From EVS 27: Driving the BMW i3 and Volkswagen E-Up

By · November 20, 2013

BMW i3

My test car: at last, an i3 that's more than a static display. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I have been to multiple debutante parties for the BMW i3 electric car, and it was on a rainy afternoon in Barcelona, Spain, during the big international EVS 27 electric car show, that I finally got a chance to drive it.

The behind-the-wheel experience wasn’t totally novel, because the i3 shares its drivetrain with the ActiveE, and I’ve had vivid drives in that one. But the i3 is lighter and more aerodynamic, and the aluminum chassis (with carbon fiber passenger cell) was purpose-built for the car. And it feels much faster—BMW says its 125-horsepower electric motor driving the rear wheels produces 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque.

That’s good for 7.2 seconds to 60 mph, and I’m sure I duplicated that around Barcelona’s roundabouts. Like the Tesla Model S, it takes off with an uncanny burst of quiet power. There is massive amounts of dialed-in regenerative braking, as there was in the MiniE, but the i3 feels far more stable and controlled. It’s one-pedal driving at its best. Lift off the accelerator, and it rapidly sheds speed and comes to rest, as the charge indicator shows you’re feeding the battery pack. There’s no “creep,” so you don’t even need the brakes to stay in place.

All in all, the i3 feels very much a part of the “ultimate driving machine” stable, with very balanced steering and a taut but not jarring ride. This would be one exciting city commuter car, if the congestion opens enough to let you really step on the loud pedal.

I noticed a few details that elude the casual observer when you’re on the outside looking in. The test car lacked the wood accents I’d seen on other show cars, and was attired in fairly somber office-type gray materials. It was tasteful, but without the Danish modern edge of the distressed-looking matte-finish wood. And I’d forgotten that the rear doors lack handles and have to be accessed with the front ones open. I might find that mildly annoying if I owned the car, or maybe I’d get used to it. Storage is okay, and the dash displays and graphics are very nice and cutting edge.

I could get very used to the i3, which I’d probably order with the range extender absent from the tester. There was a range-extender model on the company's show stand, and I saw close-up that the 650-cc motor is hidden away under a screwed-down cover and a trunk mat. Definitely not user-serviceable, unless you want to get busy with a screwdriver. The fuel filler is on the right front fender.

Piloting the E-Up

I also spent some seat time in the Volkswagen E-Up, a very cool small EV that VW really should consider bringing to the U.S. to complement the forthcoming E-Golf. It’s no road rocket, but still feels lively on its way to a 12.4-second zero to 62 mph time. Unlike the i3, this car really does say urban commuter—albeit, one with a rakish tilt.


The E-Up: one for display, one for ride and drive. (Jim Motavalli photo)

As with the E-Up, the focus is on regen braking, and you really get to play with it here, with four specific modes (including free coasting) that can be dialed in via the shifter (which as in most EVs actually has only one speed). I liked to keep the car in “B” mode (for “braking”) because I’m a glutton for regenerative braking—bring it on. Own this car and you’ll find yourself playing with the regen levels like those manual shifting options on automatic cars.

VW tells me the E-Up is available in Germany, headed for France and Spain. This very likable EV is $36,000 in Europe, although you can't really compare European prices to what you would pay in the U.S.

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