Short Drive: BMW i3 & 328d

I drove the future, and it went okay. It all started when I brought my personal car in for service. I had originally planned on dropping my car off and taking a loaner for the day. As I pulled in, I noticed that the usual lineup of cars had been replaced by a handful of i3s. BMW’s “Drive the Future Now” event was in town. It’s a program that allows anyone to get behind the wheel of an i3 for an unaccompanied test drive – for nothing but a questionnaire. We got a ride in the i3 at the NAIAS in Detroit, but they wouldn’t let us get behind the wheel. This was my chance.

BMW i3 1

Everyone associated with the i3 event is, what the media might call, a “millennial.” I assume this only because I’m a millennial too, apparently. Dress code was blue BMW i3 t-shirts and jeans. I was greeted by a young woman named Apple and handed an iPad to sign my life away. After all the press about how Audi planned the “hip and trendy” A3 launch events, I couldn’t help but feel BMW had taken a lesson out of the same playbook. With my soul legally tied to the fate of the i3, I was given a brief walk-around of the car. By now, you should know most of the story. The i3 is BMW’s first 100% electric car, is manufactured with Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic, and uses a host of sustainable and recycled materials. I was shown how easy it was to climb in and out of the back seats thanks to the “coach doors”. BMW’s marketing team doesn’t like the term “suicide doors”. I was shown where the range extender would be if so equipped ($3,850), extolled upon the virtues of DC charging (20 minutes to 80% capactiy), and educated on what BMW calls “one pedal” driving. Oh, and don’t forget that the i3 is the fastest BMW to 40 mph. Take that, M division.

The i3 doesn’t look like anything BMW has ever made, inside or out. I found the “live” bamboo trim to be more cutting board than dash board. But when you’re in the car, it still feels familiar to the rest of BMW’s lineup. The HVAC controls, iDrive cluster, and center screen are all where you expect them. The only “new” bit is the column-mounted drive knob. The cabin is bright and airy, largely in part to the t-top inspired glass roof and low dashboard. Press down the accelerator and the i3 emits nothing but an electric whir. In the absence of sound, you get acceleration. BMW says the 125 kW electric motor compares to a 170 hp, 250 lb-ft torque engine.  Unlike any internal combustion engine, that torque is instant. BMW’s insistence on “one pedal” driving is actually true. You don’t need the brakes, but you do have to have a steady right foot. Any lifting off the throttle brings tangible deceleration as the i3 turns kinetic into potential energy. It requires some adjustment.

BMW i3 6

When you do need to brake, the pedal has a synthetic feel. That didn’t bother me. What did cause temporary alarm was the body roll as I made the first turn. The ultra-narrow tires provide minimal noise and resistance, but don’t to a great job with stability. I’ve seen bicycles with more substantial rubber. Even though the i3 is lightweight, the center of gravity feels high. It might be more sure-footed, but I didn’t have the time to adjust. In truth, you aren’t going to whip this car down a country narrow lane everyday, but that’s where the test route took me. Unfortunately, BMW wouldn’t let me drive the i3 beyond the 4.3 mile test route. That means I wasn’t able to get on the highway, so acceleration and dynamics above 55 mph are still unknown. Early tests of the i3 yield a  0-60 time of 6.9 seconds. I suspect that kind of driving will severely limit the 80-120 mile range.

Now back to the business on-hand. Once I had returned the car, freed my soul, and filled out the questionnaire, I made my way inside to drop off my car for service. The service manager handed me the key for a new 328d xDrive as my loaner car. I couldn’t have scripted a better opportunity. The 328d represents BMW’s latest in diesel technology. It’s just like every other new 3 Series on the road, except without the sparkplugs. BMW’s 2.0L TwinPower Turbo Diesel engine produces 180hp and 280 lb-ft torque. Those figures are pretty close to the i3, but the 3 Series carries an extra 1,000 lbs of weight. How does it stack up?

BMW i3 3

Torque is a wonderful thing, and it makes this 3 Series perfect for darting through traffic. But those extra pounds leave it lagging behind the i3. Yes, the electric car will out-accelerate the diesel car, but not by much. The 328d xDrive needs 7.2 seconds to reach 60 mph, only a few ticks behind the i3. Unfortunately, unlike other diesels we’ve tested, there’s a lot of engine clatter at low speeds. This diesel engine lacks the refinement we’ve seen from VW and Jeep, which is odd considering BMW is no stranger to diesel engines. Over 60 miles, the 328d xDrive returned 36.6 mpg, much better than the other available 3 Series. There’s not much more to be said about this generation of BMW 3 Series. We reviewed the 328i when it debuted, compared the 328i xDrive to the Cadillac ATS, and contrasted the BMW 335i xDrive with the Mitsubishi Evo MR.  That pretty much covers the lineup.

At the time, it was interesting to drive these cars back-to-back. Diesel is usually hallmarked as the efficient option. In the short-term, that’s true. For $40,600, you get an efficient, all-wheel-drive 3 Series. That’s a very safe and well-known thing to do. But for $41,350, you could drive the future. BMW i, right now, is a 100% electric, 100% unknown sub brand. It’s still a BMW, but its not the BMW people know. There’s a price to pay for being an early adopter, but that price isn’t as high as you may think. Yes, the i3 comes with a level of range anxiety. You’d need four charging cycles to match the range of a single tank in the 328d. But it’s faster than its oil-burning counterpart. Practicality is a toss-up, but the 3 Series wins on the grounds of familiarity and acceptability. Like we said, right now the future looks okay. Around town or in a city, the i3 wins. Until charging stations become more prevalent in our area, there’s too much risk to use it for anything else. But as technology gets better and BMW i continues to innovate, the future is only going to look better.

-Christopher Little

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