2014 BMW i3
2014 BMW i3
2014 BMW i3
2014 BMW i3. Click image to enlarge

Review by Lesley Wimbush, photos by Lesley Wimbush and courtesy BMW

Amsterdam, Netherlands – Named for the dam that crosses the river Amstel, this charismatic city in the Netherlands is one of the world’s toughest places to obtain a driver’s license. As such, Amsterdam has developed a complex network of transportation alternatives and has a vibrant and thriving bicycle culture that’s well supported by dedicated bicycle lanes.

The city’s core is like a wheel’s hub, framed by concentric ring roads and canals, its spokes creating multiple intersections of seeming chaos.

It’s probably the perfect place to launch an all-electric city car with an onboard connectivity system that not only locates any available charging stations, but the timetables of alternate transportation choices should the traffic become too congested.

The 2014 BMW i3, the first of BMW’s new  “i” electric lineup, has been in development since 2007.  Over the past few years, we’d visited the company’s Munich facility, where we saw the carbon-fibre safety cells in development, and the US manufacturing plant where BMW produces their own carbon fibre – thus bringing down the costs of this revolutionary yet very expensive material. This spring, we toured the Leipzig, Germany plant where the “i” cars are produced, admiring the clean, quiet and emissions-free workspace, the crash testing and repair shop requiring only strong glue and pressure instead of costly and noisy traditional practices, and the wind-powered turbines that provide the electricity for the entire operation.

Since its inception the i3 project’s emphasis has been on sustainability – from production in the entirely wind-powered Leipzig plant, through its emission-free operation and its construction of recycled and recyclable materials.

And now – we finally got to drive it.

The first responses to my hastily tweeted photos during our two-day test drive were less than complimentary.

Acknowledged – the i3 isn’t exactly pretty. With its boxy shape, odd beltline and oversized wheels – it’s a bit alien.

2014 BMW i3
2014 BMW i3
2014 BMW i3. Click image to enlarge

Here’s thing – although the i3 comes from a manufacturer whose reputation was built on producing some of the finest performance machines money can buy, this is not what the i3 is about. BMW designed it to be a “mobility solution”, one that moves comfortably within congested urban settings while providing constant feedback to its driver. BMW is looking towards a future where sustainability represents the “new premium”, and after spending over 2.7 billion developing the i sub-brand they’re no doubt hoping to capitalize on that.

With our boundless space, vast sweeping roadways and continuing love for large, powerful automobiles, it’s hard for us to really visualize the environment that produced a vehicle like this. But they exist all over the rest of the world, which is becoming increasingly urbanized. The tiny Netherland’s advanced infrastructure puts us to shame with our lack of planning and overwhelming gridlock.  There are 5,000 charging stations in the Netherlands alone, and many incentives to support EVs. Despite the extremely narrow width of the roadways, dedicated bike lanes exist everywhere here – and indeed, in most of Europe.

BMW’s i3 is an all-electric four-seater built on an aluminum platform with a carbon-fibre frame. While that chunky, alien design might be a bit “unsettling” for our North American palates, in the modern, industrial landscape juxtaposed with the narrow, cobbled, labyrinthine road network of Amsterdam, the i3 fit right in.  Outwardly, the only indication that it’s a product of the Bavarian Motor Works company is the signature “twin kidney grille” – and in this case it’s purely decorative – having no engine, the i3 doesn’t need to breathe.  It’s rather a jarring design, with its blunt, bulldog face, sharp jutting side panels and a rear end that looks downright angry.

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