Home » I Bought The Cheapest BMW i3 In America One Year Ago. Here’s What It’s Been Like Since It Got A Free New Battery

I Bought The Cheapest BMW i3 In America One Year Ago. Here’s What It’s Been Like Since It Got A Free New Battery

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My March 1 story “I Rented A BMW i3 For A Weekend And Now I’m Sitting In A Cheap Motel Two Hours From Home Contemplating Buying The Cheapest One I Could Find” is the first time I ever wrote about my BMW i3. I’d rented a Deka World (i.e. brown leather seats) 2014 i3 on Turo and instantly fallen in love to the point where, within just a matter of weeks, I found myself three hours away near San Diego about to pull the trigger on the cheapest one in the country. I ended up buying that car despite it having a bad high-voltage battery, but luckily I managed to finagle a free replacement. Now it’s been a year; here’s what it’s been like owning that i3 for a year.

Shortly after I rolled the $10,500 dice that BMW i3, I did some research and found that the state of California mandated that all emissions components on hybrids be warranted for 10 years or 150,000 miles. Since my i3 wasn’t the full-electric model, but rather the gasoline range-extender-equipped model, technically the entire high-voltage system was considered an emissions component of the little auxiliary gas motor. As such, BMW owed me a new battery, and in short order, they ponied up, giving me the greatest BMW i3 deal in human history, a deal I described in my story “I Bought A High-Mileage Electric Car With A Bad Battery. Here’s Why That Was Actually A Stroke of Genius.”

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Anyway, many of you have already heard that backstory. Now let’s talk about what it’s been like to live with for a year.

It’s Bigger Than It Looks

When I recommend the i3 to my friends, they often say “Oh, no. That’s too small for me.” Even my parents, who have a golden retriever, didn’t even consider the i3 because they think it’s not big enough; they are wrong, as my friend Andrew Collins pointed out when he Will It Dog?’d an i3.

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The i3 is a packaging marvel. The entire powertrain is built into a skateboard on which the body is mounted, leaving every bit of the body as useable space for passengers or their gear. There’s a small frunk up front, which allows me to store my laptop-containing backpack somewhere that even glass-breaking LA thieves can’t access; the rear seats fold to yield a huge flat space; and because the weight is down low in the chassis, the headroom is monumental while the overall width of the car is small.

See this shelf, which is taller than I am? I fit the whole dismantled thing into my i3:

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Here’s how my i3 looks right now; I basically treat it as a pickup:

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For four adults, it’s comfortable, which may surprise you given that it’s a tiny one-box design. I’ve visited my girlfriend’s parents a number of times, and the four of us have fit comfortably, with the suicide doors making ingress/egress a breeze.

But It’s Also Small

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Though it’s big on the inside, the i3’s diminutive exterior dimensions — along with its skinny front tires — make it the most nimble car I’ve ever owned by a huge margin. Its turning radius of 16.15 feet is significantly smaller than that of a Mini Cooper, a VW Beetle, a Honda Fit, a two-door Jeep Wrangler or any other four-passenger car that I can think of. Whipping U-Turns is an absolute breeze, and if there’s oncoming traffic, you’ve got lots of torque to get you out of the hole before you get rear-ended.

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It’s short. Not quite two-door Mini Cooper short, but shorter than a Honda Fit or two-door Wrangler. It’ll fit into tight spots, and getting into them is a breeze not just because of the tight turning radius, but because the car has a parallel park-assist feature that will actually park for me.

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It’s Been Dead-Reliable

I’ve put 10,000 Miles on my BMW i3, and have had no significant issues worth mentioning. The car came with a bad exhaust hanger, so I replaced that. I did get a flat tire, which for whatever reason seems to be a more common issue with i3s than other cars (not sure how that makes sense, but owners forums talk about flats all the time), but I patched that thing up on-the-spot in about 15 minutes. Here’s my patch (which I realize is closer to the sidewall than most shops would allow, but luckily I can do it myself; the tire has been doing great for about 7,000 miles since the patch):

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I also had a 12-volt battery failure, which is incredibly common on i3s. My old battery was from late 2019, so at five years old, it was about time. Luckily, the battery failed while I was home, so I just did the swap in the garage. The whole job was actually quite simple, requiring the removal of only a few bolts to remove the frunk. Then I undid a couple of other fasteners for the straps that hold down the 12-volt battery. Two more bolts to release the battery clamps, and I had the old 12-volt out and the new one (which cost me about $110 from eBay) in.

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Aside from that $120 on the battery, tire patch, and exhaust hanger, I’ve had to do nothing to the i3 in the past year. No oil changes, no filter changes — nothing.

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If I had to guess, I’ve probably used about 20 gallons of fuel over the past year, with the rest of my driving being all-electric.

The Range Is Good

When I initially bought the i3, the “guess-o-meter” read only 39 miles of EV range. The BMW dealership told me that there was no remaining warranty, but — armed with knowledge that the state of California requires a 10 year, 150,000 mile warranty for all emissions components on hybrid vehicles (and on a plug-in, the entire electrical system counts as an emissions component) — I went ahead and bought the car anyway. It was $10,500, or about $11,500 after all was said and done.

BMW ended up swapping the battery for free, and — with extreme hypermiling — I was able to get the thing to do 97 miles on a single charge. With more mormal, but still conservative, driving, I scored 87. What I’ve noticed over the past year is that, on pure highway driving, the i3 will do 70 miles on the dot. In the city, it’ll do over 80 easily.

What I’m trying to determine now is what the state of my battery is after it sat at 0 percent state of charge for six weeks. I was taking part in Santa Monica’s “One Car Challenge,” which required my girlfriend and me to drive only a single one of our cars. We chose her Lexus RX, meaning the i3 sat. This challenge began as the i3’s 12-volt battery began to fail; I recall leaving the rear door open and seeing the rear cargo-area LED come on, but I figured that would turn off.

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I’m not entirely sure what happened, but when I did put in a new 12-volt battery, the high-voltage battery was at zero percent and wouldn’t take a charge from the outlet. I had to fire up the range extender for the battery to charge at all. Some say that a battery sitting empty for an extended period is bad for it; I’m unsure if my battery was damaged over those six weeks. I can tell you that it definitely can go over 70 miles on a single charge in mixed driving conditions; can it still do 70 highway-only? Can it do 97 miles if I hypermile it? I don’t know. I’ll keep an eye on it.

In any case, the thing was initially EPA rated at 72 miles of combined range, and it still manages that. Plus, the battery “Kapa Max” value on the screen still says 19 kWh, which is what a brand new battery would read.

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As for charging, it’s easy. I usually do it at my girlfriend’s condo’s garage via the simple level-1 charger that came with the car. It’ll only get me 1 kWh per hour (naturally, since it’s a 1kW charger), but that’s about four miles in an i3, so if I park it for 10 hours overnight, that’s 40 miles — enough to get me to work and back. Speaking of work, I can charge there, too, and it doesn’t cost me a dime, though sometimes it can be tricky due to a number of colleagues needing the only two available Level 2 chargers in our lot:

 

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At my apartment, I have tandem parking spots:

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To use the Level 2 charger mounted to the wall, I use a JLong charging cable extension, which a reader kindly gave me. It’s a godsend, and I recommend it to anyone who finds themselves having to really stretch their cable to get it to reach their car.

The BMW i3 Is The First Electric Car That Really ‘Moved’ Me, And It Still Does Everyday

 

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As a car journalist, I’ve driven a lot of electric cars. Many of them, like the Tesla Model 3 and Model S, are incredible feats of engineering. Many, like the Rivian R1T and Hyundai Ioniq 5, are amazing packages that blend fun styling with compellingly unique features. Many, like the Bolt and Leaf, are great bargains.

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But none of them really moved me. Either they didn’t feel like enthusiast cars (the Bolt, Leaf, Model 3) or they were too expensive (Rivian, Model S Plaid). To find an affordable electric car that felt special wasn’t something that I thought possible in 2023. Then my colleague Thomas Hundal suggested I try an i3; I rented one, then I bought this one, and after one year, I remain head-over-heels in love.

Every day when I hop into my car in preparation for my morning commute, I’m filled with excitement. I love driving the i3. It’s the combination of that world-beating interior, that carbon fiber engineering marvel of a body, that novel two-cylinder gas engine mounted in the rear, the quickness, the nimbleness, the practicality — the i3 is the perfect car for me. It has exceeded every expectation I’ve had of it, and never once disappointed me. It gets me around LA in style, saving me lots of money on fuel; it lets me carry friends and cargo with ease; it can park in spaces too small for most cars; it’s got great features like adaptive cruise control and parallel park assist, and I could go on and on.

Not once in the last year have I said “I wish this car had X.” Maybe I’d take Apple Carplay, but I can retrofit that. And I think I’d have liked my visors to telescope, though I think I can buy extenders so the sun doesn’t beat on my head through the side window. And maybe when I have to swap the expensive, hard-to-find tires I’ll have something to complain about, but as of now — one year and 10,000 miles into my ownership experience — I’m still in love.

I want to keep this i3 forever. Hopefully this new battery lasts more than nine years, but even if it doesn’t, I’ll try to swap in a later model battery, as those are supposed to last longer. I recently contemplated selling this i3 and spending an extra $5000 on a 2019, which has double the range. But the fact is, my 2014 is equipped exactly as I want it; it has the big screen, it’s got the great exterior, and it’s got some features that were “TCR’d” (technical cost reduction) over the years to reduce manufacturing costs (some bungee-pockets for storing things went away, and the fill plug for the rear transaxle left in early 2015, meaning you have to buy a 2014 or an early 2015 if you want to be able to easily change your transaxle gear oil! I’ll be doing that soon).

I realize that one year, 10,000 miles isn’t a ton of driving, and I don’t know what service the i3 has needed in its 10 years, 145,000 miles of life. But under my ownership, it’s been flawless in every way. At ~$50,000 when new, the BMW was an overpriced engineering marvel. At $10,500 nine years in, it’s now just an engineering marvel.

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Fatallightning
Fatallightning
23 days ago

Hmmm. This should also apply to states that are CARB compliant states, correct? (CA, CT, DE, ME, MD, MA, NJ, NY, OR, PA, RI, VT, WA). And also, PZEV (TZEV in Cali speak). Which means I can finally buy a Caddy ELR!

Ben
Ben
24 days ago

Either they didn’t feel like enthusiast cars (the Bolt, Leaf, Model 3) or they were too expensive (Rivian, Model S Plaid). To find an affordable electric car that felt special wasn’t something that I thought possible in 2023.

You’re committing the cardinal sin of comparing new to used prices here. The i3 was outrageously expensive for what it is back when it was new. It better feel special because it was priced as a high end luxury car.

There’s also a reason they depreciated like crazy, and a dead battery after 9 years seems like an awful good candidate.

I’m happy that you like the car, but the constant canonizing of it is tiresome.

Ben
Ben
21 days ago
Reply to  David Tracy

I disagree in this instance, but I do appreciate that you took the time to reply to a critical comment from two days ago. I may not share your love of the i3, but I do love what you’re doing here. 🙂

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