Monday, September 30, 2013

Customer Reactions From The First US BMW i3 Test Rides

The i3 used for ride-alongs at the San Diego National Plug in Day event. Photos courtesy Chris Llana

This weekend there were over about 100 National Plug In Day events held around the US. I was at the North Jersey event held at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, New Jersey. I was there with my new ActiveE and we had a total of about 25 electric vehicles in attendance. By all means it was a great day and we helped spread the word about how great plug in cars really are. However across the country at the San Diego Plug in Day event something special was happening. BMW had an i3 there, and for the first time in the US they were taking customers on test rides.

No one was allowed to actually drive the car, as it is a pre-production i3 and only BMW employees are allowed to actually drive it, but the driver was definitely giving the passengers a taste of what the i3 is capable of. He wasn't just rolling around a parking lot at 15 mph like many EV ride-alongs do, they went for a real drive on the streets and the driver was punching the accelerator to show off the power as well as the cars grip on the road. Since I wasn't there, I reached out to three people, Peder Norby, Grant Kluzak and Chris Llana, that were there and had the opportunity to go for a test drive to get their impressions.  

Peder and Grant are very experienced electric vehicle drivers. Chris doesn't yet own an electric car, but has been closely following the electric vehicles currently on the market and intends to buy one soon.

First up is Grant Kluzak. Grant drives a Toyota RAV4 EV and his wife Kristine drives an ActiveE and here's what he had to say:

"At the San Diego National Plug-in day event I had the opportunity to ride as a passenger in a pre-production model of the BMW i3. Since my wife is the primary driver of our BMW Active E, I am somewhat of a professional passenger in an electric BMW. I had a slight hang-up on the overall look of the i3, however after the ride, I now think the look fits the vehicles behavior. It's not an SUV and it’s not a traditional BMW sports car. It is truly a cross-over. You do not feel as low to the ground, or sporty as you do in the Active E. 

It appears to handle nearly as well as an Active E, possibly even accelerating faster. One truly amazing feature is the incredibly tight turning radius which will be very handy in tight parking lots or small city streets. The driver told us that the regenerative braking feel is nearly the same as the Active E and that he finds himself one pedal driving most of the time. I’m excited about this because I drive a Toyota RAV4 EV and find the regenerative braking is too light compared to the Active E. The interior cabin was comfortable and supportive as we would expect from BMW. There is an interior finish on parts of the dash and doors that looks and feels like felt. We were told that it is made from recycled carbon fibers. I really liked the look of this new material and was glad to hear it is made from recycled material. 

Riding in the back seat behind the driver was comfortable for me a six foot two large man. That is not something I can say about the Active E and the i3 was much easier to get into with it’s “suicide” doors in back. There are plenty of cup holders, two in the back and one fixed and one movable between four different locations up front. The BMW engineer I talked too found it amazing that Americans were so fixated on the cup holders in our cars. Apparently there was much debate between the US and Germany on the number and location of the cup holders. I think they got it right with one per passenger. Yes, it’s a four seat vehicle. Having loosely followed the development of the i3, I was under-impressed with the slight glimpses we saw of the vehicle along the way. I did not think it would be a good follow on to the Active E. Having now ridden in an i3 and getting to see and feel the ride comfort, I can’t wait to get behind the wheel and test drive one. I think it has great potential as being the vehicle we will replace our Active E with."
Photo courtesy Peder Norby

Next it's Chris Llana. Chris has been a longtime follower and commenter on my blogs and he even helped me out with photo-shopping for my April Fools post here this year.

"I attended the National Plug In Day event in San Diego on Saturday.  There were about 110 privately-owned plug-in cars there, of all sorts, as well as more than a dozen plug-in cars available for drives and rides (the Model S and the BMW i3 were passenger rides only).  There were seven ActiveEs there (and almost 40 LEAFs).  
 I arrived early and headed right for the i3.  Not a lot of people there at that time, but lots of enthusiasm.  I ran into Peder Norby there; there were at least a couple of other ActiveE drivers inspecting the i3.  The car looked better in person than in photos, Tom, as you have mentioned before.  The interior, in particular, was much nicer than the photos let on.  The driver's position was very comfortable, with ample head and legroom for my more than 6'2" height; the steering wheel was very nice, and placed to perfection.  Visibility was great.   
  The back seat was the big surprise -- very usable by full-size adults, and the front seats did not have to be moved forward to give room for the backseaters' legs.  At one point, both Peder and I were in the back seat -- both of us commented about how comfortable it was, for short runs at least.  Peder is about as tall as me, and not a small man.  We pretty much filled all of the available space, with no extra headroom, but that means most adults will find the back seat more than adequate.  
  I was in the i3 for the first ride of the day (in the front passenger seat), along with two others in the back seat (including one ActiveE driver).  A BMW engineer was driving.  The drive was out on the streets surrounding the parking lot where the event was held -- city speeds, no highway travel.  The acceleration from a stop was impressive, even with four people in the car!  I can only imagine what it would be like with just the driver in the car (and 500 fewer pounds).  With the windows open, the car under hard acceleration sounded like a muted jet engine spooling up -- very cool sound!  The ActiveE driver in the back seat said it was quieter than the ActiveE, and after one spirited take-off, told the driver he had just sold a car!  All in all, I was very impressed!"

Lastly, it's Peder Norby weighing in and he's a real EV pro. Like me Peder has been BMW's e-mobility trial lease programs since 2009. Peder had a MINI-E and now has an ActiveE as well as a Honda Fit EV and has racked up nearly 70,000 all electric miles. Here's what Peder wrote on our i3 group's Facebook wall:

There was plenty of room for Peder and Shawn in the backseat
"I think Shawn is 6'2" and I am 6'3" We thought we would put the two biggest guys in the back. Warning do not try this in an ActiveE! I would never think of trying to shoehorn myself back there.

Lots of room in the i3 for a small car. With the drivers seat fully back there is 4 inches between the seat and the back seat as compared to the ActiveE where the seat touches the back seat. Width wise up front I would say larger than the Active E but not quite as wide a as a 3 series. The space in the rear of the seats is very good, with the seats folded down there is a lot of room. Similar or greater to the Honda Fit EV. The Fit EV is a touch wider but not as deep.

Sitting in the back was very comfortable and we had a 6'0" driver in his comfortable driving position in front of me. I was just fine and not cramped.

Test drive was great, MUCH faster than a Mini-E which is MUCH faster than an ActiveE, and it all comes from the rear so much better control. The driver punched from the lights and it was very impressive even more so than the Mini-E.

Best impressions are:

That the car looks much much better in person, It is very planted on the road at speeds just like the ActiveE and unlike the Honda Fit EV (I love the Fit EV but its a bit of a tinny dancer on the highways. The car for me seemed even quieter than the ActiveE. The interior on the test car was the highest class and it was indeed higher in quality than the ActiveE,

Insights, The rep said that if dealers are taking list it's not official from BMW but unique to the dealer. He also said that BMW will be reaching out to the Electronauts and that they will be in the first group to get the cars. The driver of the i3 said he has lots of seat time in both the i3 and the ActiveE. He described the range on the freeway of both cars as similar and range in the city of the i3 as superior to the ActiveE.

One very interesting conversational detail was that the braking distance in the i3 is among the best of the BMW cars including the M cars. They are validating the stopping distance currently but that it is going to be a big surprise to a lot of people. That bodes very well for performance and for safety

We made some circles in the parking lot and I have never been in car with that tight of a turning radius. The carbon fiber roof is awesome, many areas where you can see the carbon
fiber such as the sills and when you open the rear hatch. BMW left a lot exposed and that is good. Love the rear lights.

Very Impressed."
Peder also maintains a blog about his electric driving experiences and wrote a post on the i3 driving event. You can read the whole post here. So I'd say so far so good. The people at the event that had the chance to go for a ride all seem generally impressed. I suspect it won't be long before BMW gets a lot of production i3's delivered here to the States and opens up actual driving events, that will be the real test.


  1. If BMW is smart they will have driving events all over the country as soon as they have cars here. I wouldn't consider buying one without driving it and the sooner I can the greater chance I'll wait for it. My volt lease is up in February and if I haven't had the chance to drive one by them I may just get another volt. However if I have driven one and love it I'll wait a couple months until they are available here in Waterbury Conn


  2. I was also at the event in San Diego this weekend - I spotted Peder, but didn't say hi. I agree with some, but not all of the opinions presented here. First, the i3 does look better in person. It's still quite an ugly vehicle, but not nearly as bad as the photo's I've seen make it look. The interiour, as the others have stated, was gorgeous. Absolutely the highlight of the vehicle. I have to disagree with the others on the "roominess" of the back seat. It was small. Real small. The suicide doors don't open with enough space to get into the back - it was much like getting into the rear seats of a 2 door vehicle. Additionally, the distance from the back seat cushion to the front seat was really really tight. Looked like about 2 or 3 inches. I witnessed Peder and Chris squeeze into that thing - and while they did fit, and they claim they were comfortable - it looked like a circus car to me. I was also really disappointed with the trunk space. It's tiny. I had hope that I could fit a bicycle or a baby stroller in this car - but there is no chance of that. It's about the size of a few bags of groceries. I know it's a compact car - but the Honda Fit (non-EV) looks roomy next to the i3.

    1. Chris: The aesthetics aside (since that is totally subjective) I'm really surprised you had difficulty getting into the back seat. It makes me wonder if the doors on this car were functioning properly! I've had a lot of time with i3's and I think the rear access is great. The only thing I haven't yet seen is how well it will work in a parking lot with a car parked close to you, however in an open space it's very easy to get in and out, the rear door opens more than 90 degrees! The room back there is also subjective based on what you perceive as "roomy" Coming from the ActiveE, the i3 is definitely "roomy" and I think that's what Peder was really comparing it to. Now if you compare it to a larger car, like a 3-Series, then yes it's not very big. Here's a good shot of the rear access:

      You can most definitely fit one or two bicycles in the back with the seats down but not without doing that I agree.

    2. Hey Tom, yes the aesthetics are subjective - I just meant the say the vehicle looked better in person than I expected. The photo you show of the rear seat access is somewhat deceiving. Notice that the front lip of the drivers seat is actually under the steering wheel! You can see the seat railing in that photo - the seat is clearly all the way forward, a position almost nobody would fit in. With it placed in a more natural driving position (I'm 6' tall), you really couldn't have a rear passenger for more than a very short drive. In fact, as I stated, the clearance looked to be less than 4 inches - which would be too small for any adult passenger.
      It still is a wonderful piece of engineering, and would be a great car for the right owner. As a tall person with a young child, unfortunately this one just won't work for me.

    3. At the i3 premier I, and a few journalists played a bit of "musical chairs" and took turns getting in and out of the car as each of us sat in all four seats at the same time. I was the shortest one there and I'm only 5'-8". I would say the tallest guy was probably about 6'-1" Everyone remarked how they were surprised how much room there was in the back for a car that's only 13' long.

      Don't get me wrong - you're opinion is as valid as anybody else's Chris and I like to hear the negative as much as the positive but the rear seating isn't something I have heard anyone complain about - other than to say they wish BMW made it a five passenger vehicle. Now if you want to complain about wishing it had more range, then you and I can be on the same page ;)

    4. I didn't say anything about back seat access, because for me getting in and out was a complete non-issue. Again, I'm 6'3" with shoes on, and while I consider myself to be athletic, I'll be 65 next month -- so no teenager. Certainly I would not buy an i3 if I had to drive from the back seat, so why judge it by how you like sitting in the back seat if you'll spend all your time up front? Take whoever will be riding in the back to see how easily they can get in and out, and how comfortable it is for them. My bet is that any child would be happy back there, especially with the low-cut rear side window to view the scenery.

    5. for me as a 6'3" guy on the larger side, I had to duck under an area that hangs down about two inches where the doors come together (you can see it in the picture) That required a hand grab of the door and a duck of the heard to get into the back seat but no gymnastics.

      I would not even try to get into the back seat of the ActiveE. Once in as you can see no issues, very comfortable and enough head room. Exiting was a grab of the door handle a duck of the head. but much easier to get out of than a 2 door coupe. Compared to the Mini-E and the ActiveE it has a ton of room similar to a Honda Fit EV. I have that car so I should know :)

      Cheers and thanks for an informative post Tom.

  3. I second the test drive request! Bring them to Hamilton, Ohio ASAP please!

  4. Nice! I do have a question though. Did this car have the range extender option as I understand that will make it a bit slower.


    1. Robert, the vehicle they gave us a ride in at the San Diego event was without the range extender.

  5. I will drive this very soon now. The future of car making we get to see glimpse now