesla is preparing its Model 3 with at least 215 miles (346 km) of range—both of which achieve their range without the assistance of internal combustion engines, and start at around $35,000 USD before incentives, undercutting the BMW i3 REx’s base price of $48,445 USD and our tester’s $54,295 USD as-tested price by a fair margin.
Although decidedly not the way forward, the BMW i3 still marks an important step in society’s transition from the internal combustion engine to electrification. Like the Ryan FR-1 Fireball, the U.S. Navy’s first jet airplane, which supplemented the jet turbine with an old-fashioned piston-powered propeller, the i3 REx will ultimately go down as a Wikipedia oddity that helped forward the march of progress. In the meantime, though, the 2017 i3, like the MiG-21, might be outgunned by the latest and greatest EVs, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for it in an ever-expanding electrified market.
|2017 BMW i3 (Range Extender)|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$55,145|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Rear-engine, RWD, 4-pass, 4-door hatchback|
|ENGINE||170-hp/184-lb-ft synchronous electric motor + 0.6L/38-hp/41-lb-ft DOHC 8-valve I-2 (gasoline engine/generator; no propulsion)|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||3,193 lb (45/55%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||157.8 x 69.9 x 62.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.0 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||15.8 sec @ 84.7 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||125 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.75 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||28.1 sec @ 0.61 g (avg)|
|EPA COMB FUEL ECON||111 MPGe|