What an odd situation I find myself in right now. It’s 1 AM, and I’m sitting in a motel near Carlsbad, California. I just drove 2.5 hours to test-drive the cheapest BMW i3 I could find, after having fallen head-over-heels in love with the one I rented last weekend. I didn’t immediately buy the i3 I just test drove due to some concerns, which is why I’m in this motel; allow me to elaborate.
First, let me just say that the 2014 BMW i3 that I rented last weekend had me absolutely smitten. I realize that you all know me as a man who daily-drives $500 shitboxes, but you also know me as an engineer who likes state-of-the-art tech, and that side of me cannot resist the lure of the BMW i3 — possibly the greatest small-car of this millennium.
Many of you might be thinking I’ve gone full Hollywood, forgoing daily-driving cheap junkers in favor of a luxury BMW. I reject this notion; the i3 just makes a ton of sense for me right now for the following reasons:
- I run a car website in 2023. I should have first-hand experience owning an EV.
- Driving an old junker on Michigan roads is no problem; driving them on LA highways is a different ballgame. I need something safe and comfortable that can hang with the rest of traffic.
- I could use a modern, reliable daily driver; time is more important now that I’m running a company. I can no longer wrench 24/7. (This one’s a bit dubious, I’ll admit, given that we’re talking about an old BMW).
- I have a commute; people should commute in EVs if they can — it’s good for the environment.
- I’m getting older, and my older friends aren’t necessarily going to want to ride in my old cars. Having something comfortable and safe can put people at ease.
- I have chargers at my apartment and at work.
- Fuel in California is about $5 a gallon.
Before actually considering buying one, I drove the i3 you see in the Turo listing above. I piloted it on the highway from Studio City to Santa Monica, cruised around that area, charged it at a friend’s place using the standard 110V cable, and charged it at work with a Level 2 charger.
I fell in love, but not for any exciting reason. It wasn’t amazing to drive and it’s not that beautiful, but it is unbelievably well executed. And that is hard to ignore.
I don’t have time to really get into a full review since, as I mentioned, it’s 1 A.M. and my eyelids are getting all Gm_1m_2/r^2 on my ass. But it’s a carbon fiber electric car with 50+ miles of electric-only range, a little twin-cylinder motorcycle out back to keep you going when the small battery goes low, heated seats, adaptive cruise control, a backup camera, navigation, an utterly stunning interior, LED headlights, and on and on. It’s modern, it’s comfortable, and it’ll get me to work and to friends’ houses and back without using any gas.
Plus, the electric motor feels lively and fun, the steering radius is wonderfully small, and there’s a lot more room inside this tiny, lightweight electric car than you’d think.
The i3 that I rented was in really nice shape overall. It was a 2014 (the first model-year), and I never did see more than 50 miles of range on the screen, but it was still totally usable given my access to chargers. I’m not a huge fan of the dark brown interior compared to the lighter ones, but it was still such a nice place to spend time:
The i3 isn’t more fun to drive than my 1966 Ford Mustang or my 1985 Jeep J10, but it fulfills the role I need. It’s safe, comfortable, and electric. In my eyes, it is the only cool enthusiast’s electric car that one can buy on a budget today (again, that’s just my opinion. I appreciate the Fiat 500E and Volt and others, I’m just not interested in owning one).
The day I turned the i3 rental in, I began looking to buy one, in earnest. Naturally, my criteria was: Cheapest one possible. Does this make sense entirely? No. But I’m the “save money on the front end, get burned on the back end” kind of man; I’m sure you all know this by now.
Anyway, that brought me to this listing — a 135,000 mile i3 for sale for $10,499 by a reputable (according to Google reviews) BMW dealer in Vista (1.5 hours south of LA, or, during the rush-hour that I drove, closer to three):
I set up an appointment with the dealer, slogged through the river-shaped parking lot, and eventually arrived at the car:
From a distance, it looks decent. The paint shines, and the panels still look to assume roughly their correct shapes. A closer look does reveal some scuffs, scratches, and chips:
I didn’t get a great photo of the interior, but it’s the “Giga World” cabin, and it’s absolutely fantastic. A few of the buttons have some scratches on them, but the seats and dash and doorcards look beautiful:
Anyway, the car drove nicely. It started out with three bars out of four and 39 miles of range, that dropped to 32 rather quickly on the freeway, but jumped back up to 37 once I got off the freeway and started driving around town a bit. Maybe the computer was adjusting for my driving style, or maybe the battery just can’t handle highway cruising (something that, in general, we know to be true — highway driving tends to eat up battery juice).
I did hear a clunk from the rear end of the car, though the dealer seemed to be entirely deaf to it when I pointed it out a few times. “Could just be something in the trunk” he told me later, though I slid under the car and quickly pointed out that the range extender’s exhaust pipe was totally loose. He said he’d fix that and the unclipped front bumper, and that the vehicle had just gotten to the dealer a week prior. It didn’t give me confidence in his team’s inspection skills.
But the car still remained the cheapest i3 out there, especially sold by an actual BMW dealer, and I do love cheap. What I don’t like is not understanding risks, and that’s really my main problem right now.
With an ICE car, I can drive it, look at it, maybe take some measurements, maybe wiggle a few things, and get a pretty damn good idea for what shape the car is in, and what I’ll have to replace. But a plug-in hybrid like the i3 is the most difficult car to test drive, possibly lever.
In the 20 miles I whipped the little car I was unable to assess the health of the two most important components bolted to that CFRP tub: The battery and the range extender. The battery I was unable to assess because I need to drive the car more to really see what type of range it has left after 135,000 miles and 9 years, and the range extender ICE engine I never even heard run! That little motorcycle V-twin only springs to life once the battery is closer to empty.
So when the dealer asked me if I want the car, I told him: I don’t have enough info. I don’t know if the battery is crap, and I don’t know if the engine is crap. This test drive was largely pointless, other than it allowed me to find an exhaust issue.
The dealer agreed to charge the car to 100 percent overnight, and let me drive it around on an extended test drive the following morning, which is why I’m sitting here in this cheap motel in Carlsbad:
Should I risk it? The dealelr did say I had a five day, 250 mile money-back guarantee, so in addition to my extended test drive, I could throw the car around for a few days to test that battery. Hmm.
— David Tracy (@davidntracy) March 1, 2023
As much as I feel I’ve become a new, more refined, hybrid-driving, apartment-dwelling, recycling, less-meat-eating man here in LA, my old “Buy First, Think Later” adage is threatening to win out yet again. Oh boy.
David – Try and get a new battery under warranty!!!!!
I now have 80 miles every morning instead of 50.
find one under 8 years old and 100k miles.
You should check out the old episode of Top Gear where James May took his i3 on a road trip.
I know this is not meant to be a long distance car, but it was eye-opening for me.