Thursday, April 23, 2015

Battery-powered BMW i3 is fun until you step on gas

The 2014 BMW i3 electric car performs so much better in its battery-powered mode than when the gasoline-powered generator kicks in to extend the car's range that testing one is almost like reviewing two different cars.In battery mode — which provides a range of 72 miles, according to the EPA — the i3 is a spunky, eccentric and eye-catching glimpse of the future.

But the extended-range mode that lets you drive beyond the battery's limit, is severely limited, both in how far the car can travel and in how long it'll take you to get there.The i3 is the smaller, less expensive and by far the funkier of the first two cars from BMW's i brand of electric vehicles.

The i3 competes primarily with electric cars like the Nissan Leaf and extended-range electrics like the Chevrolet Volt and Cadillac ELR. You could stretch a point and call plug-in versions of the Ford Fusion, Honda Accord and Toyota Prius hybrids competitors, though they're different in many ways.

The i3 comes in two models. A pure EV offers only battery power, while the extended-range model adds a 650cc two-cylinder engine to generate electricity when the lithium-ion batteries are drained.

The battery-only i3 starts at $42,400. The extended range model starts at $46,250.

I tested an extended range i3 with a backup camera, parking sensors, voice recognition, Bluetooth compatibility, 20-inch alloy wheels, heated front seats, Harman/Kardon audio, navigation and more. It stickered at $51,550 before any of the tax credits available to electric vehicles. All prices exclude destination charges.

The i3 costs more than the Volt, Leaf, and plug-in Accord, Fusion and Prius. It's less expensive than the ELR.

The i3's EPA-estimated battery range of 72 miles trails only the Leaf's 84. Next up come the Volt at 38 and 37 miles, respectively. The Fusion and Prius plug-ins battery-only ranges are 20 and 11 miles, respectively. The EPA has not rated the Accord plug-in as of late April, 2015.

The i3 is easy to drive. Its small size makes it maneuverable and easy to park. The shifter is not like any other car, but becomes second-nature quickly. The electric motor's 170 hp and 184 lb-ft of instant torque deliver plenty of power for darting through gaps in traffic and highway driving. The handling is responsive, but less compelling than the BMW group's other small hatchback, the thrilling Mini Cooper.

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