We live in an era of "disruption" and "innovation," when radical change is introduced one day and accepted as the norm the next. In such a time maybe it's somehow appropriate that BMW, best known for high-speed luxury supercruisers and corner-carving sports sedans, has gone so far against type with its upright, eco-minded i3 electric city car. Iconoclastic though it is, the i3 is still a BMW in its driving responses and high-tech approach -- and price.

Pricing and Equipment

The i3 is available in two versions: the standard electric-only car starts at a considerable $42,400 and the Range Extender (REx) model, which adds a 34-horsepower gasoline engine borrowed from BMW's motorcycle division, has a base price of $46,250. The i3 is eligible for available federal and state tax incentives.

Each model is available in three trim levels, which BMW calls Worlds and whose differences mostly show up in interior fittings. The base model is Mega World, which features trim made from high-grade recycled materials. Your ticket to Giga World adds $1,500 to the sticker and includes SiriusXM satellite radio and significant interior upgrades. Opting for Tera World costs $2,500 over base price and fits full leather upholstery to the seats, among other details.

The option list is short, especially for an upscale German car: a navigation/collision-avoidance suite, here labeled Technology + Driving Assistant, is available along with an automated parking system, bigger wheels, a Harman Kardon stereo and a few other conveniences.

Take it all together and no one is going to choose an i3 because it's a frugal and cost-effective means of transportation. An i3 REx Tera World with a few options (Technology + Driving Assistant, Parking Assistant, metallic paint, maybe the nice-looking 20-inch wheels) and delivery weighs in near $50,000 -- after tax incentives. Still, it's easy to see how the i3 will have plenty of appeal to a considerable number of well-heeled eco-minded customers.

Performance Pros

BMW i3 Rear

The i3 may be an electric city car, but it's still a BMW and that means it has to drive well. Thankfully the i3 lives up to most expectations and operates on a higher dynamic plane than its comparatively sluggish mainstream competitors.

  • Acceleration and all-around driveability are more than respectable -- the electric motor makes power and torque comparable to the engine in a 1990s-era 325i. The i3 is not our first choice for Autobahn blitzes, but in urban use we never lacked for plenty of responsive power.
  • Handling is a clear step above anything else in the mainstream-electric game. BMW's radical LifeDrive design -- a carbon-fiber passenger capsule on top of the powerplant and chassis -- keeps weight down and helps give the i3 the feel and responsiveness that have long defined BMWs.
  • The regenerative-braking system is stronger -- and better -- than on any other electric or hybrid car currently in production. We were able to drive the i3 using only one pedal in urban traffic, feeling completely at ease as the car fed its kinetic energy back into the battery while slowing and stopping.
  • Speaking of which, at 124 eMPG and a rated 81 miles of range without the rage-extending motor the i3 is the most efficient four-wheeled vehicle on the market today.

Performance Cons

  • The downside to that nimbleness is a somewhat stiff ride. (Again, classic BMW.)
  • Long uphill climbs will badly tax the battery system, even with the Range Extender engine spinning.
  • BMW makes it very clear that the Range Extender is intended to be a limited-use backup system. The i3 REx is not a Prius-style hybrid and a potential buyer should not expect to use it as such. The fuel tank for the REx holds about two gallons of gas -- enough to maybe double the electric range -- and the extra weight and complexity take away from the pure electric's sprightly attitude.

Interior Pros

BMW i3

Sci-fi lines meets high-end furniture in one of the most blissed-out spaces on wheels. BMW's interior designers focused on providing the i3's occupants with a serene and calming environment, and the i3 succeeds in being a soul-soothing way to get from place to place in a chaotic urban environment.

  • The interior is arranged to provide as much space as possible. Tricks such as thin-shell front seats and subtle component arrangement strategies add to both the impressive amount of physical room and the sense of airy calm.
  • The Giga World's leather-and-wool upholstery and open-pore eucalyptus paneling make for one of the most beautiful interiors ever installed in a production automobile.

Interior Cons

  • A full sense of inner Zen may depend on how quickly you adapt to the unusual secondary control pod-stalk-device arrangement. It's not ergonomically troublesome, but will require a bit of practice.
  • Some of the avant-garde material choices can seem odd, like the recycled fiber-impregnated plastic paneling in the Mega World.
  • The funky rear half/coach doors don't open unless the fronts are open, so backseat passengers can be locked in unless the front passengers are mindful of the arrangement and mature enough to not take advantage of it.

The Most Pleasant Surprise

It looks nothing like any other BMW and is unlike anything else the company has built, but the brand's core principles of control and dynamic ability are still very present -- if reframed for the i3's life as an urban transportation system.

The Least Pleasant Surprise

Long trips are technically doable with the REx but will involve frequent fuel stops, a need which is both annoying and completely at odds with the i3's clean-electric image.

The Bottom Line

It's not cheap and it still lives within the limits of modern electric-car reality, but in a lot of ways the i3 is an audacious success. Choose the driveline based on your usage habits, but the Giga World's gorgeous interior is well worth the price.