When BMW brings its all-electric i3 to the U.S. next spring, its green cred won't rely solely on a zero-emissions powertrain. Its thermoplastic bodywork will be made at a facility that's powered with hydroelectricity. Its leather seats will be tanned with olive oil. Even the car's key will be sourced from a castor oil biopolymer.

BMW's commitment to sustainability is a deeper shade that, like the rest of the cars in its lineup, will require an entirely different sort of green to buy in.

The first battery-powered BMW available for outright purchase, the i3 is the follow-up to the lease-only MINI e and BMW Active E. Its starting price: $41,350, before applying a $7,500 federal tax credit; or $45,200 for the version that includes a gas-powered range extender.

BMW will deliver cars to the West Coast next May. But it has a handful of i3s in Los Angeles recently and was offering media test drives as part of the L.A. Auto Show.

Powered with a 22-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery and electric motor that makes 170 horsepower, the i3's acceleration is quick and satisfying. The i3 is impressively light at 2,700 pounds. Drivable in three different modes, its default is its most energy intensive comfort setting. BMW says the comfort setting allows up to 100 miles of driving, though in the afternoon I tested the car on a choreographed route that was just 43 miles, its fully charged projected range was closer to 80.

Pushing the button on the center console switches to the more economical Eco Pro and Eco Pro Plus modes, which up the potential range to 112 and 128 miles, respectively. Still, those figures are likely only attainable in low-speed, stop-and-go city traffic.

A 650cc, two-cylinder engine sourced from BMW's motorcycle unit and 2.4-gallon fuel tank are available as a "range extender" and can almost double the car's traveling distance by acting as an on-board generator that supplies power to the batteries. At no point does the gas engine ever drive the rear wheels, however.

The i3 applies many performance characteristics for which BMW is best known, namely rear-wheel drive and a weight distribution that is split almost 50/50 front and back. Still, its handling isn't on par with a 3 Series, largely due to its relatively high profile of its cabin and seats.

The i3 uses the same LifeDrive architecture as the BMW i8. A "life module" made from high-strength carbon fiber reinforced plastic houses the driver and passengers, while an aluminum "drive module" holds the electric powertrain and suspension, helping to lower the car's center of gravity.

The center of gravity just didn't feel low enough, especially when cornering. Careening through canyons, it felt tall – a situation that wasn't helped by Bridgestone Ecopia tires that had short sidewalls but were otherwise sheathing 20-inch rims, which seemed too big for a car that is smaller than BMW's 1 Series.

Like all modern electric cars, the i3 uses a regenerative braking system that captures the kinetic energy from slowing and uses it to recharge the battery while driving and to extend its range. The i3's pedal resistance is more aggressive than most. Designed for "one-pedal" driving, the accelerator has a lot of push-back when released to recapture as much energy as possible and also reduce the constant game of footsie drivers play with the brake and accelerator pedals.

At first, I felt like I was wrestling the accelerator, but eventually I came to appreciate how effective it was at moderating speed. Especially when entering corners, I rarely needed to brake.

The i3 will be available in three trims, pricing for which won't be announced until early next year but is likely to cost $1,500 to $2,500 per tier. The test cars BMW made available to the media were outfitted at the highest, Tera level, with 20-inch wheels and leather seats.

The i3 seats four, but not with a lot of comfort. While the front offered an enormous amount of leg room, the seats themselves felt firm rather than luxurious. And the rear seats don't offer nearly enough leg room when the front seats are pushed all the way back.

Getting in to the rear seats is, at least, easy. Passengers access the back with coach doors that swing toward the back of the car. Accessing the cargo area is done with a hatch that, with the rear seats collapsed 50/50, offers as much interior space as a 3 Series. Even better, for an electric car, the rear cargo area hasn't been compromised by the batteries, which are housed in the bottom, middle portion of the vehicle. It's entirely flat.

The interior of the i3 is elegant, if unusual, and recalls midcentury modern design. The dash is made from recycled carbon fiber that has a heathered, felt-like appearance but only a slight texture when touched. It's trimmed in a matte-finish eucalyptus that was, of course, sustainably forested.

Embedded in the broad, swooping dash are two screens. The one before the driver indicates the driving mode, projected range, energy consumption and speed, while a larger, horizontally mounted screen in the center is equipped with navigation and a built-in range assistant. In addition to being the main interface for multimedia, radio and telephone, the screen's nav mode also shows how far the driver can travel based on its state of charge and even remembers how the car is normally driven to help determine its projected range.

While the cabin is quiet and the interior is nicely finished, drivers expecting a true BMW luxury experience are likely to be disappointed by the i3. A Tesla it is not. It's more like an upscale Prius.


2014 BMW I3:

–Powertrain: 22 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery, direct drive

–Range: Up to 125 miles per charge

–Recharge time: 3 hours (with level 2, 220-volt charger), 30 minutes (with DC combo fast charger)

–Horsepower: 170

–Torque: 184 pound-feet

–0 to 60 mph acceleration: 7.2 seconds

–Top speed (governed): 93 mph

–Weight: 2,700 pounds

–Base price, excluding destination charge: $41,350. A $7,500 federal tax credit applies.



Susan Carpenter writes for the Orange County Register. She may be reached at scarpenter@ocregister.com.


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