BMW i3

The current, very limited crop of all-electric cars faces some mainstream acceptance, but BMW’s latest effort proves that progress is indeed being made. Promised to be in U.S. showrooms by May, the i3 SUV is already traveling European roads, and carries an entry-level price of about $41,000 (topping out at about $50K, depending on equipment and configuration).

The i3 is available with three levels of accouterment: The Mega, Giga and Tera World models can each be ordered completely electric, offering 80 to120 miles of range, and with a built-in “range extender,” which features an onboard gas-powered generator to augment the charge of the batteries, rather than using an engine configuration that switches between electric and combustion operation like most hybrid designs. This option adds about 300 pounds to the car and $4,000 to its price tag, while extending the range to beyond 200 miles.

Mission Impossible Meets ’80s Euro Design

Remember those goofy-looking European automobiles from the Miami Vice era, with their monochromatic paint jobs and odd interior surfaces? The i3 isn’t quite as bad as a 1980 Porsche 928, with its pop art, checkerboard seats, but it’s close. While the i3 utilizes a fair amount of carbon fiber throughout, there is some wacky recycled plastic in the driver’s cabin that wouldn’t even pass muster in a Kia.

Though BMW’s famous 3-series sedan is the epitome of ergonomic perfection, the i3 features a display screen that is about the size of a Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 tablet, hidden behind the steering wheel. Unfortunately, this small screen houses the speedometer and other related information, while the other LED panel (which is twice as big and displays geeky car function information) is in the middle of the dash in plain view. Though this is from the same company that gave us iDrive, it seems highly counterintuitive. The transmission control is equally tough to use and figure out, and it’s stuck on the right steering wheel stalk.

Drives Like a Dream(y) Golf Cart

Hybrid-car owners are familiar with dead silence at a standstill, but fossil-fuel fans will be surprised at the lack of engine sound when you push the go button on the i3’s dash. It doesn’t get much better when you press the go pedal. Though the i3 is very torque (scooting to 60 mph in 7 seconds), the lack of engine sound and gearbox action is somewhat unnerving. Perhaps the salesperson at the dealer summed it up best: “The i3 is very efficient, but soulless,” which is not necessarily what you want from the world’s ultimate driving machine. Though for owners making short hops, the i3 might be a pretty cool and certainly novel way to visit your favorite barista.

To Be Green or Not to Be

Here in the U.S., the dilemma we face is whether to be green (albeit at a premium price) or to enjoy driving excitement. The similarly priced BMW X1 SUV has a wonderful 3-liter, twin-turbo six-cylinder engine, but it only gets about 20 mpg. The i3, on the other hand, achieves the equivalent of about 110 mpg, when considering the amount of electricity required to keep it running.

However, the deal-breaker for this writer is the price penalty for going electric. My local BMW dealer was quoting about $725 per month on a four-year lease—ouch! Granted, you get a $7,500 federal tax credit when purchasing a car as efficient as the i3, and some states offer additional local tax credits, but when you can lease a loaded 328d (with a nearly 1000-mile range) for about $475 per month, pushing the eco button will give many prospective owners pause. An even more intriguing and more apples-to-apple comparison comes in the form of BMW’s X1 SAV (Sport Activity Vehicle), which features a twin-turbo four-cylinder engine that can achieve mileage in the mid 30s and can be leased for under $400 per month.

It’s a shame that BMW and others won’t step up to the plate and offer some incentive beyond a federal tax credit to encourage early adopters of this technology. But for now, while it’s close, the BMW i3 still misses the mark. – Jeff Dorgay