Sunday, November 24, 2013

The LA Auto Show: Driving Impressions & Details Learned

It's been a long time coming but I finally got to drive an i3. I've actually been getting tired of having journalists contact me and ask me for my opinion of it on the road compared to the MINI-E and ActiveE and having to tell them I haven't had the opportunity to drive one yet! So did it live up to my (high) expectations? Yes, it did. It's certainly not "the perfect EV," but in my opinion, it does do more things better than any other electric vehicle that costs less than $70,000. And yes, the $70,000 is the threshold mentioned because slightly above that, (actually $72,240) is the starting point before incentives, for the least expensive Model S you can buy in the US.

Lined up for test drives
Price is worth mentioning here because since the i3 has launched there have been endless comparisons between it and the Model S. My contention is that they are both excellent electric vehicles and while there will be inevitable comparisons and even some cross-shopping, they are really vastly different cars and if they weren't both electric would never be compared. The i3's base price is $42,275. That's $29,965 or about 40% less than a base Model S and that alone should end the need to compare them. However I feel it was important to touch on this because everybody else is. These are both excellent EVs, but they serve different masters. The one thing fascinating about the Model S is that it's such a great electric vehicle, that every other electric vehicle that comes along will now be compared to it, well done Tesla.

The back up camera video is extremely clear
In addition to my test drives I had the opportunity to sit down and interview just about every BMW representative there and I will do a future blog post dedicated to at least one of those interviews. However, here I'm going to focus on my thoughts on the driving experience and answering the many questions about the i3 I've received in the past few weeks in the form of comments, personal emails or posts on the BMW i3 Facebook page or in the BMW i3 forum, both of which I am the administrator of.

Tera World interior is all leather
BMW had fifty identical i3s at the LA Auto Show for test drives. They were all exactly the same color, had the 20" wheels, the top of the line Tera World interior and had every available option the i3 will offer. I later found out from BMW NA i3 product manager Jose Guerrero that these cars were actually the very first i3s to roll off the assembly line and that they were pre-production vehicles and European spec so they had to be updated with US charging ports, navigation software and other small modifications so they could be used here in the US for test drives. Also, after the LA Auto show these cars will gradually filter to dealers all over the US so depending on where you live your local BMW dealer may get one soon for demonstration and test drives.

What about the range extender?

Harb addresses the ActiveE drivers
Unfortunately none of the cars had range extenders so I can't answer many of the REx questions I've had like: "How quiet is it?  Can you feel the vibrations when it's on?  What MPG does it deliver?" I did learn some new details which I'll discuss later in the post though. I will say this though because the question of how robust the range extender is has been a common theme on every website that has an i3 discussion. At a private event on Thursday that BMW held for the ActiveE drivers that question was brought up and Jacob Harb, BMW's North American manager of sales and strategy for electric vehicles said he wanted to straighten out the confusion around a comment that a BMW representative once said, and that was that the REx wasn't meant for daily use. Jacob said you can certainly use it every day if you need to, but that BMW didn't envision the car being used by someone that has a 120 or 130 mile daily commute. The car could do it, but if your daily driving needs were this extensive then perhaps a different vehicle might be a better choice. He was then asked about taking it on a long drive and refilling the tank and continuing to drive. Again he said that BMW doesn't really envision people using the car like that all the time, but technically it's perfectly capable of doing so. He even said that technically speaking, you could drive an i3 from New York to LA simply by stopping for gas every 50 or 60 miles and refueling, and then qualified it by saying, "But I don't know why anybody would want to do that."  And personally I agree.

Driving in LA:

I stopped for quick photo op
I actually had the opportunity to drive the i3 twice, and do a ride along once so I probably spent a collective 20 miles in the car. I had a press pass so I registered for a press drive and then at the ActiveE event we were all allowed one test drive, plus I rode along when fellow Electronaut Todd Crook took his turn. On the first drive BMW handed me a course that they wanted the press to follow. It was basically a 3 mile loop that had you driving five blocks and turn right four times and you ended back where the ride originated from which was the Staples Center parking lot. You were alone, so you could of course vary from the course if you "got lost."  Being from New Jersey and never having driven in LA before I found it difficult staying on course and accidentally drove a little longer. It was pretty much what I expected it to be. Very quick, (we were told it does 0-60 in 7.0 seconds) very quiet (quieter than the ActiveE for sure), it has very responsive steering, an amazingly short turning radius and the braking was probably the best I've ever experienced. I practiced some emergency stops in a parking lot and the car stopped in exceptionally short distances. I can't wait to see official road tests when they measure braking distances. I predict it will deliver some of the shortest braking distances of any car on the road today.

The optional wide nav screen looks great
I really didn't get the chance to push the handling because of the LA city environment but I did have some fun weaving in and out of traffic, sprinting from streetlight to streetlight and mashing the accelerator to the floor at every opportunity. I don't know how it will do auto crossing (yet), but I give it an A+ for making the most fun you can out of city driving. I even tried out the Parking Assistant and it worked perfectly. I also purposely hit every pothole there was - and incidentally LA doesn't have nearly as many of them as we do in New York, and the car absorbed them without a problem and I didn't hear any unusual rattles or noises that I've read a few other journalists report when driving over bumps. The regenerative braking was about 10% weaker than it is on the ActiveE, but it's still by far the strongest regenerative braking on any electric vehicle. I'd say the Volt in low driving mode and the Model S are tied for 2nd, but the i3 has stayed true to BMW's promise of having the strongest regen in the industry which really allows for "one pedal driving." Like on the ActiveE there is what BMW calls a glide mode (basically the ability to coast to improve efficiency). By slightly easing back on the accelerator, the motor decouples and the car freewheels. While this isn't what you would normally need in a city driving environment, it will come in handy at higher speeds on the freeway. By easing back a bit more on the accelerator the motor then reengages and the regenerative braking grabs. 

Lift the armrest & you can slide across
The seats were comfortable and supportive and felt like they would do fine holding you in place during spirited driving but definitely don't grab you into place like seats in a sports car would. This, plus the lack of a center tunnel on the floor does allow you to easily slide across to the other side of the car and exit out of the passenger side if you wanted to, which I did just to see how easy it would be. The back seats have plenty of room for two big adults. I even brought along three passengers on my second test drive to see how we all fit and if the extra 600+ lbs would effect the driving dynamics. The car was slightly slower as you would expect but the handling felt just as good as when I was driving alone but again, I couldn't push it much on the streets of LA but I did make some rapid lane changes at about 40 mph and the car felt precise and planted even with the full load. 

What was learned: 

As I mentioned above I've had a lot of people ask me i3 questions recently and I promised I'd do my best to get answers once I drove the car and had the opportunity to speak to the program managers again. Without listing the specific questions here the answers to most of what I've been asked:

-The range extender engine is liquid cooled, but it's a different system and coolant than what is used for the battery management system. In fact, the i3 REx has three separate cooling systems. One for the BMS, one for the passenger cabin and one for the REx engine. The battery pack uses air conditioning refrigerant and the REx engine uses conventional liquid coolant.

-Waste heat from the REx is not used to heat the cabin.

-In the US the heat pump is standard on all BEV i3s, but it's not available on the i3 REx. BMW doesn't believe it's a necessary option if you have the range extender.

-Yes, you can certainly precondition the cabin (heat or cool) and the battery even if you have the REx. (Two people from the UK asked me this so evidently there is inaccurate info somewhere there)

-European delivery will not be offered on the i3.

-There are no optional interior color choices. Each interior level only comes in the color shown. So you can't for instance get the Terra World with gray interior, it only is available in the brown leather like the pictures shown above.

-The REx does not turn on until the state of charge is under 5%. It is robust enough to maintain the charge under all but the most strenuous conditions. You can manually shut it off so it doesn't turn on at all for instances when you know you'll make your destination on battery alone. If you do so it resets once you turn the car off and on again. This way you can't forget you shut the REx off.

-The REx has start/stop technology and shuts off when you are driving under 10mph unless the SOC is so low that it needs to stay on to get the car to 5% SOC. This is so that the car remains quiet at low speeds and while parked. This means you can't park the car with the REx on and let it charge up for a while.

-There is no speed limiter when the REx is running, but there is when you choose Eco Pro+ mode. In Eco Pro+ mode you are limited to 56 mph. Jose Guererro showed the ActiveE group a picture of the speedometer he took while driving an i3 with the REx running and he was going about 70-75mph (I don't remember exactly) he also said the car was maintaining the charge without a problem at that speed.

*UPDATE: The US i3's will not be speed limited in Eco Pro+ mode like I wrote above. The European i3's are though, and the car I drove was a European spec i3, so when I put it in Eco Pro+ mode the speed restriction display showed, which is why I reported it as such.

-Heated seats are optional, and this was a bit of a head scratcher: You can't precondition the passenger cabin with heat unless you get the seat heater option. I don't get that at all, but that's the way it is. Anyone who lives in an area that has cold temperatures during the year simply must get the heated seats option in my opinion or they will regret it later.

-The rear seats fold down completely flat and split 50/50. 

-Comfort Access is standard with Giga and Terra World trim packages, as is the sunroof.

-The battery pack is comprised of 8 modules which each have 12 individual cells. The cells are supplied by Samsung but BMW assembles the modules in house.

-You have to get the Parking Assistant package to get the rear view camera, it's not a standalone option.

-US orders will begin in January, not in November as previously reported on

-i3s bound for the US will begin production in March, likely arrive in the US for delivery sometime in April.

I was also asked to take some specific pictures, here they are:

Taken by my friend Andre

There were 6 CCS quick chargers there

The display while DC fast charging

One battery module contains 12 cells

There is one more thing that I learned. For some reason, BMW has decided to omit a state of charge gauge. My head nearly exploded when I found this out. Both the MINI-E and ActiveE had state of charge meters and quite honestly it's all I use when I drive. I never use the predicted remaining miles, or the bar graph. I love the simplicity of a simply number, from 0 to 100% to tell me how much energy I have to work with. I am not alone either, when the other ActiveE drivers found out they were as shocked as I was. In fact we brought it up and protested so much the i3 management team promised they would revisit this. I'm going to dedicate my next blog post on this topic, because I don't want this post to be all about the SOC. Other than this topic, most everything else was extremely positive. The car drives as great as I had hoped it would and BMW announced to the ActiveE group that as a thank you for our participation, they would be making a special edition i3 that will only be available for us, and our cars will be some of the first i3s delivered to the US.  I hope I got to everyone's questions and requests. Please leave any other questions in the comment area and I'll answer them if I can.


  1. Excellent! I've been waiting for this, thanks Tom!

    Bill Donnelly

  2. Sounds great except the state of charge indicator. Did they say why they left is off? There has to be a reason. Also I didn't see a battery temperature display. Is that on there somewhere?

  3. Thank you, Tom! (Stan J)

  4. Great write-up, Tom! It was good to see you in LA, thank you for coming out to the West Coast again.

  5. Terrific summary, Tom. Glad to finally meet you after reading your always great posts for quite some time.

  6. Good info & thanks for answering the question about a REx car being able to pre-heat the cabin, glad to hear it.

  7. Great job, Tom!

    I wonder if the omission of a state of charge gauge is some sort of reaction to the Nissan Leaf debacle?

  8. Thanks Tom! The only other question I have is: What is the range degradation in the northeast cold? I'm kind of glad they have the east coast event in December and I'm hoping to find out first hand.

    1. Where are the details of that event?

    2. He is talking about a private event for BMW ActiveE lessees. We will have the opportunity to test drive the i3 and ask the program managers questions about it.

  9. Outstanding review! I am surprised that excess heat from the REx can't be used to heat the cabin. That seems like, literally, a waste.

  10. Terrific review and summary of "what we know so far". Thank you! I may have misunderstood, but I believe the "Heated Seats" option is linked to battery preconditioning. If you don't choose heated seats then you won't be able to warm the batteries. And I also think I heard that battery cooling uses the car's air conditioning system.

    1. Correct Raz. I mentioned above that I believe the seat heating option is absolutely necessary for anyone that lives in a cold climate. Very weird that the heating preconditioning is linked to it - perhaps it's just a way to get you to pay for heat pre-conditioning and to not force people that live in warm climates and don't need to pre-heat the car or pack to pay for something they won't use.
      I hope the client advisers really explain this to customers that live in cold areas - they NEED this option.

      Yes, the battery cooling uses the A/C refrigerant, not liquid coolant like Tesla uses. BMW believes this is safer because the refrigerant will simply escape the module if punctured and liquid coolant can act as an accellerant in the case of a fire. Some people believe this is part of Tesla's current fire issues.

    2. To clarify, as I understand it from Tom's writeup above, the battery system does use A/C refrigerant (e.g. R-12, R-134, R-401, whatever) but doesn't use the cabin's A/C system. There's a difference.

      Liquid coolant in the battery was also a factor in the Volt fires at NHTSA's facility in mid 2011. So a very interesting choice by BMW there.

    3. Correct Chris. That is what I was referring to when I wrote :" In fact, the i3 REx has three separate cooling systems. One for the BMS, one for the passenger cabin and one for the REx engine. The battery pack uses air conditioning refrigerant and the REx engine uses conventional liquid coolant. " but maybe I wasn't clear enough.

  11. Test drove it as well. It looks a lot better in person. It is very nice overall and is VERY fast. Also one of the girls inside that sets you up inside... Andrea... is lovely.

  12. Thanks Tom. Seems like it was an excellent trip.
    No battery state of charge indicator and apparently no state of charging indicator either (supply voltage, current, charging speed [mph]). Disappointing a bit indeed.

    Did you get to play with the navigation and telematics?

    1. No vdiv, I didn't spent a lot of time digging through the iDrive screens. I will be driving the car again in 2 weeks at BMW Headquarters in Woodcliff Lake, NJ and I'll definitely dive deeper in this to see exactly what is shown

  13. Thanks for the full report Tom, the wall charger seems bigger than it has to be. What are your thoughts on that?
    Ed B

    1. I agree it appears larger than I would prefer it to be. However there are yet-to-be announced future features it will offer which will make it unique.

  14. Tom, you said "The REx does not turn on until the state of charge is under 5%." Does that mean there will be no way to force it to turn on earlier in US models?

    1. That is correct. European cars can will have the ability to manually turn on the REx once the state of charge in under 80%. That feature will be disabled for the US market. This is obviously a certification/regulatory compliance issue. The program managers stressed that it really won't be necessary and people are worrying about a situation that they would probably never encounter because the REx will be able to keep the car charged for just about any circumstance.

    2. That being said, I bet someone comes out with a hack for that rather quickly ;)

    3. What about I-70 westbound from Denver to the continental divide, at 65 MPH up a 6% grade? :-(

    4. You can't tow a 40' sloop with it either! Use the right tool for the job. If you need to frequently drive up 6% grades for 20 or 30 miles at a time at 65 mph than I probably wouldn't recommend the i3 for you - nor would I if you have 3 kids and it's your only car. This, like every car won't be the perfect fit for every person! ;)

  15. Excellent review Tom! Btw, I just joined the i3 Facebook group, thanks!

  16. Thanks for the great write-up Tom!

    I was wondering if you experienced any of the same difficulties as Nikki? She mentioned that the coast position of accelerator was a bit difficult to locate and the different creep behavior depending on if you used the brake or re-gen to come to a stop. She also mentioned that the brakes are not applied if you stop using re-gen which has the potential to cause issues in a rear crash. Do you have any more information or opinions?


  17. Tom,

    Does the i3 come with a spare tire?

    1. No spare and they aren't run flats either. You get a can of compressed air that also seals the leak. Many cars, especially EV's are doing this now, just like the LEAf and Volt.

  18. Tom,

    Any mention of service/maintenance requirements?

  19. A BMW rep said they will likely recommend you bring it in once a year just to check everything over.

  20. How cool was that having a full Car diversion System best marine speakers 6x9 Through this I really makes the most of my ride each time uniquely while out and about with a few companions. So amazing!

  21. How cool was that having a full Car diversion System best 6x9 speakers Through this I really makes the most of my ride each time uniquely while out and about with a few companions. So amazing!