The Your AAA team recently got the keys to a shiny black- and blue-accented 2019 BMW i3s for a test drive.
Excited to experience BMW power and luxury, we took to the road, each of us spending a few days with the car on our daily commutes and errands. It even went on a road trip from our office in Garden City, N.Y., to AAA Northeast headquarters in Providence, R.I.
We drove the 184-horsepower BMW i3s with the optional gasoline range extender, which adds almost 50 more miles of drive time. It was the first time any of us had driven an electric vehicle and the inclusion of a gas extender helped to calm any ‘range anxiety.’
This is the perspective of our editorial team – Andrew Rosen, Jerry Ascierto, Marisa Perjatel, Sarah Hopkins, Andrew Sheldon and Matt Robertson – based on our individual experiences behind the wheel of an electric BMW for the first time. We are not car experts, just typical consumers with varying lifestyles and driving demands. Below is a transcribed version of our discussion. Click the audio player below to listen.
Marisa: My first impression of the BMW i3s was that it was very cute and compact. It was a smaller vehicle but I kind of liked that. It’s been a while since I’ve driven a car that size and I just feel like it’s a little more fun when a car is smaller and sportier. I was also very impressed with the inside. There’s all-natural materials and it looks very cool. The infotainment system is also really impressive and there’s a lot of options; it took me a little time to get used to toggling through and using the dial control, but after that, it was easy.
Sarah: I agree. The car looks almost smaller on the outside than it is on the inside. You have a lot of room to maneuver and I love the materials on the inside, especially on the dashboard. I plugged my phone into the entertainment system almost right away. I have a similar but much lower-tech entertainment system in my car, so it was easy to adapt to this one. I really liked it.
Andrew R.: I would echo that sentiment. The car does appear very small from the outside, but once you get inside, the amount of room that you have is surprising. I drive a Volkswagen Atlas, which is like a yacht. So it is very refreshing to drive something small, yet the inside does feel sizable, which is nice. I also love when you close the door, it has that very solid feel and that solid sound that makes you feel safe. I also noticed the amount of glass right away; from both the front and the back, the visibility is great. And with the sunroof on top, getting some sunlight into the car is a really nice touch.
Andrew S.: It’s definitely a compact car, but as someone who’s driven larger cars almost exclusively, I kind of enjoyed that. It was a fun ride. Inside, it’s very upscale and luxurious with the wood finishing. The controls were very easy to use. I liked having the dial in the center console so that you didn’t have to reach out to change anything. I also know that it has vehicle memory, so that depending on who is driving, the car automatically reverts back to their custom settings. That makes it so much easier to get the audio, temperature, mirrors and such just the way you like them instead of having to adjust them every time you get in the car.
Jerry: I’d never driven such a small car and I’ve never driven an electric car, so there was a learning curve. But I was happily surprised to find that not only did it have great pickup – I mean, it had some real giddy-up for such a small vehicle – it just handled beautifully. I’m not saying it had a zero-turn radius, but it felt as though it did at times. The breadth and depth of the infotainment system was off the charts as well. But as someone who’s never driven a car that had such a system, I found the screen a bit distracting and in fact, turned it off. So, there was a learning curve.
Matt: I am 6 feet, 6 inches tall. So my first impression was fear that I would not fit inside. I was happily surprised that with the seat all the way back, I was able to fit very well. It was almost like you could roll a soccer ball in between the two front seats; the appearance made it seem larger inside. When I drove it, I thought it had pretty decent pickup but the braking was the most challenging thing to get used to. At first, it felt like a golf cart when you would accelerate, but it slows down quickly when you let off the brake. But once it I got used to that, I really enjoyed it. I think it had all the typical luxuries from a BMW that you would expect with the moon roof and the Apple CarPlay. It also had a nice sound system, which I thoroughly tested out, and it was premium.
BMW i3s Driving Experience
Marisa: As someone who’s never driven an electric vehicle before, it definitely took some getting used to. The car brakes for you, to conserve energy. Just getting used to that was a little bit of a learning curve, but once you’re into it, I found the driving experience to be a lot of fun. It’s definitely a solid car. It has good pickup. It rides like a BMW. It’s a BMW electric car, but it’s still a BMW.
Sarah: Yeah, I’d have to agree that it’s sort of like a hair-trigger brake once you take your foot off the gas. Gas, I guess, being a metaphorical term. It was actually really interesting how different it is than driving a gas car. It’s a really quiet car because it’s not really burning anything, which was super weird. I definitely liked it. When I got back into my actual car after I was done with it, I was like, this thing is so loud. Going back to the infotainment system, the backup camera was incredible. It was like in HD. It had a panoramic shot of my neighborhood as I was pulling out of the driveway. My own car has a backup camera, but it’s piddly and little in comparison. Just as a safety feature, I think the panoramic shot is a really important addition to any car.
Andrew R.: The driving experience for me was really enjoyable. I think again we’re all kind of hitting on the learning curve and that’s definitely there, but I think it’s very brief. I’m used to a touchscreen infotainment system, so getting used to that toggle in the middle was weird for me. One thing I did find is that the acceleration was so much more than I would have expected. I also found that I had a neighbor or two stop me and ask how I got the car … they thought it was a prototype for a car, which is fascinating because this car has been out for almost five years now, but it still looks very modern and high tech and seems to spark some conversation.
Sarah: We’re all talking about how small it is, but in the past, electric cars have been like two seats in a steel bubble, basically. For an electric car, it does look really futuristic.
Andrew R.: And I would just tack on that the maneuverability was great. I previously owned a Mini Cooper and I would say the driving was sort of akin to that. Definitely has good pickup and good braking. You feel in control and very confident that the car is very competent, which is nice.
Andrew S.: I drove the car on Friday during lunch and then drove it home that afternoon. By the time I got home I felt totally comfortable driving it. So that learning curve is pretty short. And once you do get comfortable, it’s a really fun driving experience. Like we all said, I was afraid of taking it out on the highway just cause it’s very small and I wasn’t sure how fast it would go, but it is very solidly built car and the acceleration was probably the one thing that impressed me the most about it.
Jerry: I’d echo the sentiments about the acceleration particularly. But while the acceleration was pronounced, so was the deceleration and that was a big thing to get over. Fuel injection is something that I think we’ve all grown up on, so its absence is pronounced. And I agree it was very solid. What I really liked were the different driving modes – Sport, Comfort, Eco and Eco Pro + (where it would stop you at 56 mph to conserve more energy). The different settings were very valuable; you become very aware of every decision you make and how it affects your range. It puts energy conservation at the forefront of your mind. Not only does this actually conserve energy as a product, but it forces you to think about energy conservation as well, which is very valuable.
Matt: I thought it was really cool how you could change the setting on the screen to see where the energy flow was going, whether it was gaining charge or losing it. The gas extender was great. The other thing I thought was very cool was that it had a wireless phone charger in the center console and that Apple CarPlay was Bluetooth capable. So you didn’t have to actually physically put your phone in.
Marisa: I charged the car with the three-prong outlet directly into my house, which is the best option if you just want to top off your car. I had a decent amount of mileage on the car already so I charged it overnight and it was perfect because it gave me just the right amount of juice to get me to work.
Sarah: I also used my house to charge the car. I thought it was really funny how the charger looked like a gas pump from a gas station. I thought that was adorable. I left it plugged in for a long time. I don’t think I plugged it in overnight, but when I got back in the car the next day I was like, yeah, this looks good. I didn’t really have a huge problem with running out of energy even though I was driving it when it was really hot and I had the air going super high. But also I didn’t drive it that far, honestly. I drove it to and from work and I drove it like around my neighborhood. I do think it’s really interesting how it actually takes time to charge the car so it forces you to think about the energy that you are using, which I think is almost like an interesting thought exercise if we’re going to get deep into this.
Andrew R.: There was a point in my life when (and I’ll out myself here) I’d roll down the windows and put on the air conditioner no matter what the temperature. So, I agree. It’s definitely an eye-opening experience and reframes the way you think about energy conservation, which is really cool. I charged at home with a waterproof extension cord. I don’t know if that’s BMW-recommended or not, but I can tell you the car did charge overnight in torrential rain without any problems. And I’m still here to tell this story. As far as looking for charging stations, it’s definitely still a work in progress. They’re out there and there’s a lot of them but I didn’t have that many super-convenient to where I live. That being said, there are plenty of apps that I downloaded that showed me where they’re available, local hotels, college campuses, etc.
Andrew S.: I went out into the wild to try to get this charged. I went to Nassau Community College, which may not have been the best place just because it’s a vast campus. And it took me a while to find them. When I did, I realized that they were in a restricted parking lot that I couldn’t get into. I did check and there were a few BMW dealerships close to me that had some; I didn’t test them but they’re there. You just have to do your homework and know where they are and just keep tabs on everything.
Jerry: Charging was interesting. I think one of the greatest features of the infotainment system was that it would let you know when you were running low on charge and it would offer to search for charging stations in the area. That was a really useful feature. I was surprised by how many chargers there were in certain areas. But a lot more education is needed for the public to understand how long it takes to charge an electric car. I underestimated the difference between a standard charge and the supercharge and the amount of time needed to get to full battery, so as I was looking for chargers, I was running out of electricity rapidly. On my trip from New York to Providence and back, I thought the gas range extender came in handy to relieve a portion of my range anxiety. Even if I didn’t find a charger or didn’t have time, there was the reassurance that I could fill it up with gas.
Marisa: It was a lot of fun. I think that it’s more of an around-town type of car than a highway car, which is what I would use it for. It’s the type of car that I would get. It was a solid car.
Sarah: It really did feel like a luxury experience inside. I’ve never had a car so nice. I just wanted to touch the dashboard all the time and the window is huge. It was like driving in a bubble. It’s not a road trip car by any means, just because of the amount of time it takes to charge. But like Marisa said, for going around town, it’s a nice ride.
Andrew R.: Yeah, I agree. The BMW i3 is not for everybody but I think it does have quite a few use cases. Going to the supermarket and kicking down the back seats? No problem. Throwing my 7-year-old son in the back? No problem. Taking it to the park with a lot of equipment? No problem. It really comes down to your commute and your willingness to put in the time to change, to get used to something that’s different. I mean, let’s face it, we’ve all been driving the same way for a very long time. But I think if you’re able and you’re willing, it’s definitely a vehicle that can check a lot of boxes for a lot of people.
Jerry: It’s a unique car that takes some getting used to. But once you do, I thought it was great driving experience. Great trim, great safety features. I think it’s a perfect car for anyone, particularly perhaps older drivers looking for a safety features, first and foremost. Sure, there’s a learning curve in going from a gas-powered vehicle to this. But again, it forces you to become more eco-conscious. Every choice you make affects the range of the car and it almost trains you to appreciate just how much energy you’re spending and that’s incredibly valuable, all in its own right.
Matt: I think there is market for this car and as a person with a long commute each day and a person who also travels hundreds of miles throughout New England for work on a frequent basis, it was not the vehicle for me at this point in my life. Not to say that it will never be, but I thought it was a great experience to drive and to get more used to being part of the electric vehicle community. There were a lot of things that I learned from this experience that gave me insight and made me less nervous about buying an electric vehicle in general.
Does the BMW i3 sound like your type of car? Share your thoughts in the comments.