BMW abandons the i3, the car that could have birthed a bright electric future


The BMW i3 has reached the end of the line. Two weeks ago, BMW confirmed that this is the last month the company will be making its quirky and often misunderstood electric vehicle for US customers. In doing so, the automaker acknowledged what many EV owners, enthusiasts, and observers have long believed: The company, which was once lauded as a leader in electrification, has squandered the last eight years.

I don’t say this lightly or without experience—I owned a 2014 BMW i3 for nearly five years. It was my first electric vehicle, and I loved it. Sometimes, I wish I hadn’t sold it. Other times, I’m glad I did. It wasn’t perfect, but it was unique and fun to drive, and it felt years ahead of its time.

The i3 was a polarizing car. Its upright, narrow body rolled on skinny tires, and its layered design was loved or loathed, depending on the customer. But no matter how you feel about the i3, it was a car made by a company with a clear vision of the future, pursued with tenacity and purpose. BMW pitched the i3 as the foundation of an entirely new line, and BMW could have seriously iterated on the design. There was talk in the early days of how easy it would be to simply drop a new carbon fiber reinforced plastic body onto the brilliantly engineered aluminum chassis, creating a suite of models that would explore a wide range of electrified mobility.

But then BMW wavered and abandoned the i3 platform as an evolutionary dead end.

Come August, BMW won’t have a single EV for sale in the US market until next summer’s arrival of the i4, a conservative sedan based on a compromise platform that shares little of the clarity of purpose that defined the i3. The i4 may be a good car, or even a great one, but its late entry to a crowded field underlines just how much time BMW has wasted.

A car from the future

I still remember the first time I saw an i3 in real life. It was at the Boston auto show—a third-tier event—and even there, crowded among the other gleaming BMWs, it stood out. I didn’t immediately fall for its tall, rounded box exterior, but I did swoon over its interior. Here, available for purchase, was a concept car. The front doors swung wide, revealing suicide doors that made the rear seat surprisingly accessible. After I stepped over the carbon-fiber door sill and slid into the front seats, which were swathed in wool fabric and olive-tanned leather, my eyes were drawn to the wide infotainment screen floating over a curving swath of eucalyptus wood.

I had read about this car, but I wasn’t prepared for the impression it made in person.

Months later, over a bowl of cereal, I decided to buy an EV. I didn’t have the i3 in mind at first, but it quickly became a front runner. This was February 2015, and most EVs at the time were short-range affairs. What made the i3 stand out was its range extender, a safety blanket that helped ease me into the idea of buying an EV as our household’s only car. BMW also offered something called the “Flexible Mobility Program,” which loaned fossil fuel-powered BMWs to i3 owners who needed to venture farther afield. Those features, plus a hefty discount and the appeal of driving a car from the future, sold me on it.

The author in 2015 with his new 2014 BMW i3.
Enlarge / The author in 2015 with his new 2014 BMW i3.

Tim De Chant

The car turned heads for the first year I owned it. Pedestrians would gape as I slipped silently by, and other drivers would pepper me with questions at stoplights. I grew addicted to its instant torque and the way it flipped my stomach when I punched the accelerator. If I saw an opening in traffic, I would picture myself in it and—boom—there I was. It wasn’t a Tesla Model S, but it was fast and responsive. Being rear-wheel drive, the i3 handled well around town, and it had an enviable turning radius. Parallel parking in the city was a breeze. The skinny tires made it dart a bit on highways, but I never found that issue problematic.

When BMW was designing the car, the range extender made sense. Lithium-ion batteries cost in the neighborhood of $1,300 per kWh, and most people drive around 30 miles per day or less, so at the time, it made sense to extend the range not by adding batteries but by adding an occasionally used internal combustion engine (ICE). BMW decided the car would operate best as a series hybrid with the engine only charging the battery, never driving the wheels. The company reached deep into its parts catalog, pulled out a 647 cc scooter engine, and tweaked it until it met automotive emissions standards.

The result was less than perfect. In the US, to meet California regulations for range-extended electric vehicles, the ICE only kicked in when the battery’s state of charge dropped below 6 percent. That’s fine if you’re cruising on flat terrain, but climbing mountains meant the range extender couldn’t keep up with demand, and the car quickly slipped into turtle mode.

I hardly used the range extender, though. In retrospect, I probably should have bought a BEV model, as most of the i3’s service visits could be traced to the range-extension feature. The little engine threw errors all the time, and the fuel tank—pressurized because BMW knew that gas would be used only intermittently—had to be replaced because of a faulty pressure sensor. Add it all up, and the check engine light came on more often than it should have. The EV side was much better, though we did also run into a problem with a critical circuit board that controlled the electric motor, charging, and other EV systems. BMW replaced it for free, thankfully, even though it was out of warranty.

A squandered vision

We sold our i3 after owning it for four and a half years. Parting was bittersweet, but a few things made it easier. For one, we knew we didn’t need the range extender anymore. Our family had expanded, and we bought a Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid—a 30-mile plug-in—for hauling and road-tripping. With that as our second car, the i3’s range extender became less of a safety blanket and more of a dead-weight liability.

We briefly considered getting another i3. BMW had addressed one of the car’s main shortcomings by expanding the battery pack, giving the latest BEV model 153 miles of range, about double what ours had. But the rest of the car didn’t change much.

In the early days, BMW spoke of expanding the range, dropping new body styles atop the same platform. I dreamt that we’d someday replace our i3 with a zippy, rear-wheel drive electric wagon. More realistically, I figured an X3-sized crossover was in the cards. After just a few months with the i3, I believed that BMW had what it took to make a truly great version 2. But after years of hearing about reboots and delays, we gave up waiting on BMW and started looking elsewhere. We ended up replacing the i3 with a Volkswagen e-Golf.

I can’t help but think what would have happened if BMW hadn’t given up on the i3. A couple of years after the urban runabout was introduced, the company elevated Harald Krüger to CEO. Young and dynamic, he was supposed to breathe new life into the company. Instead, he spent the next four years hedging rather than sharpening his company’s EV strategy. The unions complained about his waffling, and in 2016, the company’s top labor representative and deputy board chair laid into Krüger. “Management has been slow to decide on investing in more electric models,” Manfred Schoch told Bloomberg at the time. He had been urging the CEO and the board to push forward with more BMW i models. “Anything else would be detrimental to the business.”

Krüger and the rest of the board apparently didn’t listen, though, and the results are what we see today—the i3 left for dead, the iX3 not coming to the US, and the i4 significantly delayed. BMW’s new electric halo, the iX, could have changed the narrative had it been launched a few years ago—or even this year. Instead, when it arrives in the US next year, it will face plenty of competition in the luxury BEV crossover segment, where its targeted 300-mile EPA range will be good but no longer enough to stand out from the crowd.

It’s likely that BMW skated so far in front of its peers that it lost confidence in its direction. What would BMW’s future look like today if it hadn’t balked? It’s hard to say exactly, but I imagine its EV roadmap would be far more inspiring than the half-baked one before us today.

Listing image by Elle Cayabyab Gitlin / Aurich Lawson



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