It was supposed to have taken six to eight weeks for my BMW i3’s new battery to ship from Germany to the U.S., but after only 10 days, the dealer from whom I bought the Cheapest BMW i3 in the country gave me a call. “Your car is ready. We replaced your bad battery,” the representative told me after I’d spent just $10,500 on the high-mileage EV and then leveraged a California Air Resources Board rule to get BMW to completely replace my worn-out battery pack free of charge. With the job apparently done, the dealer dropped the car off at my workplace the other day; here’s a close look at the overall condition of what could be the EV Deal of the Century.
Why Buying A High-Mileage EV With A Bad Battery Was A Stroke Of Genius
To bring you up to speed on this i3, it’s a vehicle I’d been looking to buy as a commuter car. I recently moved from metro Detroit to LA, and found myself constantly worried about folks scratching or dinging my 1985 Jeep J10 or 1966 Ford Mustang. Plus, as someone used to Michigan’s wide, empty roads, I just didn’t feel safe driving my old cars in crowded LA, especially in any less-than-optimal weather conditions (when it rains, the highway becomes Mad Max). Here’s what I wrote in my story “Why I Bought My Currently-Broken BMW i3: LA Was Making Me Fall Out Of Love With My Old Cars“:
But the big factors are me feeling safe, being able to park [in something small like the i3], not dealing with the sting of pouring hundreds of dollars into a car each week, getting the EV experience, saving my old machines from potential fender-benders, but above all: It’s about preserving my love for those machines. Because commuting in them, especially when I’m running late for a meeting, turns what I see as beautiful mechanical-partners into utilitarian objects that frankly don’t really do this specific job that well. And my old cars are so much more than that.
Getting the EV experience is important to me as leader of an automotive publication in 2023, but balancing that desire with my cheap-bastardism and my desire to drive an enthusiast car put me in a tough spot. I didn’t want to own a standard economy-electric car like a Nissan Leaf or Chevy Bolt; they’re cool in a way, sure, but I’d hardly call them enthusiast cars. The more I searched for an affordable EV, the more the i3 — with its beautiful interior and bizarre architecture comprised of a carbon fiber body on an aluminum skateboard chassis — stood out from the crowd.
A quick Google search revealed that the very cheapest BMW i3 being sold by a dealership was just 100 miles south of me near San Diego. Asking price? Just $10,499, and upon arriving at the dealership, I would learn why.
At 134,000 miles, a typical gasoline car would perform at least 95 percent as well as it did when brand new. Range would be the same, power would be the same, and handling would likely be similar. But EVs can be a bit different in that regard as I found when I sat in the driver’s seat and looked at the i3’s range: just 48 miles. That’s only two thirds of what the car’s official EPA-rated electric-only range should be (the 24 mile range number on the left in the photo below applies to the gasoline “range extender” under the rear floor. That acts as a generator once the battery is out of juice, and allows you to get to the nearest charger):
Unfortunately, the BMW dealership selling the car refused to hold the car for me while it ran a battery test (I think all dealers should be required to offer battery health info when selling an electrified car). I had to buy the car first, then hope the results of the battery test were positive. A battery test should typically result in a document that shows percentage of overall capacity — like this:
Anyway, I decided to take the risk; after dropping over $11,500 after tax, I never did see a document like the one above, I just received a call from the dealership telling me the car would only drive 30 miles on a single charge — less than what I’d seen on the car’s screen during my test drive.
Unfortunately, when I bought the car, the dealer had told me its eight-year, 100,000 mile warranty had elapsed. “Your car has no warranty left on its battery,” I recall the dealer telling me. So now that the dealer had called me after apparently testing the battery, and found a range of just 30 miles, I had a choice to make: Did I still want a car that can only do 30 miles on a charge?
The answer to that is a definite “No,” but did I want to spend more money on an EV with more range? An even more emphatic “No.”
So I did a bit of digging. And after calling up the California Air Resources Board, as well as BMW, nobody was able to definitively tell me if I could leverage the “California Emission Control Warranty—PZEV” I found in the car’s owner’s manual to get a new battery pack. Per the i3’s manual, it seemed that the warranty should apply to my new weak-battery’d vehicle:
The bottom of this other section from the owner’s manual makes things fairly clear: My battery pack should be warrantied for 10 years, 150,000 miles:
Eventually, I called a car-guy at the BMW dealer — a younger guy who’d been showing me photos of the heavy wrenching he’d been doing on his E46 3 Series — and showed him that part of the owner’s manual. He ran it by his manager and called me back, saying: “So, we’re going to be able to replace your battery for you. We’ve already started ordering the parts.”
After a four-to-six week prediction, I got a call 10 days later; apparently the dealership had found batteries nearby? It’s not entirely clear to me how this happened so quickly, but in any case, the dealership delivered my new i3 to my workplace. Let’s take a close look at it, and then later this week, I’ll do a first test to see how much range the car has with its “new” battery.
A Close Look At My High-Mileage BMW i3
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I haven’t yet had a chance to put the i3’s allegedly new battery pack to the test, but I have taken a close look at the car on the outside, inside, and underneath. Plus I’ve tested out most the fully-loaded, formerly-$50,000+ car’s features, of which there are many. Let’s see what I got for $10,500.
Looking at my new acquisition from the outside, it’s in decent shape! Unfortunately the dealership — which did a great job cleaning the car — didn’t fix the lower right part of the front fascia where two trim pieces have separated from one another. I had asked for that (my three asks were: 1. Check the battery health 2. Fix this bumper and 3. Fix the rattling exhaust), and it seems like such a simple job, but alas, it still needs either a new clip/plastic bracket or I need to rig something up to pull the two pieces together to fill the gap:
There are quite a few blemishes on the outside of the car, though none of them are severe. The rear bumper features some scratches — most likely from loading things into the surprisingly spacious cargo area:
Here’s that cargo area, by the way. It fits an Ikea shelf fairly easily:
The black hood has some chipped paint:
The wheels have some scuffs:
But the worst part of my i3’s exterior can be seen on the passenger’s side rear suicide-door/coach-door. Here’s a look at the rather deep chips in the paint:
Still, despite these chips, the passenger’s side looks good from a few feet back:
Overall, the i3 looks awesome on the outside. Sure, there are a few scuffs and chips, but I’d give it an eight out of 10.
The BMW i3’s interior — specifically the Giga World one that I have — is a work of art. The inside is bright, it’s fun, it’s elegant, it’s made of sustainable materials (the door trim and dash are made of recycled plastic, the seats are made of wool and olive-leaf-dyed leather, the glovebox lid is made of eucalyptus wood) — it’s no wonder this interior won the “Production Interior Vehicle Design of the Year” award.
Despite having a butt in the driver’s seat and hands around that white steering wheel for 134,000 miles, my i3’s cabin is in phenomenal shape. The seats are basically in mint condition, the leather’s color still pops, the door trim and dash look brand new — my i3’s interior is just an amazing place to spend time. The inside of this machine feels almost like a Scandinavian lounge — it’s not over-the-top swanky, but it’s thoroughly elegant and stylish.
The steering wheel does have a bit of wear:
But overall, I’d give the cabin’s condition a nine out of 10. It’s absolutely lovely.
Perhaps just as important as the cabin’s aesthetics is whether or not it actually, you know, works. As you can see in the YouTube video embedded towards the top of this article, the answer is yes. The heated seats work, the bluetooth works, the electronically-folding side-mirrors work, the voice control button on the steering wheel works, the automatic wipers work, the navigation works, the radio works, the automatic headlights work, the power windows and locks work, the air conditioning works — every single function on this car works flawlessly.
Obviously, I haven’t tested the park assist or the adaptive cruise control yet, since this is a mostly static inspection (a test drive article is coming hopefully on Friday!), but it’s so far so good on the interior, which was a key reason why I bought this machine in the first place.
Okay, so my high-mileage BMW i3 looks good from up top and inside, but what about the important bits? You know, the mechanicals. Well, we put the i3 up on a lift at Galpin Auto Sports, the ultimate car-modification shop possibly on earth, and actually managed to get some input from a BMW i3-certified technician named Ray. He’s a big fan of i3s, and having worked at a BMW dealership before, he’s seen quite a few of them, so his opinion mattered to me.
I pointed a few obvious issues out to Ray. For example, looking at the car from the front, there’s clearly a plastic aero-shield that’s broken off at the very front of the car:
Checking things out from the rear, I noticed that the bottom of the gasoline range extender was exposed. This seemed a bit odd to me, as typically I’d think an automaker would want to close all of this off to keep debris from entering that rear engine space and to perhaps improve aerodynamics:
Ray seemed to think that a cover was missing as well, but every photo that I’ve seen of a BMW i3 underside shows no cover, so it looks like all I’ll have to do is swap out that front one, which costs $56.10 directly from BMW:
Annoyingly, while I was at the rear of the car, I wiggled the exhaust and found that the dealer had not done anything about that rattle.
Ray broke out his pen light, and quickly found the issue: A rubber exhaust hanger had failed:
I should be able to take car of this in a few minutes for no more than about $20 for the new hanger. But what could be a little pricier is the front suspension:
Overall, the suspension looks great. The aluminum control arms look new, and the bushings aren’t even cracked. But Ray did find some issues with my front struts. To me, the most obvious issue is the rubber dust boot, which has basically disintegrated and turned into what looks like a licorice Twizzler
But Ray noted that the real issue is the spring mounts, or “toppers,” which have apparently torn. This aligns with the fact that I’ve been hearing this odd squeaking noise when turning the wheel at low speeds:
I also managed to find a technical service bulletin from BMW that seems to describe my steering noise issue; indeed, the front spring assembly will likely need to be swapped out:
It looks like I can snag some nice front Bilsteins from our friends at FCP Euro for just $139 a pop, while the rears are $106.
Otherwise, my high-mileage i3 looked decent from underneath. “Pretty solid for 135,000 miles,” Ray told me.
While the car was on the lift, I took a look at the wheels and tires. The 19-inch wheels have a few scuffs on them, but they look decent. More importantly, the tires look almost brand new, with a date code of spring of 2022. This is a big deal, as a new set of tires for an i3 costs $1,000, as there are very few options given how tall and skinny the vehicle’s specialty tires are.
Was This The Deal Of The Century?
So that was a first look at my new 2014 BMW i3. The fact that I bought the cheapest i3 ReX in the country, and it has an interior that’s in almost mint condition, an exterior that is a decent eight out of 10, only a few mechanical issues, and essentially brand new tires is just awesome. On top of that, the dealer shipped me a brand new charging cable — ~$350 of value! Check it out:
So things are looking good. But the real test of whether this was the Deal Of The Century comes next: I have to see if that’s actually a new battery. The change-up from an estimated four to six weeks of downtime to just 10 days has me a little concerned. Keep an eye on The Autopian for a first-drive review, with an initial range test. Then next week I’m going to do a maximum-range test to see how many miles I can squeeze out of this weird little carbon fiber electric BMW.