“Wait, I know this place,” I said to a group of friends from this traveling circus we know as automotive journalism. We had walked a few blocks from our minimalist/modernist/hipster hotel in the heart of the gentrified Meat-Packing District in Manhattan to a warehouse in Chelsea. The same warehouse where, just a month earlier, I had taken in the world introduction of the 2014 Mazda3, in fact.
No matter. Where the Mazda’s floor plan was set up like an open dance floor, reaching the top floor of the BMW i3 event introduced an environment set up very much like what we find at auto shows: a stage in the corner, rows and rows of chairs lined up facing the open sides of the stage, and people walking around with light breakfast foods being delivered on silver platters.
When it came time to sit down, the crowd was a mass, mostly because journalists from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and South Korea flooded the same room that housed far fewer U.S., Canadian, and Mexican journalists just a month earlier. We went through the usual procession of speakers, most of whom were German. And we were then satellite-linked with nearly identical setups London and Beijing, where more speeches about technology and innovation were given. Yadda, yadda, yadda, and then each of the three debut parties brought out children. It was a symbol representing a sustainable future for the next generation. And each with a push of a button on an iPad, they remotely pulled back the wraps on the 2014 BMW i3, the “Mega City Vehicle” that has promised so much since it first arrived in 2011 L.A. Auto Show. But does it deliver?
“It looks unfinished,” said one onlooker. I was still trying to take it in. Costing $42,275, including $925 for destination and handling, I wasn’t sure if this car, about the size of a Honda Fit, warranted its price tag. At first sight, it looked to retain the theme BMW had hoped to project with its hotel choice: Compact, hip, minimalistic, and yet sophisticated and futuristic. The car still had an air of concept to it, unfamiliarity, especially because it didn’t look like a traditional BMW at all.
I nosed around it, and the more I saw what it offered, the more that lofty price tag–which can reach into the low 50s when fully optioned–made sense to me. Here’s the first mass-produced car that’s made primarily of carbon fiber. Its chassis is aluminum, but, almost built like a truck with a body on its frame, the rest carbon fiber, using metal sparingly to ensure crash-safety protection. BMW has taken a big risk with this car, emphasizing sustainability and technology, as its details reflect a modern approach that could turn off plenty of traditional BMW shoppers. Or shape the next ones.
It has three trim levels: Mega, Giga, and Tera–like a computer’s memory. The base Mega has cloth seats made from PET plastic, a navigation system, and even LED headlights, which are optional equipment in much of the rest of the world. All models have supremely narrow 155/70R19 tires, but a sportier wheel/tire combo can be ordered with 175-mm rear tires on 20-inch wheels. All models we saw come with a boomerang-shaped piece of eucalyptus sourced locally from Germany accenting the uncluttered dashboard. That theme continues throughout the car’s interior: Light, airy, and sophisticated. Instrumentation is all presented on two tablets that protrude from the dash. That dash, by the way, is made of recycled grass. No word yet on a Woody Harrelson edition with a hemp interior.
Like the Mazda RX-8, it has two rear-hinged half-doors that reveal a surprising amount of space for two passengers shorter than about 5-foot-10. The only reason five people couldn’t sit in the car is because the middle position is used for a permament cupholder divider. And with scalloped quarter windows with a floating “Hofmeister kink,” visibility is excellent, even in the rear. Optioned up, the atmosphere becomes even more inviting with leather that’s unusually sumptuous for a low-level BMW, an even more sophisticated navigation system, and even a 650cc motorcycle engine that can create 34 horsepower of electricity production. Of course, the 170-horsepower electric motor is the only propulsion system that ever drives the wheels.
So is the car worth it? That’s a difficult question to answer without having driven it yet, which we look to do in November ahead of its early 2014 on-sale date. Everywhere you look is something you’ll likely not see in another production vehicle for years, at least at the BMW i3′s price point. Exposed carbon fiber door jambs remind you that this isn’t just BMW’s take on a Nissan Leaf. This car has GPS sensors that can optimize the way it drives by reading elevation changes. It recommends charging stations after 30 miles of driving in a day just in case you do want to stick it out for more than the car’s projected 80- to 100-mile range.
BMW doesn’t want this car to be a Tesla Model S competitor; it wants the car to be a sophisticated complement. BMW is already planning on introducing an i5 sedan in a few years that could challenge the fledgling Tesla. In the meantime, BMW says the i3 is a city car, and if you want to drive it farther, buy the $3,850 range-extender or rent a car at a local BMW dealership.
If you have questions about range, usability, owning it as a daily driver, technology ease of use, or whether or not its technology is proven, BMW has answers for all of that as we discovered during hours of panel discussions that took place after the intro. If you’re looking to adopt an electric car lifestyle, BMW makes its option a compelling one, as odd as it may look. The car isn’t designed to be a money-loser for BMW; it will become profitable, as BMW has the dealer network and proven cachet that Tesla could only dream of having. All it needs now is to convince people that it’s worth the asking price. On paper, it is. In real life, when there are Chevrolet Volts, Nissan Leafs, and Teslas, we think BMW may have a wonderful marketing experiment and a daunting, exciting challenge on its hands. If BMW’s people aren’t rabid with excitement to get this car on the road, we can’t think of a car–a whole new concept–that could make them.