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Business Management

BMW has a dweeby kid: all-electric i3 will embarrass and outsmart entire family starting in 2014

Call it the revenge of the nerds. At a splashy debut on Monday, BMW rolled out the BMW i3, an electric car with enough Internet-connected amenities that the company bills it as the "world's first fully networked electrically powered car."

The i3 is impressively forward-looking in many ways. It also represents a radical--oh, let's just say it, dweeby--departure in styling and performance for this high-end automaker. It'll be interesting to see whether customers pick brains over beauty when the i3 goes on sale in 2014.

The i3 comes with its own cell-phone-like SIM card and can be managed with a smartphone app. Not only can the app tell you where the next charging station is, but it lets you know if someone's already using it--and if you have enough juice to make it there.

BMW took pains to point out that the i3, which will start at a base price of $41,350, is not an electric car squeezed into the shell of an existing gas-powered unit, but a vehicle designed from the drawing board up to be an electric car. For example, the i3's lithium ion batteries are distributed below the floor line, a design which adds stability and improves car handling, according to BMW. The 360-volt battery array provides the BMW i3 with a range of 81 to 99 miles of average driving, said BMW.

The BMW i3 offers a number of charging options depending on whether the owner can install a charging station at home. BMW i3 owners can get a 80 percent charge in 30 minutes at public fast-charging stations or charge the i3 in three hours at a home-installed BMW i Wallbox. While the i3 can also be charged from a 110-volt outlet, the process takes more than 20 hours, thus making this option more useful for overnight "topping off," rather than regular charging, said a BMW representative.

The i3 can be ordered with a 650cc, two-cylinder "range extender" gas engine which kicks in when the battery charge drops below a preset level. The 34-horsepower gas engine doesn't provide actual drive power--it charges the batteries, thus increasing the range of the electric engine by about 60 miles. Like other electric cars, the i3 also charges its battery while the car is braking.

The four-door BMW i3 has some eye-catching features, including sports-car-like coach doors that open from the center. This setup eliminates the mid-car pillar, thus making the interior easier to access. Lifting the front hood reveals not an engine--that's in the rear--but a storage area for the charging cables.

The compact BMW i3 seats four, not five, due to a center console between the rear seats. It has a driver's console with large navigation and instrument panel flat-screen displays.

The high-tech carbon-fiber reinforced plastic body is organized into "cut zones," which makes body-component replacement easier in case of damage, according to BMW.

The BMW i3 is both incredibly funny-looking and undeniably futuristic. While it contrasts sharply with the automaker's carefully cultivated luxury brand, you could also credit BMW for caring more about developing alternative engines than maintaining appearances. The BMW i8 concept plug-in hybrid (below) is more in line with what we'd expect, though the i3 is far more attainable and practical. Did we just say that about a BMW?

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