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BMW's new i3 battery car targets urbanites

Monday, 29 Jul 2013 | 6:28 AM ET
LeBeau: New BMW i3 test drive
Monday, 29 Jul 2013 | 12:00 AM ET
CNBC's Phil LeBeau takes BMW's new all-electric car for a spin to see how it drives.

One look at the BMW i3 and you'll know this is not your typical BMW.

True, the German automaker's first full fledged mass market all-electric car has many of the signature cues of a BMW including the kidney bean front grills, the square corners and the rear pillars.

Still, when CEO Norbert Reithofer officially unveils the i3 production model in New York City Monday morning, there will be some who look at the "megacity vehicle" and wonder if BMW has chosen the right approach when it comes to the electric car.

The i3 is unique, there's no doubt about that.

(Read more: First drive: 261 mpg Volkswagen XL1)

And for the price BMW will charge, $41,350 before federal and state tax credits, the German automaker is counting on those unique features to win over electric car buyers around the world.

"When it sits in a showroom, the i3 will look every bit as premium as other BMW models," said Eric Noble, CEO of the Car Lab, and an automotive design and consulting firm in Southern California.

BMW i3 Key Figures

Price: $41,350
Price w/ Range Extending Engine: $45,200
Sale Date: 2nd Quarter 2014
Range on Full Charge: 80-100 miles
Range w/ Range Extender: 160-200 miles
0-60 MPH: Approximately 7 seconds
220 Volt Charge Time: 3 hours
DC Combo Fast Charge Time: 80% in 20 minutes and 100% in 30 minutes
Source: BMW
BMW i3
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
BMW i3

i3 Targeting City Dwellers

The i3 is squarely aimed at growing urban markets around the world. It is a compact car, with the utility and functionality that are designed to win over those who live in cities.

For example, the car does not have a transmission tunnel which allows the driver to slide from one side to the other after parking on a city street and exit through the passenger door.

(Read more: Tesla shares slammed on price target)

It has the exterior length and footprint of BMW's compact 1 Series car and a very tight turning radius which the automaker touts as ideal for city driving.

But the most intriguing feature is the lack of pillars in the frame between the front and back seats. As a result the back doors open "coach style" making it easier to get in or out of the back seats.

All of these features are packaged in a lightweight carbon fiber skin.

Competing against the Volt, Leaf, Model S

Any time a new electric vehicle comes out it will be compared to the three most prominent electric cars on the market, the Nissan LEAF, Chevy Volt, and Tesla Model S. In reality, the i3 is different from each of those models and is targeting slightly different customers.

(Read more: BMW: A Driving Obsession)

The Nissan LEAF, which has finally started selling in greater numbers is more of an entry level electric car with a price point almost $20,000 below the i3.

The Chevy Volt is closer in price to the i3 but it is a true sedan, while the BMW electric car is more of a compact car with a smaller footprint.

The Tesla Model S is a pure luxury car. Yes, it's also an electric car, but the person buying a Model S is spending at least $60,000 (and often much more) to sit in luxury with a driving experience far different than what they'll get with the BMW i3.

First look at BMW's i3 electric car
Norbert Reithofer, BMW CEO unveils the automaker's all-electric vehicle, with CNBC's Phil LeBeau.

Not your Typical BMW

Perhaps the biggest question BMW dealers will face when the i3 rolls into showrooms is why the electric car is not a carbon copy of the 3, 5, or 7 series. The German automaker decided to take a bold step and build a car that has BMW styling cues, while also making a strong statement.

(Read more: Volt joins electric car price war)

"Is the i3 gonna work?" asked Noble. "I think it will. This car will be an enhancement of BMW's image."

Noble pointed out that BMW had a long history of pushing new designs further than many are comfortable with right off the bat. Remember critics howling when BMW design chief Chris Bangle re-styled the 7 Series and many called the rear end of the car "Bangle butt"? Years later, those critics have been silenced and the rear of BMW sedans is a signature styling cue for the luxury brand.

"Does the i3 fit the BMW brand image? That's not the question people should be asking," said Noble. "The question is whether this car will expand the brand? I think it will. It certainly doesn't degrade it."

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau. Follow him on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.

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  • Phil LeBeau is a CNBC auto and airline industry reporter based in the Chicago bureau and editor of the Behind the Wheel section on CNBC.com.

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