BMW i3 Design, Especially Its Doors, Requires A Learning Curve

By · November 22, 2013

2014 BMW i3

The design treatment makes the short and slightly tall BMW i3 feel even more squat.

Last month, without even driving the landmark BMW i3 electric car, I questioned if designers shot themselves in the foot with an overly funky design. That resulted in a few angry emails. How dare I say the car is weird without seeing it in the flesh and driving it? Well, on Wednesday, I had my first brief spin in the i3, as part of the media days of the 2013 Los Angeles Auto Show. What’s the verdict? It’s growing on me.

Unquestionably, the way the i3 drives—with its strong regen braking and one-pedal driving—sets it apart from every car on the market (except for the Tesla Model S). The quality of the interior, with its retrained quasi-Scandinavian feel, premium materials and Teutonic attention to detail, puts the electric competition to shame. Those core features, ones that matter most, were never in question.

2014 BMW i3

The interior of the i3, with its sculpted wood dashboard and floating nav monitor, is gorgeous.

2014 BMW i3

The contrasting materials make the i3 feel like one car trapped in another.

But I am still finding it difficult to warm up to the i3’s street-level exterior appearance—especially key features such as a door design with questionable functionality, a blunt nose that makes the car feel squat, and a disjointed overly busy choice of conflicting surfaces.

“The details need to be learned,” said Oliver Walter, project manager BMW i, while we stood next to the car in the i Pavillion across the street from the L.A. convention center. He three out terms such as streamflow, flap design and Open U headlights. “It’s a different language,” he told me.

Door Dance: One, Two, Cha Cha Cha

2014 BMW i3

The i3's 20-inch wheels are hot. But the front end of the i3 was described by one of my friends as "having an overbite."

I appreciate that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. But the burnt orange and black design in this execution appears to me that there is orange i3 trapped inside the black shell of a slightly bigger i3.

Again, the car provides an amazing ride, and the interior is flawless in its execution. But I can’t say the same for the “coach doors,” a term BMW prefers over “suicide doors.” Tom Moloughney, a long-time BMW EV driver and contributor to PluginCars.com, demonstrated the multi-step process required to enter the backseat in these photos.

2014 BMW i3

Maybe BMW's Walter is right that it will take “less than a day” to learn its ways, but the first try or two were complicated. If getting into the back by yourself, first you open the front door; then the back door; then you need to stretch way forward to close the front door—a process requiring even stronger yoga skills in reverse. Sure, it’s not that often, probably, that you’re sitting in the back for long without the driver getting in, but it does happen.

Here’s something else: those back windows do not open at all. No roll down and no venting hinge. Also, front passengers cannot be buckled into a seat belt if another passenger wants to get in back. The seat belts are harnessed to the small back door—try to get in while the driver is buckled, and you give him or her a squeeze. Make the mistake of closing the front door first, and the back door awkwardly squishes into the front door. The panels are thermoplastic panels, and should not be prone to dents.

2014 BMW i3

Unbuckle first, before opening the back door, or you get squeezed.

2014 BMW i3

Don't forget to close the back door first, or you'll be slamming the back door into the front door.

As Walter suggest, you have to learn these rules—which after a short time probably won’t be a big deal, might even be a part of the car’s charms. “It’s different. It stands out. An it’s very futuristic,” said Walter.

2014 BMW i3

For such as a small car on the outside, there's a ton of room on the inside. Put both seats down in back, and there's plenty of room to toss gear in back.

Apparently, there are plenty of customers who don’t share my reservations. Walter told me that, even if you get on a waiting list today, you might not take delivery of a brand new 2014 BMW i3 electric before May.

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