BMW’s first EV still holds its own but not for long

LISTEN 21:55

There aren’t too many models out there that can legitimately lay claim to being funkier than the Nissan Juke, but the BMW i3 is one of them. It was introduced in 2013 as BMW’s first step into the electric market with a single purpose in mind – to see if people would actually be interested in an electric BMW. Well, the i3 has served its purpose very well and actually received a lot of attention. Whether that attention was received because of its funky minivan-like hatchback appearance or because it was an electric BMW is up for debate, but after 6 years on the market BMW has no choice but to dig into the electric car segment even more, so you can write the i3 off as a success either way.

That success, however, doesn’t come without a price, and in this case, the BMW i3 is paying the ultimate price – it will eventually die off as BMW focuses on other electric vehicles. With the i3’s time on the Earth limited to the next few years as BMW runs out parts inventory, we decided it would be a great time to test out the i3 before it fades off into oblivion. After all, it’s the last of its kind and, therefore, is probably as good as it will ever get. This is our story of a week well spent with the soon-to-be-extinct BMW i3.

BMW i3 Exterior Design

  • Design is a little quirky
  • That weird slope in the waistline is hard to look at
  • The rear fascia is downright ugly
  • The nose could have a much more attractive design
  • Hatchback body style does work
2019 BMW i3 - Driven Exterior
- image 866495

The BMW i3 is a very quirky vehicle with a design that ranks up there with models like the Nissan Juke. It’s not necessarily the shape that gives it this quality but the overall design of the body. Up front,

The i3 has the traditional dual kidney grilles, but in this case, they are blocked off because this is an EV, and it doesn’t need a radiator grille.

The fascia is also quite eventful thanks to the weird bowtie-insert that tries to mimic a car with big corner air intakes. A smaller air dam down at the bottom is actually functional, but that’s in place to help provide cooling for the range-extending engine that we’ll discuss more later. From the front view, it’s clear that this thing has amazing forward visibility thanks to that massive windshield and the extremely short hood, two things that play into the i3’s general quirkiness.

2019 BMW i3 - Driven Exterior
- image 866422

The entire side profile of the BMW i3 is beyond strange. First off, BMW was smart enough not to go with a dramatically sloping roof, so the i3 does have a hatchback \ MPV look to it. However, BMW got very creative from the roof down. First off, the most noticeable thing is that oddly shaped waistline that makes a huge dip at the rear of the front doors and then elevates back into line beyond the rear half doors. Those half doors are also a big part of the quirkiness as the glass for these doors are damn near square and, because of the weird design, actually extends into the front door area. The rear quarter glass and side overhang are very similar to the design of SUVs currently offered by GMC and Chevy. The side skirts down below have an aggressive nature to them but feel very out of place – it’s a design that belongs on something much sportier than the i3. The trim around the wheel wells links the front side and rear together.

2019 BMW i3 - Driven Exterior
- image 866419

Around back, the BMW i3 is almost a completely different vehicle. From a straight-on look, it looks almost like any other SUV in terms of shape, but the flush-sitting taillights and weird trim over the bumper really makes it stand out. In fact it almost looks like the rear bumper is being pressed outward through an opening that’s too small. It’s a really strange design cue, and it somehow mimics the front fascia in a very weird way. The rear quarters actually wrap around to the rear ever so slightly, lending a weird appearance as the greenhouse is actually a little thinner in terms of width. It does make the i3 feel a little taller than it really is.

BMW i3 Exterior Specifications
Length 158.1
Width 70.5
Height 62.6
Wheelbase 101.2
Front Track 62.67
Rear Track 62.12
Curb Weight 3,040

How Big is the BMW i3

The BMW i3 is a city car through and through.

It measures just 158.1-inches long, 70.5-inches wide, and 62.6-inches tall. It rides on a very small 101.2-inch wheelbase. It also weighs anywhere between 2,635 and 3.040 pounds depending on the model and specified equipment. These figures make it 5.9-inches shorter than the Chevy Bolt EV and 18.3-inches shorter than the Nissan Leaf. It is roughly as wide and as tall, though, (give or take an inch), so it’s really the length that’s noteworthy here. In terms of garage storage, even a small one-car garage will suit the BMW i3 well, with plenty of room to spare for the toolbox you never use, mostly because you drive a BMW i3. On a side note, the BMW i3 is significantly lighter, even in its heaviest form, than the Nissan Leaf (3,433 pounds) and the Chevy Bolt EV (3,563 pounds)

BMW i3 Exterior Specifications vs. the Competition
BMW i3S Nissan Leaf Chevrolet Bolt EV
Length 158.1 176.4 164
Width 70.5 70.5 69.5
Height 62.6 61.4 62.8
Wheelbase 101.2 106.3 102.4
Front Track 62.67 60.6 59.1
Rear Track 62.12 61.2 59.1
Curb Weight 3,040 3433 3563

BMW i3 Interior Design

  • Very spacious for its size
  • Cargo room isn’t bad
  • Instrument cluster is highly customizable
  • Comfortable seating
  • Rear can hold adults fairly well for short periods
  • Interior design is a little odd
2019 BMW i3 - Driven Interior
- image 866426

The interior of the BMW i3 is quite impressive given the feeling evoked by the exterior design. Believe it or not, this little city car is quite spacious and does provide decent room for four grown adults, even if the back seat area seems small. That area is a little narrow, but it’s not like you’re taking long road trips in the i3 anyway, so that doesn’t really matter. The overall design of the cabin is aimed at providing a feeling of space, and it does it well. Thanks to the lack of a full-forward center console, it feels like you’re riding in something much larger than you really are. The dash design is a little overwhelming, sure, but you do tend to get used to it after a few days of driving. The floating infotainment screen is a nice touch, as is the highly customizable instrument cluster ahead of the steering wheel.

The controls are all intuitive and easy to reach, however, the strange gear shifter talk was a little hard to get used to as well.

Overall, you’ll find there’s a nice blend of premium and eco-friendly materials here, part of the reason why the i3 weighs so little compared to the less-premium models it really competes against. For a modern EV, you might expect better technology, but when you consider the fact that the i3 is actually creeping up on 7 years old as we move into 2020, it’s pretty well equipped for what it is.

BMW i3S Interior Dimensions
Front Headroom 39.6
Front Shoulder Room 53.6
Front Legroom 40.5
Rear Headroom 37.2
Rear Shoulder room 49.2
Rear Legroom 31.9
Cargo room seats up 15.1
Cargo room seats folded 36.9

Does the BMW i3 Have a Lot of Passenger Space?

Given the BMW i3’s size, it’s surprising just how spacious it really is. Front passengers are greeted with plenty of room while the rear seat area is actually large enough for two, full-grown adults. The rear passenger area isn’t that wide, and it can become noticeable after a while, but how far will you really drive in an i3 anyway? In terms of actual space, The i3 doesn’t offer up quite as much as the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Bolt – it common falls anywhere between 0.5 and 2.0-inches shy in headroom, legroom, and shoulder room. When you consider the fact that the i3 is smaller than both in most categories, however, it goes to show just how much effort BMW put into making the i3 as spacious as possible. We found the i3 to be quite comfortable for daily use, and we’re sure you will too.

BMW i3 Interior Dimension Comparison (in inches)
BMW i3S Nissan Leaf Chevrolet Bolt EV
Front Headroom 39.6 41.2 39.7
Front Shoulder Room 53.6 54.3 54.6
Front Legroom 40.5 42.1 41.6
Rear Headroom 37.2 37.3 37.9
Rear Shoulder room 49.2 52.5 52.8
Rear Legroom 31.9 33.5 36.5
Cargo room seats up 15.1 23.6 16.9
Cargo room seats folded 36.9 30 56.6
2019 BMW i3 - Driven Interior
- image 866448

How Much Cargo Room Does the BMW i3 Have?

2019 BMW i3 - Driven Interior
- image 866437

The BMW i3 offers up 15.1 cubic-feet of cargo room with the rear seatbacks in place and as much as 36.9 cubic-feet if you lay the rear seatbacks down.

2019 BMW i3 - Driven Interior
- image 866449

In terms of how the i3 competes, It doesn’t haul as much in standard configuration as the competition, losing out to the Nissan Leaf by 8.5 cu-ft (23.6 cu-ft) and the Bolt EV by 1.6 cu-ft (16.9 cu-ft). If you lay down the rear seats of all three models, the BMW i3 actually falls in the middle, beating out the Leaf by 3.6 cu-ft (30 cu-ft) but losing out to the Bolt by a large margin of 19.7 cu-ft (56.6 cu-ft). The i3’s cargo room isn’t that bad and should suffice for small families, but if you’re someone that likes to take half of the house with you everywhere you go, then you might want to consider the Leaf – it offers the most room with the rear seatbacks in place.

BMW i3 Cargo Room Comparison
BMW i3S Nissan Leaf Chevrolet Bolt EV
Cargo room seats up (cu-ft) 15.1 23.6 16.9
Cargo room seats folded (cu-ft) 36.9 30 56.6

BMW i3 Infotainment System

2019 BMW i3 - Driven Interior
- image 866444

Even if the BMW i3 is going to fade into oblivion over the next few years, that didn’t stop BMW from updating the i3’s infotainment system for the 2019 model year. And, that update is largely appreciated.

The system is easy to use and does offer Apple CarPlay, however, it’s only available if you pay for a subscription, so one could say that BMW will get over on you with that one.

Bluetooth and USB connectivity works great, and the infotainment system allows you to navigate your music and other audio files with the iDrive controller. Your smartphone’s voice control comes into play as well, but you have to hold the voice button for a minimum of 4 seconds to activate it. The built-in voice controls work very well since they are cloud-based and aren’t processed internally. It also supports natural language, so it’s a little easier to use than a lot of other systems out there. Navigation is top-notch with all the bells and whistles, and you’ll find that the audio system is great as well.

BMW i3 Drivetrain and Performance

  • 181 horsepower
  • 199 pound-feet of torque
  • 42 kWh battery
  • 153 miles of range
  • 0-60mph in 6.8 seconds
  • Top speed 99 mph
  • Fast charger required for decent charging times
  • Can be squirrely on the highway
2019 BMW i3 - Driven Exterior
- image 866505

The BMW i3 is a full-on electric car, and, in its most basic form it offers up little more than an electric motor and 42-kWh battery pack. In this form, it offers up 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. BMW says that’s enough to get to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds on the way to a not-so-impressive top speed of just 93 mph. On a level 2 charger, the i3 can, supposedly, take a full charge in 4.9 hours. Moving up to the i3 Ranger Exterior, you’ll get the same motor, battery, charging time, and power output, but you’ll also have a two-cylinder engine in tow that extends range by nearly 50 miles. According to BMW the range extender models attain about 109 miles per gallon E combined. This model, however, is quite a bit slower, taking eight seconds to get to 60 mph while maintaining the same top speed.

The second model in the i3 lineup is the i3S, and it offers up just a tad of improved performance. How much? Well, how does 181 horsepower and 199 pound-feet sound? Yeah, we weren’t very impressed either. However, the all-electric model without the range-extender can hit 60 mph in 6.8 seconds and does top out at 99 mph.

The same batter and, not surprisingly, range carries over from the non-S model, which also means you’ll still wait 4.9 hours for a full charge on a level 2 charger system.

The i3S range extender follows the same trend as the non-S model with the two-cylinder engine. This model takes 7.6 seconds to get to 60 mph (a0.4-second improvement over the i3 range-extended model). This model will go a total of 200 miles in perfect conditions as well.

2019 BMW i3 - Driven Exterior
- image 866420

Our tester was the i3S, and we’ve chosen to compare it to the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt EV. I know; they aren’t exactly luxury vehicles, but there aren’t many small EVs out there, so you have to take what you get this time. In terms of power output, the i3 is inferior all of the way around. The Lead delivers 214 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque while the Bolt EV pumps out 200 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque. 60 mph for both models comes in 6.5 seconds, some 0.3-seconds faster than the best the i3 can do on a good day. Where the Nissan Leaf beats out the i3S in terms of top speed (106 mph) the Bolt EV actually falls short at just 93 mph.

BMW i3S vs competition
BMW i3S Nissan Leaf Chevrolet Bolt EV
Engine AC Synchronous Electric Motor with integrated power electronics, charger and generator mode for recuperation High-response 160 kW AC synchronous electric motor Permanent magnetic drive motor
Transmission Single-speed automatic Single speed reducer Single speed 
Power Output 181 @ 4800 214 horsepower 200 hp
Torque 199 @ 0 250 lb-ft of torque @ 800 – 4,000 rpm 266 lb-ft
Battery 42 kWh / 120 Ah 40 kWh laminated lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery, 192 cells 66 kWh
Range 153 miles 150 miles 259 miles
MPGE Combined 112 112 119
0-60 mph 6.8 seconds 6.5 seconds 6.5 seconds
Top Speed 99 mph 106 mph 93 mph

In a 240-Volt system, the BMW i3S takes a full charge in about 15 hours. The Leaf, on the other hand, manages a full charge in about 7.5 hours on 220 volts. The Bolt EV takes about 10 hours. For our test drives, we were limited to a 110-Volt connection and, let’s just say it’s mind-numbing how long it takes to charge the i3 at this rate. It wasn’t as bad as the Leaf’s 35 hours, but it did take 20 hours for a full charge. Obviously, it’s best to invest int eh BMW I Wallbox (380V, about 3 hours to a full charge. Even 240-volt is a nightmare at 15 hours, though, so don’t skimp out on the charging hardware – you’ll really want it, especially if you don’t have the range-extender model.

BMW i3 Driving Impressions

2019 BMW i3 - Driven Exterior
- image 866491

I have to admit that the i3S is a pretty good all-around vehicle. I certainly wouldn’t take it off-road, and I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable in snowy or icy conditions, but in terms of everyday driving, it’s not bad. Forward visibility is good, and the weird dip in the waistline actually helps improve side visibility. There are blind spots in the rear, but thanks to the extended glass back there, it’s not bad either. The driver’s seat is quite comfortable even on reasonably longer trips. There is a bit of anxiousness associated with the limited range.

Sure, 200 miles with range extending isn’t bad and is alright for most daily trips, but it can get a little nerve-racking when you’re stuck in traffic or going distances that come somewhat close to the limit roundtrip.

Handling seemed pretty well balanced for the most part, but those skinny tires do give the i3 a tendency to follow grooves in the road. It can also feel a little touch at highway speeds for the same reasons. City maneuverability is where the i3 really shines, and you can, quite literally, park almost anywhere. Hard stops do come with confidence, but at the same time the brake pedal doesn’t feel natural at all. This is, in part, because of the off-throttle regenerative braking system that naturally tries to recuperate energy whenever you let off the throttle. Acceleration is okay, but you have to remember this is an electric BMW and not something that’s associated with performance. We were able to hit 60 mph in around 7.3 seconds on battery power, but that dropped a couple of tenths when we were running on the range extender.

2019 BMW i3 - Driven Exterior
- image 866419

Overall, the i3 isn’t bad to drive. It’s not sporty in any way, but the rear-drive system does allow for better traction because of the slightly rear-biased weight distribution. You can tell that the battery is in the floor as it can feel like it’s a bit heavy in bends at higher speeds. Steering is rather responsive but overall not on par with what you’d normally associate with a BMW. On that note, the one-pedal driving is really difficult to get used to as you can actually drive without touching the brake in some circumstances. It’s an exercise in trust, no doubt, but after you get used to it, it doesn’t work your nerves quite so much.

BMW i3 Pricing

2019 BMW i3 - Driven Exterior
- image 866457

In entry-level form, you can get an i3 for $44,450. If you want the two-cylinder range extender, though, you’ll have to pony up nearly $4,000 more at $48,300. Moving up to the slightly better i3S will set you back $47,650, while the range-extended i3s comes with a price tag of $51,500.

BMW i3 Competition

Nissan Leaf

2018 Nissan Leaf High Resolution Exterior Wallpaper quality
- image 729749

The Nissan Leaf entered its second generation in 2017 after seven years on the market. With the new generation came a new electric motor that’s good for 214 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque. The battery powering this motor is a 40 kWh unit (2 kWh less than the i3) that delivers as much as 150 miles in the best conditions. Charging times vary depending on the system you’re plugged into, but 110-volt charging will take a full 35 hours to go from zero to 100. 220 volts will get you there in 7.5 hours (good enough for full charging while you sleep), and you can get 80-percent juice in 40 minutes on a quick charger. According to Nissan, the Leaf can hit 60 mph in 6.5 seconds, but those figures are typically only good on a full charge, and making repeated sprints would deplete battery charge quickly.

In terms of size, the Nissan Leaf is a bit larger than the i3, so it does offer more passenger space, including minimum cargo room. With the rear seats laid down, however, the Leaf offers up less maximum cargo room than any of its competitors at 30 cubic-feet. Pricing for the Nissan Leaf starts out at $29,990 for the entry-level Leaf S and climbs to as much as $42,550 for the Leaf SL Plus.

2018 Nissan Leaf High Resolution Exterior
- image 729750
Nissan Leaf Pricing
Nissan Leaf S $29,990
Nissan Leaf SV $32,600
Nissan Leaf SL $36,300
Nissan Leaf S Plus $36,550
Nissan Leaf SV Plus $38,510
Nissan Leaf SL Plus $42,550

Read our full review on the 2019 Nissan Leaf.

Chevy Bolt EV

2019 Chevrolet Bolt High Resolution Exclusive Photos
- image 818522
The Bolt in Premium trim
all the bell and wisthles you need

The Chevy Bolt EV is the new kid on the block, being introduced in 2017 as Chevy’s first full-electric model. It’s smaller than the Chevy Volt but larger than the BMW i3 in almost every category. It’s also the winner when it comes to cargo space. It doesn’t offer a ton of space with the rear seatbacks in place, but if you lay those bad boys down, you’ll get 56.6 cubic-feet, considerably more than either the i3 or Nissan leaf can offer. Interior materials are on par with what you expect from any basic GM product, but Chevy did go out of its way to give the car a modern (maybe even futuristic) feel to it. This is thanks, in large part to the blue accent lighting and green lights on the instrument cluster and infotainment display. Similar to the i3, the Bolt doesn’t have a full center console, but it does have a pair of cup holders and a storage bin ahead of the shifter. The center stack here actually travels almost all of the way to the floor, making the front portion of the center console very low and nearly nonexistent.

Power delivery comes courtesy of a 200-horsepower electric motor that also delivers a respectable 266 pound-feet of torque (more than both the i3 in its best form and the Nissan Leaf.) Where the Chevy Bolt really stands out is in range. Where the i3 and Leaf have 42- or 40-kWh batteries respectfully, the Bolt carries around a 66 kWh battery pack. Those extra kWh allow the Bolt to drive as far as 259 miles on a single charge. Charging, on the other hand, can be a real pain in the ass. If you’re forced to use a standard 120-volt plug you’ll get just 4 miles per hour of charging in range. At 259 miles total, you’ll have to wait for a total of 64.75 hours to charge a fully depleted battery. That’s outrageous, but honestly on par when you consider the Leaf takes some 35 hours for a battery two-thirds the size. A 240-volt charging station will get you to full in 10 hours while DC fast charging will top you up to 100 miles in 30 minutes. As is the case with the other models we’ve discussed here, it’s important to go for the 240-Volt charger otherwise usability becomes questionable. It takes more than 2.5 days to charge to full capacity on a 110-volt outlet. Let that sink in.

2019 Chevrolet Bolt High Resolution Exclusive Photos
- image 818523
A real hatchback with 200HP EV Motor

The Chevy Bolt is only offered in two different trim levels – LT and Premier. The Bolt LT will set you bat $37,495 while the Premier will command $41,895 before options, taxes, and delivery fees, among others.

Chevy Bolt LT $37,495
Chevy Bolt Premier $41,895

Read our full review on the 2019 Chevy Bolt EV

Final Thoughts

2019 BMW i3 - Driven Exterior
- image 866502

The BMW i3 isn’t a bad vehicle to drive. In fact, it’s quite comfortable and does have the feeling of luxury that’s usually associated with BMWs. However, it definitely falls far from being sporty, and it certainly comes off as a little unrefined in certain driving situations. As a city car, the i3 is perfect. It has a tight turning circle and is impressively easy to maneuver, even on smaller, crowded streets. We appreciated the ability to park almost anywhere in the city, but driving on the highway does evoke some anxiety in a couple of ways. First, with just 153 miles of range in a perfect world, hitting a crowded highway and traveling a fairly reasonable distance can bring the charge to scary levels if you don’t like to be stranded. Secondly, the i3 tends to stick to grooves in the road and, therefore, can feel like it has a mind of its own on the highway. Some of this can be attributed to the smaller tires but also the impressively light curb weight.

Overall, the BMW i3 is a decent car for short daily commutes and cruising around the city, but it’s certainly not something that you want to consider if you make a lot of long trips. Charging is okay if you have a quick charger, but if you’re limited to 110-Volt charging like we were, you’ll lose your mind waiting for a full charge. At this point, it would probably be better to let the i3 die the death fate as in store for it and wait until BMW introduces the BMW i4, basically a 4 Series Grand Coupe EV that will be not only more modern but sportier to drive.

  • Leave it
    • Quite old and soon to be discontinued
    • Range could be a lot better, even with the range extender
    • Exterior design is hard to like
Philippe Daix
Philippe Daix
Obsessive and Compulsive Automotive Expert -
Always on the lookout for the latest automotive news, Philippe Daix is our most senior editor and founder of He likes to see himself as a consumer advocate with a mission to educate motorheads of all ages.  Read full bio
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