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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Juan Butera
Juan Butera
1 year ago

“…actual….dealer…” Can’t you get a used car warranty? If it costs a fortune that is telling you to stay away…not that you would. As you probably know, those warranties are really insurance policies and the rates are based on loss experience. So, car models that are unreliable and costly to repair have the highest priced use car “warranty”. This is much better information that Consumer Reports or the automotive press regarding reliability.

Nycbjr
Nycbjr
1 year ago

so wait wiki says it has a epa range of 100 miles, but this (and the other i3 post) says 50miles which is it?

Box Rocket
Box Rocket
1 year ago

Still gonna campaign for a C-Max Energi or Mustang Mach-E, if only because of your Galpin connection. Makes the business relationship more of a 2-way street as well, as you can share your experiences and maybe drive potential sales to your business partner. And there’s some beauty to the idea of the old Mustang getting restored alongside the cutting-edge descendant (if in name and spirit only) EV version that has room to schlep parts in the back.

Jalop Gold
Jalop Gold
1 year ago
Reply to  Box Rocket

C-Max Energi, and then he builds his own battery pack to extend the range!

Torque
Torque
1 year ago

David you said you want a modern, reliable, efficient, electric & tech. interesting commuter car, that is still cheap.
Most important in a commuter car is that it is reliable and you can be confident it will do that most important of car things… i.e. reliably actually get you from point A to point B. You already have a fleet of characterful cars that you love bc they are different and each trip is full of excitement not knowing if you’ll actually make it to your destination or not. Or what kind of a fun experience and story you’ll get to tell about how you met a one armed, one legged Iraq vet. (Thank you for your service) who helped limp your ‘insert interesting shitheap here’ off to the side of the road, then waited 6 hrs. in the cold CA desert night with one Kind bar to eat while you waited for the tow truck…
IF (big if) you are honest with yourself, you Know the i3 was a Bravarian experiment that you’re attracted to bc it is so damn different with its CRFP shell, clown car sized tires and electrically favored hybrid system and Theoretically it Could be reliable.
There are at least a handful of better used, reliable, efficient, affordable (less than $20k), electric or plug-in hybrid options available.
Some that come to mind…
Hyundai Ioniq (Electric), Chevy Bolt, Chevy Volt, Toyota Prius Plug-In, Toyota Prius Prime
All of these would be modern, efficient, electric (or mostly electric for commuting duties) and most importantly Reliable to fit regular commuting needs.

Crimedog
Crimedog
1 year ago

“But a plug-in hybrid like the i3 is the most difficult car to test drive, possibly lever.”

Quick typo fix for posterity, David.

Paul Brogger
Paul Brogger
1 year ago

We should organize a betting pool around how long after purchase DT pulls a Mercedes Streeter and off-roads it.

Gregory Pizzini
Gregory Pizzini
1 year ago

You seem to have thought this one out thorougly. I thing going into this with the risks known, is a good plan. It fits your commute well and you will be driving other vehicles off and on so this will be your good go to vehicle for the little things. Buy it!

Casey Blake
Casey Blake
1 year ago

I really wanted one of these, but the deal killer for me was that the rear passenger windows don’t roll down, and my kids like to roll down the windows when we drive.

Paint-Drinking Thundercock Harvey Park
Paint-Drinking Thundercock Harvey Park
1 year ago

David, as a long time LA resident: don’t do it. 50 miles of range is just enough to go around the block at rush hour. Even if this thing runs, you will get stranded. Guaranteed.

Danny Zabolotny
Danny Zabolotny
1 year ago

“I run a car website in 2023. I should have first-hand experience owning an EV.”

I mean, you don’t *have to,* unless you’re just trying to be trendy. Could just keep it weird and continue driving old ICE shitboxes, they’re not exactly going anywhere despite what people may think.

Joe Anastasio
Joe Anastasio
1 year ago

No no no! The battery is shot. Common, its just like a cel phone battery, the capacity sinks into the west over time. Only difference is the battery costs more than the car!

HalloweenPentastar
HalloweenPentastar
1 year ago

Battery will be suspect. Bring it to Electric Avenue in Silverlake and have them go over it. Also will probably need the 12v battery to get updated as well. Personally, Prius isn’t as cachet but a better value. Plus, make sure it gets all the recalls accounted for.

Paint-Drinking Thundercock Harvey Park
Paint-Drinking Thundercock Harvey Park
1 year ago

> Bring it to Electric Avenue in Silverlake

From Carlsbad it’ll be faster to have it towed to Silver Lake than drive it.

Ron888
Ron888
1 year ago

I’ve always had the impression you , like myself, are a bit impulsive so massive props for holding back

JDE
JDE
1 year ago

for a few dollars more you might get a white one with fewer miles and less damage. https://www.truecar.com/used-cars-for-sale/listing/WBY1Z2C51EV283904/2014-bmw-i3/

Jason Hinton
Jason Hinton
1 year ago
Reply to  JDE

That one doesn’t look like it is the hybrid version.

JDE
JDE
1 year ago
Reply to  Jason Hinton

I think all I3’s are aren’t they? This one says it has the L-ectric motor though

Lally Singh
Lally Singh
1 year ago
Reply to  JDE

No the hybrids say “0.6L Inline-2 Electric”

Factoryhack
Factoryhack
1 year ago

David, you should be searching for the most expensive i3, not the least expensive.

Sandy Eggo
Sandy Eggo
1 year ago

My wife and I love ours. She dailies it and even though she isn’t a car person she talks about how it’s her favorite car ever, she never wants to give it up, etc.

It’s a 2015 BEV that we bought CPO in 2018 with 26,000 miles for $16,500. NOT having the Rex has been great since it simplifies maintenance to near zero. And even with the small battery that was offered in the 2015 model year, it’s been great for us as a city car (living in San Diego in 2018 and, now, in the North County suburbs). But we have always had at least one gas-powered car in the family for longer trips.

10/10 do recommend

LondonTraveler
LondonTraveler
1 year ago

Have you looked at something like https://www.recurrentauto.com? Their whole pitch is to be able to give you insights into battery health, etc for used EV sales.

R Hum
R Hum
1 year ago

I am applying my “ten-year old Audi rule” here. Don’t make me go in detail – all of my friends, family members and colleagues get this lecture when ever asking my opinion on buying a 10 year old German Import. Mine was a 1984 Audi 5000 that I bought with 90k miles in 1992 in near perfect condition. Loved everything about the car except for the fact that it ate me out of house and home. I sold it after a routine break job cost me 5x what the same maintenance on my Sable cost.
Buy the JL instead, you have plenty of other cars to fix in your spare time.

Jack Beckman
Jack Beckman
1 year ago

A 9-year old battery? Seems like you are asking for trouble. If you really want one of these, get something a bit newer.

Doctor Nine
Doctor Nine
1 year ago
Reply to  Jack Beckman

Yeah, there are only so many cycles in EV batteries. This isn’t like getting a new cylinder head for a beat-up Jeep. Doing a battery swap is a major deal.

Curtis Loew
Curtis Loew
1 year ago

The cheapest old German car to buy is the most expensive old German car to own. I would pass on this.

M K
M K
1 year ago

Need to take a long enough drive to run the battery empty and drive on the range extender for another 50 miles or so. Due to CARB rules, I believe it is more of a limp-home range extender where the vehicle operates at reduced performance on a tiny amount of fuel. I don’t think the gas range can exceed the EV range… This is all fine if that works for your needs. In my short test drives I’ve never managed to get the range extender to kick in. When the concept came out, I was working for a German competitor on a similar concept. On paper a compact 2 cylinder is great, but the NVH definitely punishes you for using it. Still it is a cool car and I like the concept. Best of luck!

Jonathan Mitchell
Jonathan Mitchell
1 year ago

Owner of an ’18 i3 REX here. Wonderfully unique and fantastic commuter cars IMO. Believe the folks warning about expensive and frequent tire replacements… Some folks have had luck putting on more typically sized options with new wheels and spacers. And from my lurking on i3 FB groups, a big risk point is the AC system. The car depends on the AC to cool the battery pack, and it can occasionally (and expensively) fail. Super easy to code the car to activate the range extender (REX) anytime you want–as long as state of charge is 75% or less. I think they’re pretty incredible and groundbreaking cars. Back then it made sense to spend on the chassis to lighten the car rather than add more super expensive batteries. Seems like the calculus has changed.

Jonathan Mitchell
Jonathan Mitchell
1 year ago

And another thing: The range extender is likely still under warranty!

CSRoad
CSRoad
1 year ago

If you must buy one, buy a half decent one.
This one looks beaten.
If you really, really want one of this quality for the page hits of the sad tale, Galpin can probably do better at auction, just ask and see.

Toyec
Toyec
1 year ago

Normally, there exist softwares that use the OBD connexion and can run a diagnosis of the State-of-Health of the battery, but I don’t know what’s accessible in the States. If you do it “the old way”, this car had a 90 to 100 miles range when new, it should have at least 80% of
that today in clement weather city driving, or it’s a deal breaker in my opinion. 10k$ is too expensive to have a near dead battery.

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
1 year ago

Oh, snap. It’s got the HOV stickers still on and everything.

Heck, why not? Do it.

Widgetsltd
Widgetsltd
1 year ago
Reply to  Stef Schrader

Those HOV lane stickers are no longer valid.

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