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Road test: BMW’s ultimate, all-electric driving machine

The BMW i3 is designed for city driving and has a range of up to 100 miles per charge.The BMW i3 is designed for city driving and has a range of up to 100 miles per charge.
The BMW i3 is designed for city driving and has a range of up to 100 miles per charge.

As I wind through the roads hugging the Pacific shore in Laguna Niguel, Calif., I see a steep hill ahead and gun the accelerator, afraid that the electric motor powering this small car won’t be up to the job. But this is a BMW and true to its heritage, the copper-colored i3 I’m driving shoots up the incline without hesitation.

The all-electric BMW i3, which recently went on sale in the U.S., is a city car with a range of 100 miles on a charge (probably somewhat lower in real driving conditions) and can go 0 to 60 m.p.h. in 7.2 seconds with a top speed of 93—more than enough for any daily driver. The car retails for $41,350, but that’s before a $7,500 federal tax credit. For those worried about range anxiety, the car can be bought with a $4,000 option: a small, supplementary gasoline motor that will add as much as 200 miles to your range.

Despite the i3’s boxy style—you’ll either love it or hate it—it is definitely a BMW (BMW). While the electronic steering doesn’t give you a lot of road feel, the turning is sharp. In a hotel driveway, I turned the steering wheel all the way and started doing 360s. It felt like the car was spinning on an axis.  With plenty of pickup for passing (the 22 kWh battery provides 170 horsepower), you’ll feel no compunction about taking this ride onto a busy highway. One reason the car is so quick and agile is that its body is made of lightweight carbon fiber and aluminum. An aluminum frame that houses the battery gives the car a low center of gravity, and that along with a 50-50 weigh distribution, provides great handling.

The one complaint I had about the ride was that the car is so quiet that I was able to hear some wind noise, which is usually covered up by the roar of a gasoline engine.  My solution: turn on the car’s Harman Kardon sound system.

Perhaps what most impressed me about the i3 was the roomy interior, which the company says has about the same amount of space as its 3-Series. This four-passenger car has plenty of headroom and the back seat can actually fit two adults comfortably. Visibility is excellent, and a back-up camera helps in tight spots.

The fit and finish is what you’d expect of a BMW, even though the company has made heavy use of eco-materials. The light wood trim of the dash is made from eucalyptus, which is primarily planted in Europe and comes from 100% certified, sustainable forests. The interior door panels are made from KENAF fibres, a member of the cotton family, instead of oil-based resins. Even the leather seats were tanned with extract from olive leaves.

The i3 is just the first of a series of electric and hybrid cars coming out of the German automaker. The company is investing heavily in the future of the EV, including a state-of-the-art green factory in Leipzig, Germany, and an advanced fiber carbon factory in Washington state. BMW and Nissan, whose Leaf is the best-selling electric car to date, have reportedly held talks with hot EV maker Tesla (TSLA) about a partnering on charging standards.

Next up in BMW’s lineup will be the remarkably beautiful i8, a $135,700 hybrid sports car whose 357 horsepower will catapult you from 0 to 60 in 4.2 seconds, with a top speed of 155 m.p.h. Doesn’t sound green?  The cars three-cylinder—no, that’s not a typo—engine combined with a small battery will give you the equivalent of about 94 miles per gallon. The well-heeled will have to wait a bit to buy this green rocket. The car goes on sale in the U.S. in July.