BMW i3

A few months ago, my girlfriend and I bought a 1984 Porsche 944. It’s a fun car in a nice spec, with low miles, finished in Pasadena Yellow over brown. But it’s also a 37-year-old German car, with placebo-based air conditioning and radiator cooling fans that disappear when you need them most. It needed a bit of work until it was on the level, mechanically, of our 635CSi or 733i, but that didn’t stop us from driving it from its acquisition point in Palm Springs, California, deep into Los Angeles.

Plenty of you know all too well the ordeal of driving something that predates Microsoft Windows across Southern California.

I’ve done it in plenty of other cars—E24s, E23s, plenty of varieties of E30—and in most of BMW’s contemporary lineup. At best, it’s a sun-baked cacophony of shift points and car-spotting, and at worst it’s a game of chicken with the temperature and voltage readings. I never realized until this week how exhausting it all is. The noise, the sun, the drum of engines on both sides as you balance window-down livability with closed-cabin serenity. And that’s because this week we were back in Los Angeles.

And this time we had a BMW i3.

One of these cars is a comfortable highway cruiser, pleasant in every environment. The other is a 635CSi.

It wasn’t necessarily by choice, but since the 944 was off the road for the time being (if there are any Porsche engineers reading this, I’d love to know what issue they found with the reliable, BMW-type fan clutch on early 944s), we ended up borrowing this i3 REx from longtime friend and collaborator (and fellow BMW CCA member) Mike Perlman.

Although this particular car is a 2019 model, it should be noted that the i3 is hardly a new car. We’ve talked about it at length before on BimmerLife, but the i3 remains a special case in terms of longevity, lasting far beyond BMW’s typical six-year product cycle following its introduction in 2013. There have been updates and upgrades, as well as the sportier i3S, but even as competitors double offer range and bring new designs to market, the recipe for the i3 has remained the same.

 

On paper, this seems like it would put the i3 in a challenging position—but in practice, it’s anything but obsolete. The interior is still as groundbreaking today as it was eight years ago, storing two people and five cases of film equipment with relative ease. The small, square footprint is still the perfect start to a nimble hot hatch, and the electric motor provides the necessary torque to shoot any gap and thread any merge. One-pedal driving, for me and my recently EV-introduced girlfriend, offered a gentle learning curve. The dynamics are tremendously impressive; as one of our journalist friends put it, “I don’t trust the opinions of someone who drove an i3 and didn’t have fun.”

Initially, the range was my biggest concern, but as most owners and reviewers will testify, the roughly 150 miles of battery-only range offered in the i3 is plenty. We charged twice, out of an abundance of caution (and occasionally leaning into the i3’s hot-hatch credentials with a heavy right foot), and neither impacted our life or our wallet; the first charge was during a visit to the Petersen Automotive Museum on their 50kW fast charger for a small sum (just under $15), and the second was prior to returning the car, at a public fast charger in Griffith Park, which charges up to 80% of the battery’s capacity for free, thanks to the city’s subsidization.

And no, we never came close to engaging the internal-combustion REX engine under the trunk.

Given our tight itinerary, between multiple video shoots, errands, and heading up Angeles Crest Highway alongside an M coupe and a 635CSi, we were in the car all day, and never felt a pang of range anxiety—and that was without the cushion of a designated home charger.

The most impressive piece of the i3 puzzle, however, was something we never felt: exhaustion. Every minute in traffic was a chance to enjoy the calm, silent space, the informative displays, and the thoughtfully curving interior spaces. It was a place where you can hold a conversion and experience a moment of relief that you’re not watching the temperature gauge in a 1984 Porsche, wondering how much sweat the seats will have to soak up before you reach a sweltering garage.

The timing of our trip was especially interesting, since it was a relevant moment to be familiarizing ourselves with the i3 once again. BMW is launching two new electrified models in North America this year, and it’s happening sooner than you might think. The larger iX crossover and the sleek i4 sedan will be coming to market soon, and will no doubt make their presence known on the streets of Los Angeles. 

But the nearly ten-year-old i3 still holds its own. While those new models have more competitive range, and the next generation of power delivery and infotainment, it’s important to remember that BMW is no novice when it comes to electrification, and that time spent in development will only improve the driving experience when these cars go on sale. Having spent a couple of hundred miles in the i3, I can’t wait to test the i4.

There’s still a place for the 944, of course, and the various BMW classics that we have strewn about the country. Perhaps that place is driving up the coast to Monterey, Portland, or Seattle, or cruising the backroads that weave around our house in Vermont. Sometimes the fun car is the one that’s most fun for the given environment; for the abuse of city driving, I’ll take an i3 any day.—David Rose

[Photos by Syd Cummings, David Rose, and BMW Group. Vehicles supplied by Mike Perlman.]

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