A Year With The BMW i3 Has Left Me Baffled — So Close To Perfection

My first year with the first generation BMW i3 has left me somewhat baffled. It is perhaps the quickest car within city limits, ever. And on the twisty roads in the countryside, it will make you weary and speed blind at times. It will work those corners so hard, you will need to catch your breath after a while. The i3 is agile like nothing I have ever driven before. But something doesn’t add up…

This photo proves that my i3 (black/white) is not the only i3 in Denmark, though it often feels like it.

Let me be absolutely clear: Of the 15,000 miles (24,000 km) of driving the i3 the last 12 months, I have utterly enjoyed most of them — but a few characteristics of this car has puzzled me. The i3 is not a bad car. Believe me, it’s a great car! Beats any dinosaur juice–slurping tin can I have ever driven. However, I think the time has come to get some curious details across, now that we have learned so much through great reviews of the car over the years — like this one.

This is not about range

BMW has sold more than 100,000 i3 cars since 2013. Some think this is a lot. I think it’s a drop in the ocean — that is, of the 80 million cars sold on the planet each year. Pity, because this car could have been a serious breakthrough, but it hasn’t been. Why is that? Well, obviously, there is the issue of range and there is the issue of above-average price. This first-generation i3 has a 22 kWh battery, and I have experienced ranges between 56 miles (90 km) in snow blizzard and 112 miles (180 km) in lazy summer cruising. On average, over the whole year, I got 3.9 miles/kWh (6.2 km/kWh) — and that’s with a mix of myself usually driving swiftly  and my wife driving sensibly — which gives a real-life average range of 85 miles (136 km). Even if that covers 90% of all trips, normal ICE-powered people will not buy into it, period. I think the BEV-party begins at 200 real-life miles of range, minimum.

A few shots of the comprehensive smartphone app for the i3. Note the typical 122 km (76 miles) range at full charge and the almost 4 tons of CO2 saved had all electricity originated from renewables. And yes, we managed to run out of juice on the highway!

The objective of this article is to search for the not so obvious reasons the i3 is not the huge success it ought to be, apart from the range and price. I don’t mean to talk badly about the i3, because it truly is a remarkable and enjoyable car, but let’s discuss a few issues that I have time to ponder on as I drive this beast every day.

Driving modes are messed up

Where is the Sport mode! This is something that struck me within my first mile in the car after picking it up at my local AVIS department. I fiddled with that button and the most it would do was Comfort mode? Other choices are Eco Pro and Eco Pro+. Come on! This is a BMW, people! I had recently borrowed a BMW 2 series diesel and it had the same button, and it had Sport mode!

The diesel was still lame as a duck compared to the i3. But seriously, I feel the absence of Sport mode in the i3 is a huge mistake. This will not help BMW sell this car. Comfort mode is fairly aggressive. However, something strange is going on with the accelerator response. It is not as quick from standstill as I would expect. Even my old LEAF was more aggressive than this. I sense there’s a tiny ramp up of power when you floor it (maybe half a second or less), as if it is simulating a slower-responding internal combustion engine. So I researched a bit, and found some interesting stuff. A few suspicious BMW fanboys out there has done some digging. Some very nerdy things about software came up, but this short dialog on the BMW i-forum nails it in plain English:

Jelloslug: I would like to see a Sport-mode with a bit more aggressive acceleration from a stop.  While the car is more than fast enough I bet there could be a bit more performance to squeeze out without overwhelming the tires.


Ardie: I’d love to see a Sport-mode, too. I have the sneaking suspicion that BMW has already explored this (after all, BMW is all about driving) and for reasons of their own, have decided to forego a Sport mode — for now.
If you were in the ActiveE program, you may recall that the early version of software did allow Launch-mode. Not long later, issues started showing up with the motor’s output shaft’s gear teeth (splines, actually) and the gearbox’s counterpart were showing premature excessive wear and failure. BMW replaced the $30,000 motor in every ActiveE in the test program. Ow.
Soooo, I’m guessing that BMW is forbidding a Sport-mode until those high-torque low-rpm components are beefed up — probably in the next generation of motor, which may exclude the i3 entirely 🙁

I knew it! So, there goes a little of that BMW driving-DNA down the drain. Pity. Had the hardware been solid enough, the i3 would have these modes: Sport, Comfort, Eco, and would be even more of a rocket from standstill! And, most importantly, there would be a driving mode for everybody.

Excessive superlatives in naming schemes

Eco Pro+? In my opinion that’s just filling out the gap of the missing Sport-mode, hoping we won’t notice. It turns the AC off and prevents the car from going faster than 55 mph. On one occasion, it left me in a frenzy at the end of the onramp of the motorway fumbling with the mode-button to get the bloody thing to speed up to avoid disaster! (I felt like Arthur Dent pushing that button on the Vogon spaceship in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy that prompts the message: “Please do not press this button again!”)

I know I’m out on a limb here going a bit too far down into minor details, but think about it: Why does Tesla use modes like Normal, Sport, and in the performance models Ludicrous (in early models Insane)? Because it is logical and fun. Eco Pro+? I mean, that’s like a kettle that can’t boil water because it stops at 90°C, but hey, that’s okay because it has a label that says Eco Pro+! And what does Tesla do when users demand a more drivable configuration to their powerful car? They introduce Chill mode in a wireless update. How cool is that?

The crazy thing about naming schemes is that they speak to our emotions, either consciously or unconsciously. They give us indications of whether the brand in question is striving or skimping. If the former, you tend to forgive imperfections. If the latter, you get annoyed by them.

The term Eco is fine, just leave it at that. Why complicate things? Nobody wants that.

Non-standard tires and inconsistent grip

The standard wheel size on the lowest trim of the car is 19″ x 5″ on the front and rear, and they use the 155/70 R19 tires that were specifically designed for the i3. I thought for a long time that something was not balanced out properly because the grip was not perfect when accelerating and turning hard, but after I started using the car on winter tires, I didn’t give it much thought again until summer. However, when I fitted the original tires back on, the grip did not improve. The i3 is a lightweight car, and with 125 kW of power (168 hp) on the rear wheels, those narrow tires just don’t cut it. I know these narrow wheels are all about maximizing range, but I think BMW pushed it too far.

One example of the poor rear grip of the standard i3. Just 2 inches down in a soft lawn and it was stuck. Disabling DTC did not help. My son had to take the wheel and I had to push. Rocking the car with the throttle was impossible due to the slow response of the pedal.

It turns out that if you get any other higher model trim of the car, the rear wheels are slightly wider (19″ x 5.5″), with wider tires with lower profile (175/60 R19). All model trims with 20-inch wheels also have the wider rear wheels. Ooh, I would have loved that!

I had heard that the i3 was dangerous to drive in snow and ice due to the powerful rear-wheel drive. That might be true on summer tires, but my experience on winter tires was quite positive. It may have problems getting stuck in deep snow, but the DTC (Dynamic Traction Control) does a superb job of preventing skidding when a slippery road surface catches you by surprise.

The narrow tires also make the car a bit tiresome on long stretches on the motorway (70–80 mph) because you have to actively adjust the steering constantly to keep a straight line. It is as if the steering is too sensitive. In corners and curves, it is perfect, but I remember how my LEAF held the track like a train.

The best interior behind weird doors

The interior is an iPhone running Android OS 2.0. The surfaces are top quality, and the fact that most of it is recycled plastics and natural fibers appeals a lot to me. The car may be funny looking on the outside, but it’s simply beautiful on the inside. However, the software running on those tiny screens is counterintuitive in my view. I know that Android phones sell in more numbers than iPhones, but I don’t think this is an excuse for designing a lousy user interface. The graphics are cool, but the iDrive menu system sucks in so many ways that I won’t even begin to get into that now.

Maybe I would not think of it this way had I not tried the iPhone of cars: the Tesla Model S. The problem with driving a Model S for a day or two is that all other cars seems old fashioned afterwards. Sorry, but Tesla has got this absolutely right, and on the Model 3, it is taking this to the next level, leaving everyone else in the dust.

Two small screens, and not one of them shows you the time when you turn off the car. BMW really needs to up it game on the UI. But the visibility to the outside is great!

The doors. You know, those weird back doors. You love them or you hate them, or you love them and hate them. The latter is how I feel about them. They are so cool, but if you want to sell a lot of cars, don’t build doors like that.

In many situations, those doors are cool and makes the car feel roomy. Other times, they are a hassle, and the car often has problems sensing whether the back doors are closed.

I get the practicality with young kids in the back, but adults actually feel offended needing instruction on how to get in and out. And also, why is this a 4-seater? The back seat could easily fit 3 people. At least 2 adults and a kid in the middle. Again, do you want to sell cars or not?

Charging or not charging, that is the question

All in all, charging the car is easy. Using the small charger is slow but easy. Using a public charger is not a problem. Fast charging is fast enough for me. But let me tell you what happens if you choose to run the car to 0 % in the winter while the temperature keeps dropping fast to -10°C. The car dies. It dies slowly, and you can only watch. The electronics crash, exterior lights flicker perilously, the car gets non-responsive to all the well-meaning instructions in the handbook, and when you call the BMW helpline, they have no experience with the i3 (in Denmark, that is, and who can blame them?). In this case, I got the car towed to my home, which was a hassle for the kind but mildly frustrated roadside assistant who knew nothing about EVs, because the wheels could not be unlocked when 12V power was lost.

When the car was finally in my driveway, it did not respond to the charge cable being plugged in. You could sense the soul of the car had left. The handbook said: If the car does not respond to the charger, leave it in for a few hours to let the 12V battery regain power. Nothing happened. The next day, I had to call roadside assistance again, and as soon as current was applied to the 12V battery, the soul came back to the car and it started charging. 16 hours later, it reached 100%.

Charging is usually hassle free, but beware of sub-zero temperatures — do not run out of electrons!

OK, so this was just bad luck, but the so called emergency 12V recovery system that should step in when plugging in the dead car did not work, and the handbook specifically said not to try to jumpstart the car because it could damage the electronics (BMW helpline eventually gave the green light to try). And not only had the car forgotten all its settings, the tire pressure sensors stopped working and it beeped at me for weeks until I got an appointment at the dealer to fix them.

Another very annoying thing about the UI in this regard is that the car never learned that my home was actually a charging spot, so it often warned me of too little range, and suggested charge locations in the opposite direction of where I was going. I soon forgot all about the in-car navigation system and just used my phone.

What are you whining about? Just drive, will ya!

i3jb16bI know, I know. It’s a great and super nimble car. But I can’t help wondering what the heck BMW was thinking about when they introduced the i3. There had been years of trial programs with the battery and drivetrain on the so called Mini E (based on the 2009 and 2010 Mini) and Active E (Based on the 2012 1 series), and of course BMW knows exactly what they are doing. So why was the i3 not perfect? Did BMW just want to show off that they were able to manufacture an EV, even with a super light carbon fiber chassis as a world’s first in a production car? Did they not want to sell them in large numbers?

It seems that all the legacy automakers are holding back. I mean, cars like the Nissan LEAF and VW e-Golf are not perfect either, albeit in other areas. And why wouldn’t they hold back? They make big money on the old tech. Nissan brags about closing in on 300,000 sold EVs. Really? Since 2010? While I do appreciate any effort in getting EVs on the road, that is a tiny number. Thinking back on the GM EV1 from 1996, at least half of the world’s cars should be EVs by now. Companies like Tesla do not have an old cash cow. So they have to get in the game wholeheartedly, even if it means burning billions in cash, and face the risk of going bankrupt every day. You feel that insurgency against the establishment when you drive a Tesla, even if it are not perfect either.

Still, I am not done believing in BMW. I am sure they talk about these things at the top level, but they are probably also wasting time whining about the difficulty of turning that old ICE-ship around. Well, get over it! This is the time. The is the last chance. It seems even Toyota has realized that now. At the end of the day, those legacy automakers who keep skimping will have their Kodak Moment.



BMW i3s to the rescue!

Anyway, I really hope BMW has fixed some of the above issues with the new i3S. It has a bit more power, the suspension is lowered a tad, and it’s fitted with wider rims and tires. I saw the i3S at the IAA in Frankfurt, and by the looks of it, I really would love a test drive for comparison.

A closer look at the BMW i3S at IAA 2017. Look at those rear wheels. That’s what it needs!

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