I recently drove a BMW i3, which is a little egg-shaped hatchback from BMW that you can get with a fully electric drivetrain, or with a plug-in hybrid drivetrain that includes a small range-extending gasoline engine. For the privilege of owning this vehicle, BMW charges around $50,000 — but they shouldn’t.
First off, I should note that I rented this i3 using Turo, which is sort of like Airbnb for cars — it lets you rent other peoples’ cool and interesting cars instead of normal, boring rental cars. I chose the i3 because I’ve always thought it looked cool, and I wanted to test it out. I wasn’t especially delighted.
Now, before I get into why this is, I should mention the varying degrees and ranges offered by the i3, which is unusually complicated — far more than any other electric vehicle. The electric-only i3 could travel 81 miles between charges when it first came out, but that was recently boosted to about 110 miles. Or you can get the i3 with a "range extender," which is a small gasoline engine; those models have an electric range of 97 miles — or, with a full tank of gas, about 150 miles. A "full tank of gas" has recently increased from 1.9 to 2.4 gallons. As a result, the exact range of any i3 depends on which year and version you have — and whether you’re discussing gasoline or pure electric.
If you get past that, there are some more unusual i3 items — like, for example, the trim levels. The i3 is currently offered in four trims: Deka World, Mega World, Giga World and Tera World. There is no "LX," "EX," "328i" or "340i" for the i3. Instead, you get Mega World. Or Tera World. This unusual trim level naming is par for the course for an unusual car.
And, indeed, it is an unusual car. I personally like the way the i3 looks, but its design has undoubtedly been controversial — many people think it’s weird or ugly, but I think it’s cool and futuristic. No matter what your thoughts are, there’s no question it isn’t normal — and that carries over to the interior, which is also a bit futuristic, and filled with recycled materials virtually everywhere you look. There’s also the window line, which has a strange kink in it, the weird tailgate, which is a large, flat black panel that integrates the brake lights and turn signals, and the rear doors, which have no exterior door handles and no roll-down windows. And then there are the tires, which seem to be closer in width to bicycle tires than actual automobile tires.
It’s all a bit charming if you’re interesting in something special — but if you look at it on paper, the i3 starts to get a little less appealing. The base-level i3 starts around $45,500 with shipping — and remember, that’s with a range of just a little over 100 miles. By comparison, the Nissan Leaf has a 150-mile range and a $31,000 starting MSRP, and the Chevy Bolt has a 238-mile range and a $37,600 MSRP. Of course, you can upgrade to the i3 with the range extender for 180 miles of charge — but that starts at $49,300 with shipping, which is nearly twenty grand more than the Leaf for just 30 extra miles of range (and, it should be noted, range that includes adding gasoline). Amazingly, if you add every option to the i3, you can get the price above $60,000, which is massive money considering its specs.
It’s also massive money considering the driving experience. The i3 is nice, sure, but it doesn’t exactly drive like a usual BMW: The steering is light and vague, the handling is acceptable but hardly sports car-like, especially given the tires. The center of gravity is high, and acceleration is mediocre; the fastest i3 does 0-to-60 in 6.8 seconds, and that’s without the range-extending engine. Normally, when you pay extra for a BMW, you’re rewarded with an excellent driving experience — but in this case, the reward seems to only be in the car’s interior and exterior styling.
With all that said, I have to admit the i3 presents a compelling case in two distinct ways. On the used market, it’s almost unbelievably cheap; it takes just seconds of searching on Autotrader to find dozens of used i3 models for around $15,000 — and at that price point, it quickly goes from a bad value to a great one. Additionally, the i3 is offered with big lease incentives from BMW dealers — and if the discount is big enough, it may be worth choosing over a Leaf or a Bolt. But it’s a hard sell at $50,000. Find a BMW i3 for sale
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.