BMW i3 Examined: Can it Even Make a Dent in the Low-End EV Market?

BMW i3 Front

BMW is gearing up to launch its first major modern electric car later this year, and by now we know pretty much everything there is to know about the i3 city car. The body is made primarily of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic, which is bolted to an all-aluminum frame that houses the suspension, battery pack, and electric drivetrain. The materials, exotic at this price point, keep weight reasonably managed at a mere 2,700lbs. The battery pack itself is mounted at the rear and provides 170hp to the rear wheels; an optional 34hp 650cc BMW motorcycle gasoline engine will be available to recharge the battery. 0-60mph is achieved in 7.2 seconds thanks to the mix of low weight and decent power from the pack (and not to mention the instantaneous 184 lb-ft of torque). The power is all used up on the bottom end, however, as the i3 tops out at 93mph. You couldn’t use this for cross country driving anyway, as range is somewhat limited at only 100 miles during the most diligent driving. The gas engine doubles the effective range, but the car still comes quite shy of the freedom offered by a hybrid like the Toyota Prius. The price, which starts at $41,350 before accounting for state and federal incentives, rings in much higher than any of its EV and plug-in hybrid competition with the exception of the Tesla Model S midsize sedan. BMW will be facing a lot of challenges with the i3, all of which begs the question: can the i3 challenge the dominant hybrid sedans, or even make a dent in the slow-selling EV market?

BMW i3 Frame

The answer is not likely. Consider the purpose of a city car, that is, a small vehicle primarily used for getting from Point A to Point B without using much fuel. One of the key aspects of a successful city car is low price. Typically, more expensive cars are justified by their larger, more powerful engines among other benefits like creature comforts and more advanced technology. The cheaper the car, the less potent the engine and toys. Low price and low power go hand in hand for city cars because a V12 is useless in a crowded hellscape like New York City, making electric vehicles seem like a perfect fit for driving in a bustling metropolis. They have amble torque for low speed lane changes and evasive maneuvers, and fueling cost is next to nothing. Their downfall in the city is due to their failure to focus on the one thing that prevails over all others in that market: price. The Mitsubishi i-MiEV is a miniscule subcompact seemingly created specifically to handle the horrible traffic conditions that plague urban centers such as Los Angeles. It also sells north of $30,000. In the graph below, sales for the i-MiEV are present, but appear completely flat at the bottom. Only 1,592 people have bought the electric car since its debut in December 2011.

Sales of Electric Vehicles Relative to the Price of Regular Gasoline (Per Gallon)

EV Hybrid Graph

Sales figures from Hybrid Cars.Sales of all versions of the Prius are lumped together.

The most successful of the pure EVs is the Tesla Model S. With prices starting around $70,000, the Model S is an electric vehicle that doesn’t pander to the low end of the EV market. Instead, Tesla tackles its gas burning rivals by selling a comparable car at a comparable price. Setting aside the coolness factor of the Model S, the car sells by offering true value for the cost. Not only do buyers get a car that is just as luxurious as a 5 Series, they also get the performance and tech goodies to match, like the infotainment system with an iPad-sized screen. Owners also receive free fill ups at Tesla Supercharger stations if they don’t mind waiting about 30 minutes, or can choose to get a brand new battery installed in less than two minutes for the cost of a tank of gas. Innovation sells, and nothing in BMW’s announced plans appear to come anywhere close to Tesla’s offerings on an after-sale support basis.

The price does make the i3 the most expensive city car there is, Aston Martin Cygnet notwithstanding. Even with the range-extending motorcycle engine, the range is still less than 200 miles. A trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas will take at least 2 stops for fuel one way, assuming that the battery starts fully charged. At least drivers won’t have to worry about being pulled over, due to the sub-triple digit top speed.

BMW i3 Interior

All of the negatives don’t mean that the i3 isn’t an impressive car on its own, however. The build is similar to body-on-frame cars, something that really only exists on large trucks nowadays, but this allows for a very roomy interior. A transmission tunnel is nonexistant, freeing up the cockpit. The cockpit looks tidy and modern, especially in the silver and black trim shown here. BMW borrows from the playbook of the Mazda RX-8 and includes rear suicide doors, which is always a nice touch. Although a bit bulbous, the exterior looks a hell of a lot better than than the i-MiEV and Leaf, and any small car driven by the rear wheels is alright in my book.

The problem is that the i3 is too expensive to be a successful city car and too limited to be anything but. We haven’t even considered EV alternatives like hybrids, which currently decimate pure electric vehicles by number of cars sold. For 2/3 the cost of the i3, buyers can get the more anonymous but more versatile Prius. The Prius is untouchable the way Alphonse Capone was: challengers to the Prius’s domination of the hybrid market have been numerous but none have ever posed a serious threat to the prevailing ruler of fuel efficient vehicles.

Is the BMW i3 the automotive equivalent to Eliot Ness? Not by a long shot. But one day, if BMW can establish the i brand as something more than an also-ran, maybe they can. After all, Toyota has been known to rest on its laurels when the going is good. And with YTD sales of the Prius family the same as last  years’, what incentive does Toyota have to change the game now? Innovation will dethrone the Prius if Toyota doesn’t keep up, but don’t look for a serious competitor in the i3.

BMW i3 Rear

Photos courtesy of BMW

The BMW i3 goes on sale later this year in Europe, and in Spring 2014 in the United States

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About Cameron Rogers

Cameron Rogers is the founder and lead writer at Downshift Autos, the only automotive blog on the Internet*. Born in the back of an AMC Gremlin, Cameron vowed to never let this extraordinarily embarrassing detail define him, so help him God. He drives a GTI but absolutely will not shut up about it if somebody asks. He will not hesitate to let people know that no, they shouldn't get a Porsche 911 when a Morgan 3 Wheeler is so obviously the superior choice. He is obsessed with the seats of a Carrera GT and the steering wheel of a Fisker Karma. He once sat in the driver's seat of a Tesla Model S, his greatest accomplishment to date. He is just now realizing that writing an autobiography, however miniscule, in the third person is odd and unnerving. *As of this writing, Cameron has been informed that there are, in fact, many websites and blogs centered around cars and car culture. He regrets his grievous error.

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