When BMW launched its i3 electric-hatchback in 2013, it was the automaker’s first ever mass-produced full-electric vehicle.
A quirky little car, with four seats, rear-hinged back doors and a frame made from carbon fiber-reinforced plastic, the i3 stood dramatically apart from the rest of the brand’s lineup.
This was by design. BMW was not trying to convince its core customers to abandon their sporty sedans and roomy SUVs — the goal was to entice early EV adopters to give the automaker a try.
The plan worked perhaps too well. When the i3 started popping up on U.S. dealership lots, BMW loyalists largely ignored it, while new customers came looking for the car.
By 2021, the company was ready to refocus on its core customers, and set a goal of making 50 percent of all BMW sales EVs by 2030.
In January 2022, BMW said it would stop production of the i3 entirely, instead leaning into larger, longer range EV options like the i4 and iX — cars meant to look like the brand’s other models.
Over the i3’s nine years on the market in the U.S., slightly more than half of sales went to first-time BMW buyers. But it sold fewer than 50,000 units, according to data from Edmunds, often at steep discounts.
“Electrification became something different,” BMW design lead Domagoj Dukec told Bloomberg last year.
“You do not reach just for these early adopters. You have to reach for the customer base that has been buying BMWs for generations.”
A similar dynamic is playing out across much of the industry. As legacy automakers bring electric models to the mainstream, they are aiming to minimize the disruption for consumers by offering big, rangy vehicles.
While the strategy is arguably a necessary step in moving U.S. drivers away from combustion engines, it’s an inefficient way to deploy the costly, heavy lithium ion batteries that power EVs.
It’s also a bittersweet moment for those who have come to love some of the little, lightweight models that are disappearing from the market.
Few little EVs are as beloved as the i3. Over a production run of more than 250,000 vehicles globally, the car has built a devoted following of owners who appreciate its distinctive style, surprising performance, just-enough range and bargain prices.
In online forums, these drivers give their cars animal names — the black-and-white model is a “panda;” the gray, a “dolphin” — and talk about them in terms usually reserved for pets, children or even romantic partners.
Jim Neil bought his i3 on a whim seven years ago. A 74-year-old retired computer scientist in Melbourne, Florida, Neil had taken his previous car, a Toyota Prius, to the dealership for service but left in a huff when they refused to fix a problem with burning oil. On his way home, he decided to go car shopping. First, he test drove a Nissan Leaf and did not like it. Then he stopped at the BMW dealership.
“I was just going to drive past it because I never considered myself to be a BMW kind of guy,” he recalls. “But they had four or five of these things lined up in front of the dealership in a row and it just caught my attention.”
After one trip behind the wheel, Neil was sold by the car’s quiet, smooth acceleration — he bought it on the spot.
“It was like nothing I had ever driven before. It was just insanely fun,” he says. “To this day, when I get out of that car, I have to turn around and look at it.”
Neil’s i3 has a “range extender” — an optional two-cylinder gasoline engine known as “the Rex” among owners — but he rarely needs more than the 80 or so miles (129 km) of range that the battery provides.
Occasionally he makes a 130-mile drive to visit his daughter near Tampa, and for this he sometimes tries to “hyper-mile”: driving slowly on backroads to maximize range.
He once made it 114.2 miles, he says, before the Rex kicked in.