The state of California forced BMW to replace the bad battery in the 134,000 mile BMW i3 I purchased for an absolute song. It was the cheapest i3 ReX in the country due to its mileage, but as I mentioned in my last article, the car is in very good shape inside and out. With a new battery, it’d be almost like I got a brand new BMW i3 for just $10,500 — the deal of the century. But not so fast: I first had to test the battery, which the dealership allegedly replaced in 10 days after initially telling me it’d take six to 10 weeks. I charged up my new little luxury economy car and drove it for the weekend; here’s what it was like to drive, and here’s how it went on a single charge of its “new” battery.
Upon receiving my BMW i3, the battery was completely depleted. The dealership had driven the thing to LA from San Diego, and had arrived on the gasoline range-extender (a little scooter engine under the rear floor that acts as a generator to power the electric motor after the battery dies); the end of that drive must have been rough given that the ReX can really only generate enough juice to propel the vehicle about 55 MPH, but then again, it may have been gridlock anyway. Anyway, the first thing I did when I got the keys was plug the little Bavarian carbon-fiber-wonder in and wait for the pack to fill up.
Of course, on my 100 yard drive to the charger, I couldn’t help but obsess over the car’s interior. “It feels special” I say in The Autopian’s YouTube video above (please subscribe!). There’s just something about the seating position, the beautiful wood dash, the incredible leather-and-wool seats, the white steering wheel, the big dashboard, and all the nice features like power-folding mirrors and heated seats and navigation — the interior is just a game changer. I consider it the i3’s trump card, and a huge part of what won me over in the first place.
The 7.7 kW charger I have at work took some time, but it didn’t take that long, as the i3’s battery is only about 22 kWh large (18.8 kW usable) — that’s a third to a quarter the size of a battery pack you’d find in a typical Tesla.
Some basic back-of-napkin math tells me that a full charge should take about four hours. Essentially, the 7-ish kW charger at my work really puts out about 6 kW. If it were able to operate at 6kW flat-out, a fill-up would take just over three hours (18.8 kWh/6kW = 3.1 hours), but that’s not typically how it works with charging — EV charging rates tend to taper off as the battery reaches its capacity (kind of like how you tend to pour more slowly once you’ve filled a cup close to its brim). Here’s a look at my i3’s typical charging curve:
So 18.8 kWh battery divided by 6kW charging is 3.1 hours; add in a bit to account for the tapering at the end of the curve, and four sounds about right. In my case, the i3 took about four hours and 15 minutes. Not terrible, especially if the car can do the 72 miles of range the EPA rated it at — that should handle three days of commuting for me:
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The vehicle estimated a range of 90 miles when it was fully charged! That’s absurd, as the EPA’s official EV range for the 2014 i3 with range extender is just 72 miles. Had the dealer actually replaced this battery in a mere 10 days?!
A reminder: When I initially test drove the car in early March, the car estimated a range of just 48 miles, so this seemed like a huge step up:
But there’s a reason why BMW i3 owners call the range estimate figure on the gauge cluster a “guess-o-meter,” so I wasn’t going to read too much into that 90-mile figure. I’d first have to start moving to let the vehicle learn my driving style and then adjust how far it thought I could travel on that single charge.
To start the i3, you press a button on the steering column just behind and to the right of the wheel (see above). Doing so activates a nice welcoming sound, and the gauge display begins to show miles traveled and estimated miles remaining on the battery, among other information. To shift into gear, you rotate a rocker forward for Drive and backwards for Neutral and Reverse. There are detents for each, so just push through the Neutral detent, and you can get into reverse without having to pull back twice — this is, in my opinion, one of the best vehicle shifters in existence, in large part because it takes up no usable space whatsoever and also because it’s highly intuitive.
By the time the car finished charging, it was dark out. I had loitered around the Galpin lot and eaten at Galpin’s Horseless Carriage restaurant (which is actually damn good), but eventually I got behind the wheel late on Friday, and it took only a few hundred feet for me to declare: The i3 is fantastic!
I genuinely believe the BMW i3 is the best deal in cars (okay, possibly tied with the base Ford Maverick, which costs in the low 20s, and gets amazing fuel economy while being legitimately cool). To be able to get an interior that gorgeous, to get all of those advanced features like adaptive Cruise Control and Park Assist, to get a complex hybrid powertrain with a 22 kWh battery pack, and above all to get a carbon fiber body on an aluminum skateboard — all for just $10,500? It’s absurd. It’s a lightly-used electric luxury car that’s built like a supercar, and all for just a low-five-figure price tag. It seems incredible in theory, and as a newly-minted owner, I can say that it is incredible in reality.
As I drove my i3 more, I fell more and more in love. It’s serene in the cabin, alleviating stress that I used to feel driving my old cars on LA’s wickedly busy surface streets and on its lane-discipline-devoid highways. “This thing drives like it’s brand new. Adaptive Cruise Control works great…I’m in love. I’m in love,” I say in the video while traveling 70 on the freeway. “I’m comfortable, I’m taking these highways in LA — I feel legitimately safe and comfortable, and I don’t have to pay $5.30 on gas.”
I will admit that the i3’s ride isn’t the smoothest, and the skinny tires tend to want to dart around a bit, so you’ve got to keep your hands on the wheel when traveling at freeway speeds. But still, I felt safe. The visibility is excellent, especially out of the front, and the seats are fantastic (though I haven’t road-tripped the car yet). I wish I had Blind Spot Monitoring, as the B-pillar just to the left of me requires me to look back to change lanes, but it’s really not a huge deal. The highway ride is good, and compared to that of any of my older cars, it’s more than good.
The following morning, I had to test something out. I never thought I’d own a car with bluetooth audio, much less one that can park itself, so I just had to know if that function worked.
I found some street parking, hit the Park Assist button, and slowly drove alongside the parked cars until I got a notification on the center screen that the car had detected a spot that it could fit in. I then stopped, activated my turn signal, held down the Park assist button, and let off the brake. Here’s what happened next:
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Holy crap! The car drove itself in reverse, the electric motor in the steering rack turned my steering wheel just so, and the car backed into the spot. I watched it all via the backup camera, which is a bit fuzzy due to some scratches on the lens, but still does the job just fine:
Once between the Mazda Miata and Toyota Camry, my 134,000 mile i3 actually shifted into drive (in an EV, this means the motor just spun the other direction), and the car inched forward, completing the perfect parking job. Look at how close the right wheels are to the curb!:
After my parking experiment, I headed off to Target to grab an air mattress from my college buddy Jeb and his lovely wife Giulia, who were slated to visit me the following weekend (they would join me on my hypermiling test in which we’d drive around LA as gingerly as possible to get as many miles out of my new i3’s battery pack as we could. Expect that video and article late next week!). Then I headed to my video producer Chris’ birthday party (Chris, shown in pink below, would also join me on the hypermiling trip, and actually become so frustrated with how long the i3’s battery would last that he ditched me — get ready for that story, because it’s good):
From Chris’ party, we headed to a bar, where I had a nonalcoholic watermelon-flavored drink in a place far fancier than I’m accustomed to hanging out. I stuck my pinky in the air whilst drinking — that’s what you’re supposed to do, right?
Anyway, peeking down at my guess-o-meter, I saw 65 miles of expected range after 30.1 miles traveled. Surely this car doesn’t think it can travel 95 miles — 23 miles higher than its EPA estimate — on a single charge, does it!?
The next morning, I headed to Ikea to snag some furniture, since I still haven’t quite moved into my one-bedroom apartment, and my clothes are all over the place. Here’s a look at how easily a new dresser fit into the i3:
From there, I hit the road northeast into the mountains to a place called Tujunga, where a reader named Steven and his wife Micah were awaiting me for dinner.
I threw the i3 around those twisty roads, though I kept the vehicle in Eco Pro + mode. This is the most efficient setting, which limits top speed to 56 mph, locks out features like air conditioning and heated seats, and dulls the pedal response.
On these nice roads, though, 56 was plenty, and the i3 — even with its skinny tires — felt nimble and fun.
I never touch the i3’s brakes — I mean that almost literally never. Letting off the accelerator pedal yields rapid deceleration, and there’s no way to change this. Regenerative braking is locked into “aggressive,” and if you combine that with adaptive cruise control that keeps you a set distance behind the car in front of you on the highway, the left pedal becomes more of an emergency-use-only thing.
The dinner with reader Steven was one I’ll never forget. It wasn’t just the incredible food that his wife Micah had cooked, it wasn’t just the beautiful setting in the hills just outside the city, and it wasn’t just our joy-ride in the i3 afterwards, it was the conversation.
Micah told me about her new cooking blog inspired by her Filipino upbringing, Steven told me about his time in the Marines and his love for cars, and then there was Jim, the World War II veteran. Jim sat next to me at the table, talked with me about his old cars (he had an old Chevy Camaro and a Ford F-truck, both of which he loved), and at age 101, he was sharp as a tack. He told me about his time flying planes, and about how long it took back then to get to Hawaii — much, much longer than it does today. He enjoyed the cookies I had brought from Ikea; I was glad about that.
It was a single dinner, but a memorable one with great people. I’m looking forward to the next one.
The following morning, as I commuted to work on the highway at about 70 mph, the guess-o-meter ran down to zero after a total of 86.2 miles traveled. I’d been driving carefully and rolling the windows down instead of using AC since it was cool out, but I wasn’t being that careful. I’d taken highways (which EVs hate — more on that in the next article), popped my drive-mode button from Eco Pro + to Eco Pro (which allows for speeds up to 75 MPH, heated seats, and HVAC functions) whenever necessary, and just generally gone the speed limit.
At about 86.5 miles, the gasoline engine under my rear cargo floor cut on and began acting as a generator to propel the vehicle (up to another 64 miles — see the gasoline guess-o-meter on the left), and thus the battery had died.
Eighty-Six and a half miles on a single charge — over 14 miles more than the i3’s EPA-certified battery-only range. This all but confirms that, despite not having fixed my broken front bumper clips, despite doing nothing about my rattly exhaust, despite making me buy my car before telling me about its battery health, and despite a few other confusing things about my purchase experience, my BMW dealer had indeed replaced my battery. And I had indeed scored the deal of the century.
Next week we’ll see exactly what this new battery has in it, as I take The Cheapest BMW i3 in America hypermiling to find out exactly how many miles I can go on a single charge if I’m very, very careful. My goal: 100.
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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
My BMW i3 Depreciated $43,000 In Just Nine Years. The Luxury Features I Got For $10,500 Are Incredible
Hey David, first time/long time!
Have you seen this kit that can enable the Traffic Jam Assist in the USDM BMW i3? This little thing and some coding can make this an even better “sit around in LA traffic” car! https://quidzel.com/tja/
I love this but cant help but worry something will go wrong.Playing with software to control steering and brakes on a car isn’t a game.
Consider recoding your i3 to allow turning on the range extender at 30-40% battery and so reserve battery for city driving at the end of a trip or acceleration
101 years old and still sharp.How cool is that?