I was ready to love BMW's new electric car, the i3. Maybe I will, once I get the chance to drive it. I'd really like to love it, if only so I can stop raving about the Tesla Model S all the time and rave about a different car for once. But at first glance: yeesh. It has the range of a Chevy Volt and the looks of a Pontiac Aztek. And those aren't even the most disappointing things about it.

The i3 is a big deal, or at least it was supposed to be, because it was designed from scratch to be an electric car, like Tesla's Model S was — and because it's a BMW, which implies that it's well-built. It had been hailed, in fact, as BMW's answer to the Model S. But it does not seem to be that.

The major statement that Tesla made with the Model S was that an electric motor doesn't have to mean compromise. With a range approaching 300 miles, knockout styling, seating for seven, and head-snapping acceleration, the Model S said to gas-guzzlers, "Anything you can do, I can do better." BMW's effort says just the opposite. Its range is 80 to 100 miles, commensurate with pre-Tesla efforts like the Volt and the Nissan Leaf. Its styling shouts "novelty vehicle." It seats just four. And it goes zero to 60 in seven seconds — which, to be fair, is not bad for an electric car.


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The problem is that "not bad for an electric car" is precisely the epithet that had always dogged electric cars prior to the Model S. What made the Tesla different was that it refused to apologize for being electric. It turned the tables and forced competitors, BMW included, to apologize for the relative shortcomings of their gas-powered offerings. Why don't they accelerate as smoothly? Why are they so noisy? Why do they have such a high center of gravity? Why can't you put anything in the frunk?

BMW, in contrast, is apologizing for the i3's shortcomings in the most obsequious way possible: by offering buyers access to a gas-guzzling, full-size SUV as a backup. You know, for those times when you need a real vehicle, because your electric buggy just won't cut it. Oh, and there's also an optional 34-horsepower motorcycle engine that you can have installed alongside the electric motor, because clearly electric motors on their own are not to be trusted. The bike motor's 2.4-gallon tank effectively doubles the car's range, which sounds helpful if also a little sad.

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Oremus is the lead blogger for Future Tense, reporting on emerging technologies, tech policy and digital culture.