Home » 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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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).

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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):

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I set up an appointment with the dealer, slogged through the river-shaped parking lot, and eventually arrived at the car:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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Matt Wishart
Matt Wishart
1 year ago

Have you driven it on the freeway at freeway speed? They wander around and need constant correction to keep in a straight line. It’s really disconcerting. Also, our one occasionally decides not to kick the extender into life and has left us stranded three times. Just saying.

Paint-Drinking Thundercock Harvey Park
Paint-Drinking Thundercock Harvey Park
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Wishart

And when the battery runs down and the Rex kicks in, CHiPs *will* pull you over if you can’t sustain 65mph on the freeway when it’s possible to drive the speed limit.

Source: me, in my old shitbox even Gossin wouldn’t have touched

Forrest Devine
Forrest Devine
1 year ago

I’m not sure if they are still available, but the LAPD bought a whole fleet of these things, barely used them, and started selling off the whole fleet back in late 2022. You could pick them up with less than 10k miles for aroud $15k.

Widgetsltd
Widgetsltd
1 year ago

This particular car looks like it may have new tires on it, but have you priced tires for these? They’re a weirdo size so there’s only one choice and it’s around $250 per tire on the Tire Rack’s website.

Isaac Falvey
Isaac Falvey
1 year ago

Get a base model new Bolt and call it a day. It’s possible you may qualify still for the $7500 tax credit depending on your income, so it’s possible to get one around $20000 if you can find a dealer that isn’t a scumbag.

BigThingsComin
BigThingsComin
1 year ago

Where are you commuting to? This should be the ultimate work from home gig. 99% of your work is done on Slack, right?

John Kruglinski
John Kruglinski
1 year ago

No David, No! here’s some info from a BMW DEALER’s site: Your 2021 BMW i3 battery will ordinarily last between 3 to 5 years. https://www.cogginbmw.com/2021-bmw-i3-battery.htm

I’ll bet you two Plymouth Valiants and nonoperating, non titled Willys Jeep that is the reason for the cheap price. Get a CPO i3 or buy a new Bolt and use the tax credits to bring down the price. You are flirting with disaster(once again!)

Mall Explorer
Mall Explorer
1 year ago

That’s terrible dealer copypasta that refers to the 12v battery not the high voltage traction battery. Hints: discussion about the alternator charging the battery.

Paul B
Paul B
1 year ago

I have a 7 year old 2nd gen Volt with 60000km.

My repairs so far:

Replaced an oxygen sensor.

A spark plug died (first time in my 30 years of driving). I call it a fluke.

Zero reduction in range.

Dan Pritts
Dan Pritts
1 year ago

What is the maximum speed when the battery is empty and you are running on gas only? I vaguely recall it’s like 50mph.

Brian Ash
Brian Ash
1 year ago

Can you bear to have a car that CAN NOT rust?

K G
K G
1 year ago

I’m a little curious why you think the i3 is the only cool enthusiast EV you can buy on a budget. I get that it has a carbon tub, but from the reviews I’ve read, it doesn’t drive particularly well, it’s expensive compared to its peers, and I doubt it’s as DIY friendly as you would want. Something like a first gen volt would be cheaper, more DIY friendly, more practical, and have much better chassis dynamics. I’m curious if you’ve driven any of the other competitors you’ve mentioned (volt, 500e, etc) and what you think of them.

Gee See
Gee See
1 year ago
Reply to  K G

i3 is rear engined / rear wheel drive. Carbon Fiber construction, BMW made the carbon fiber in WA and ship to Germany. Volt first generation, the battery tech will be older (resistive heating etc), I doubt it has better chassis dynamics than the i3. I would say i3 will be more compared with the Fiat 500e. The 3rd party BMW shop I go to, that’s the shop’s crews commuter car (100km return trip M-F), seems to be holding up fine. The downside about i3 is tire selection is minimal, pretty much Bridgestone or bust.

Ron, on the reservation
Ron, on the reservation
1 year ago

I am continuously amazed at how adaptable some of us humans are. I remember when this guy was happily rolling around in the frozen Michigan mud resuscitating junkyard Jeeps. Now he is sparring with a BMW agent on the gold coast for an electric car. One that he can’t get a EV credit (discount) because of his income. Truly amazing!

Dr Funkhole
Dr Funkhole
1 year ago

Do it! I love these things. It’s a completely rational car for what most people really need to do with their cars, and it was beautifully executed.

Alan Christensen
Alan Christensen
1 year ago

Ah, the Village in. So Motel 6 was booked solid?

Alan Christensen
Alan Christensen
1 year ago
Reply to  David Tracy

They turned the water off in your room because they knew about your shower spaghetti.

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
1 year ago

I don’t know if you should by THIS i3, but I think buying an i3 is a great move for you.

Vic Vinegar
Vic Vinegar
1 year ago

I know this one isn’t in CA, but it seems like there is probably a middle ground between the “cheapest” and spending a few more bucks to get a newer (more range I think) one with fewer miles. Here is a 2016 with supposedly 81 miles of electric and only 49k miles for $17k.

https://www.bmwofcincinnatinorth.com/used/BMW/2016-BMW-i3-d426dfbb0a0e081d45c9d475b3004d38.htm

Millermatic
Millermatic
1 year ago

So… 14.5/18 is 80.5%.

If your battery goes down another .6% in the next year… you get a new one under warranty?

Arrest-me Red
Arrest-me Red
1 year ago

I say go for it, nice buy back/return policy, price not terrible, and as you said this is a A to B car not your fun one. Just get in and it works (well it is a BMW). Plus you can write bout a long term EV that people can afford.

Sid Bridge
Sid Bridge
1 year ago

I feel a pang of sadness that this i3 isn’t going to get cannibalized to be the basis for the Jeep FC electric conversion.

Millermatic
Millermatic
1 year ago

Don’t know about the i3… but the Volt engine fires up when the car is “on” and you open the hood. Makes sense if you think about it. Got to be able to get it to run to check emissions or do diagnostics. I assume the i3 has a similar function?

Vicente Perez
Vicente Perez
1 year ago
Reply to  Millermatic

Frustratingly, not in the US but yes in Europe. You have to use a coding tool to change the software to the European way, so you can turn on the engine at will.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
1 year ago

Well compared to some of the other shitboxes you’ve owned and the fact that this *only* $10K, the risk isn’t that high.

So unless some other red flag shows up, buy it!

And if it does blow up in some way, think of all the material you’ll be able to write on the subject!

Colin Richardson
Colin Richardson
1 year ago

Just saw a 2019 i3S go for 13k on IAAI with light front damage. Very tempting.

Bill Caswell
Bill Caswell
1 year ago

That is a cheap motel! I hate to admit that I know exactly where you are and have stayed there too! Also my Rv is in storage like 5 minutes there along with the Scout if you’re ever missing the rust from Detroit… ohhhh dude. You get to wrench with black widows now! Seriously.

I’d say get the i3. They’re amazing little cars for urban areas. Can the team over at EV West tell you any more about the battery’s health?

121gwats
121gwats
1 year ago

Completely forgot to mention this earlier, but there’s a maintenance mode you can enter to see battery health (Google “BMW i3 Max Kappa”) and that’ll point you in the right direction. I’ll post a Youtube video link if thats allowed. That number is a starting point to health (18kwh is normal IIR), but if you measure the total KWH from empty to full using any kind of networked charger, you’ll see capacity.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIP_lThJYWE

121gwats
121gwats
1 year ago
Reply to  David Tracy

Not terrible, not great. A new battery would be 18.8kwh. There’s a procedure to reset of BME but then it has to relearn the bottom end of the battery possibly causing you to run out of juice prematurely. In any case, I went from 16kwh to 18kwh (measured from a Chargepoint before and after) so I know I was able to fit more energy into the battery, but the range meter lies afterwards for several fill-ups.

Vicente Perez
Vicente Perez
1 year ago
Reply to  121gwats

Never heard of resetting the BME? Do you have a link to how this is done?

Alex Estill
Alex Estill
1 year ago
Reply to  121gwats

I was hoping someone would mention this. Testing battery health seems like a thing we’ve figured out already. Since electric cars are only going to become more common, this seems like battery health should be a standard piece of information provided in the used electric car market. I wonder if its just something dealers will need to catch up on or if regulation would be necessary to make this happen.

Regarding the range extending motor… since it doesn’t run all the time, mileage is a poor indicator of engine wear for sure. Best to go by operating hours. I pulled this from a forum (quoted from the I3 manual?). The key part is the last sentence.

“10.3. Maintenance work
As the combustion engine in the BMW I01 is not permanently used, the servicing is reduced to a minimum. Engine oil with filter is only required after a time interval of 10,000 miles / 12 months or depending on the operating hours of the combustion engine. The operating hours are recorded in the EDME control unit.”

86TVan
86TVan
1 year ago

I wish I picked one up a few years ago…they were coming off 3/4 year leases and selling for 18-22k range. A bargain given how much life was left. Secret is out. Maybe I missed it, but why aren’t you going full electric? I get the v-twin fetish, but the BEV version would just seem to be a more pure expression of where you are headed…and given the decent range (if you are willing to pay a touch more you can get one with ~100 miles–more than enough for your needs) it just seems like the way to go. Use your ICE fleet for other applications.

Gee See
Gee See
1 year ago
Reply to  David Tracy

The backup generator is an extra failure point. I guess it depends on your commuting range in the end. I think for the battery size even using the 110V won’t take that long.

Vicente Perez
Vicente Perez
1 year ago
Reply to  Gee See

I fully agree. We had the REX and at the end of the lease we switched to the BEV. After 3+ years of ownership, we had used the range extender maybe five or six times. And this was our car for longer trips back then. Not worth the extra maintenance and failure risk for us.

I would say, if you have a home charger and a backup car for longer trips, BEV is the better option. Also, unlike other EVs of the same vintage (like the Fiat 500e), the i3 has DC fast charging option. Not as fast as current EVs, but still fast enough for the occasional longer than usual trip.

Thevenin
Thevenin
1 year ago
Reply to  David Tracy

I say get the REx version. The full-EV version doesn’t have significantly better range, power, or handling, and it’ll be nice to have a gasoline backup since the i3’s DC charging time is conspicuously last-gen.

(Related note: the REx’s gas tank is 2.4 gallons, but it’s electronically limited due to legal shenanigans. You can jailbreak your i3 to use the full gas tank.)

Brian Ash
Brian Ash
1 year ago
Reply to  Thevenin

Yup, two things I did, increase fuel capacity to 2.4 and unlocked the secret menu to let you engage Rex anytime you want under 75%.

Brian Ash
Brian Ash
1 year ago
Reply to  David Tracy

With the Rex models you can unlock via coding the ability to engage the Rex anytime you want if battery is under 75%.

121gwats
121gwats
1 year ago
Reply to  David Tracy

One main benefit of BEV is a simpler drivetrain, much less maintenance and fewer moving parts. Dont dip your feet, just dive in, the water’s nice.

Fire Ball
Fire Ball
1 year ago

You’re moving close to some of the best offroading in the country. Forget the I3. Get the Jeep.

Fire Ball
Fire Ball
1 year ago
Reply to  David Tracy

Not a new reliable one that’s comfortable during the 3 hour drive to the trailhead.

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