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BMW ActiveE Electronauts Turn Their Back on BMW, Say i3 Is Too Expensive

Right now, ActiveE drivers across the U.S. are preparing to hand back the all-electric BMW 1-Series ActiveE prototypes they’ve been driving for the past few years under what must be one of the biggest electric vehicle test fleets the world has ever seen. A continuation of the electric vehicle test program started by BMW in the U.S. in 2009 with the MINI E, many of those preparing to tearfully hand their ActiveEs back after many years of memories and zero emissions motoring as a BMW Electronaut.

BMW's i3 might be loved by some, but not all the ActiveE 'Electronauts'

BMW’s i3 might be loved by some, but not all the ActiveE ‘Electronauts’

As prototype test vehicles, BMW’s ActiveE fleet can’t be sold on, and everyone who is currently leasing one must return it. Naturally, it’s BMW’s hope that those customers will exchange their ActiveE for the just-launched all-electric i3 BEV, BMW’s first mass-produced, publicly available electric car, or its range-extended sibling, the i3 BEVx.

Yet a survey we’ve carried out over the past few weeks suggest that many BMW ActiveE drivers are deserting the BMW brand after deciding that the BMW i3 isn’t for them.  Their reasons for leaving the brand are many and varied, but talking to various ActiveE drivers who aren’t staying with the brand, there’s a distinct sense that BMW has deserted the very pioneers who helped it bring the i3 to market.

Below are some of the responses we received to our survey. While many we’ve included can be found publicly written in the responses to our original Facebook survey, some drivers contacted Transport Evolved directly to give their thoughts on the i3, and asked that they remain anonymous. This was for the most part because many have tentatively shown a public interest in the i3 in order to extend their ActiveE lease as long as possible.

Many ActiveE drivers say the i3 is just too expensive to consider.

Many ActiveE drivers say the i3 is just too expensive to consider.

Speaking out publicly, we were told, would probably result in their ActiveEs being withdrawn sooner rather than later. With so many owners behaving in this fashion, we think this is a clear indication that many simply want to continue leasing their ActiveE.

Too Expensive

Admittedly, our survey wasn’t all that scientific, but of the people who responded, there were several clear trends on display.  While twenty three of those who responded said they planned on trading their ActiveE in for a BMW i3 BEV or BMW i3 BEVx  — either immediately or after a brief intermission– nineteen of those who responded said that overly-expensive lease quotes from their BMW dealer meant they were looking elsewhere for their next car. Many said they were doing this despite really liking the i3.

” [I was] happy to pay $925/mo for MINI E when only option was $1,800/mo Tesla roadster.,” said one owner. “[There are now] lots of BEV choices now in CA with more on the way. So i3 price is floating up into “no factor” territory on my radar. Happy with Fit EV, but can’t keep it. If in a year the i3 has proven reliable, I may still consider it”

Others say the i3 isn't practical enough for everyday life.

Others say the i3 isn’t practical enough for everyday life.

One respondent who contacted us directly said he liked the BMW i3 a lot, but felt that BMW was asking over the odds for the badge.

“Since I pay $500 per month now for the ActiveE, I am looking for roughly the same payment on a two or three year lease,” he said. “It is very difficult to justify anything higher than that when I can get a LEAF for 300 or less. Paying double + for the BMW logo is a lot to ask.”

A third owner, who again asked to remain anonymous, said he was cancelling his i3 order because he and his wife felt BMW’s lease deal wasn’t attractive enough. Moreover, he said, they had concerns the i3 wouldn’t hold its value.

“I’m bummed because I love the ActiveE and would really love to keep it,” he said. “It’s better than the i3 and the Volt in many respects.”

Disliked Design

It appears much like Marmite, the famous yeast-extract spread people put on toast, the i3 is a love-it or hate-it car.

At least six of the people who responded to our survey said the BMW i3 simply didn’t fit their needs as well as the ActiveE, or they didn’t like the car’s design and handling.

When we dug a little further, some said they felt the design was too futuristic and impractical for everyday life, citing the small luggage area in the rear and the futuristic, swept dash. Others said they felt the narrow tyres and high seating position made the i3 feel more like a minivan than a luxury car, commenting that it felt far more top-heavy in corners than the ActiveE.

“I’ve not decided to go for the i3,” said one owner. “It’s just not a MINI E or even an ActiveE.”

BMW has insisted that it has built the perfect car for everyone by using data gathered from its MINI E and ActiveE test fleets to justify its design decisions.  “But if feels like BMW has made a car for BMW, not for me,” said one.

Poor Communication

Interestingly, some of the people who responded to our survey said they love the BMW i3 but still won’t be getting one.

BMW's poor communication to ActiveE drivers has left some feeling unsure about continued brand loyalty.

BMW’s poor communication to ActiveE drivers has left some feeling unsure about continued brand loyalty.

That’s because many drivers feel that BMW has left them in the dark concerning its i3 launch, holding off until the last minute to release specifications before order deadlines for the Electronaut edition, a lack of availability of cars for extensive test drives, and little clarity on lease pricing.

“Too many ifs, ands or buts about the car, (pricing, CA decal, EPA range),” one owner said. “I don’t feel comfortable pulling the trigger on a car i’ve not yet driven or experienced for more than 30 minutes (only driven BEV, but want rex),” while another commented with shock at how disenchanted some of the biggest proponents of the ActiveE program have become.

Better Alternatives

When BMW’s MINI E and ActiveE drivers first signed up to the program, many did so as a bit of an experiment in owning an electric car.

Some were already EV converts keen to drive one of the first electric cars to become available, others became electric car advocates on the program. But while they acknowledge that the MINI E and ActiveE offered them a chance to do something that was otherwise impossible, many now believe BMW isn’t the best option for them.

That’s partly due to the specifications of the BMW i3, which has a range no better than that of the ActiveE. With cars like the Toyota RAV 4 EV and of course the Tesla model S offering a far better mix of practicality, style, performance and range, the BMW i3 range feels lacklustre.

For them, it’s almost as if BMW didn’t even try.

Confusion over Californian HOV-lane access hasn't helped ActiveE drivers make their minds up, either.

Confusion over Californian HOV-lane access hasn’t helped ActiveE drivers make their minds up, either.


“While I loved the ActiveE and can’t go back to an ICE, the size and looks of i3 didn’t quite work for me, esp combining that with some of the preliminary reporting on the lease costs,” one wrote. “As much as I love BMWs, I pulled the trigger on a Model S.”

“It is more so the value,” another owner told us via private message. “For the same price as the i3 lease, I can add a few more dollars and get a Tesla Model S with more than double the range, incredible cargo space and no gas whatsoever.”

Let Down

Leased from BMW as a continuation of the electric vehicle test fleet that started with the MiniE back in 2009, many of the ActiveE drivers have been with BMW’s exclusive program for more than six years. Many will continue to be loyal BMW customers with the purchase of a new i3, but a massive proportion will leave the brand they’ve loved for years for the charms of better specced, more affordable and longer-range vehicles, primarily (in no particular order) the Tesla Model S, Toyota RAV4 EV and Nissan LEAF. 

We’ve reached out to BMW on more than one occasion for its opinion on our findings, but at the time of writing have been given no official response.

Has BMW dropped the ball? Are customers really being let down? Or is this just the natural ebb and flow of customers from one brand to another as one product ends and another one starts?

Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.





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  • Michael Thwaite

    I guess I have to go on record as being disappointed mainly because the range extender is an engine, not a bigger battery. I’ve yet to meet any potential owners that prefer the engine over a battery, they’ve all said that they’d prefer to pay more for a bigger battery but are potentially plumping for the hybrid version because that’s the only way to get the range that they want. I’m very disappointed and I feel that we’re moving backwards by falling back to yesterdays technology when tomorrows has already been demonstrated by Tesla.

    • CDspeed

      I’ve always thought calling a gasoline engine a range extender was more of a sales pitch and a way to get around using the word hybrid. Its not an electric car if you have to visit a gas station for more then just a wee.

      • vdiv

        Unlike hybrids with extended range EVs you do not have to put gas in them. They are EVs for the range of their battery and they largely retain the el. motor propulsion and behavior when powered by the gas engine. These distinctions are important as they allow people to embrace plugins without the effects of range anxiety.

        • CDspeed

          What happens when you run out of gas, if you “do not have to put gas in them”? Your going to need gas, and I do understand that is a rare occurrence, but you will need it. Electric cars don’t have electric modes, and a gasoline security blanket, plug-in hybrids do. And I’m not knocking them, they are great, and they help take up the slack while battery technology continues to grow, so they do aid automotive evolution.

  • Kieron

    Spot on Michael. This country (UK) is perfect in size for a 150 mile all electric option. At this rate Nissan are going to get there first!

    • vdiv

      Well, third after the Roadster and the Model S, if one could afford or fit in them 🙂

      • Kieron

        Thinking mainstream rather than pipe dream!

        • vdiv

          $50k for an i3 or even $30k for a LEAF is unfortunately a pipe dream for most folks. And that is assuming the 150-mile “dream” LEAF or Model E can be had for $30k in the foreseeable future.

          • Kieron

            Yes indeed. I guess patience is needed; the cost will slowly reduce. I wonder what effect the giga factory might have on the economy of scale and price of battery packs.

  • vdiv

    The i3 being too expensive is a rather subjective determination. The issue is not the cost, it is the car’s specifications and BMW’s behavior as it is introducing it. The Model S is more expensive yet it is in most respects a better car made by a company entirely dedicated to EVs.

  • Dennis Pascual

    One of the drawbacks to not being on FB is missing out on the surveys and Links to protected FB authenticated sites. Is there a way to capture a screenshot of the FB surf and the results and/or comments on the site? It is your survey (Transport Evolved) so should be able to publish it, right?nnIt does seem like BMW didn’t really take my feedback. I returned my Active E on the 23rd (five days ago) and already have done a 170 mile day two days ago and a 264 mile (so far) day today, the 28th in our Model S (I am actually reading and responding to this article at the Hawthorne Supercharger/Tesla Design center at 11:30 pm). So I would have benefitted from a larger battery pack for the i3.nnThe removal of the SOC, sunroof, anemic financial considerations for Electronauts, and the pending Green Sticker depletion and BMW’s apparent apathy to resolve the i3 REX situation I n California has made me seriously consider leaving BMW altogether. The Active E did a great job introducing me to the rEVolution, but Tesla has fulfilled a large portion of what BMW abdicated in my garage.nnI don’t question BMW’s commitment, I question BMW’s intelligence. The Active E had been my fourth BMW and may be its last. Granted I have an i3 with REX on order, but may decide to just walk away.

    • kw

      The survey on FB isn’t worth looking at IMO. Only one question yet 12 answers to choose from, people multi-voting to skew it and only a handful of participants making the results quite meaningless when you consider there are 700 AE owners in the US.

      • George B

        There were more than a handful of participants. While it’s difficult to get a large enough sample, one could argue that this group was representative of a wide spectrum of opinions

        • kw

          It’s only about 5% of AE owners and consists of just those who like to make themselves heard and complain online but it doesn’t mean that it’s anywhere near the typical opinion of the majority.

        • Dennis Pascual

          I’m not on FB (as I indicated earlier) and any survey can be skewed. However, I feel that TE has captured a lot of MY opinion as well as many of my contacts in the AE community with few notable exceptions… And that’s a problem. The actual take rate for a program such as this should have been closer to 100% considering the fact that you only had 700 people involved in the program and was supposedly listening to our needs and recording our behavior. nnI completed yesterday’s drive (which totaled 289 miles) as a typical commute plus family commitments that prior to driving my Active E, I would have done in ICE. Whilst I had my AE and only my AE, I would have adjusted to my car and someone else would not have been visited in person that same day, however, thanks to our Model S, I was able to visit and take care of family commitments on nearly opposing sides of the Los Angeles basin. I had to adjust my behavior to fit the AE’s range and capabilities. I would have logged greater than the 54,321 miles that I eventually did had BMW built a vehicle that didn’t compromise. nn(I really should just transcribe this rant into my own blog 😉 ( nnMy wife and I are BMW fans of the ICE and EV variety… The i3 took some convincing. I wanted a pure BEV with at least 150 miles of range, since they didn’t produce that, I put in the order with a REX, begrudgingly. Then they took away the SOC and I thought that was stupid… But let it lie. Initial rumors had a rather anemic proposed $4,000 discount (choice of World, few other things in the rumor mill) I figured at those rates why not… (The actual discount is closer to $1,600 of which $1,000 was what I was really interested in).). Then they took away the sunroof, are you freaking kidding me? So. Yes, I’m POd and considering leaving a brand that I have helped support for over a decade’s worth of vehicles.nnIn baseball and in many US states you get three strikes… I tried to compromise three times with BMW… All the while expecting to be able to drive in the HOV lane by myself, at least until 2019. And I find out that the car isn’t even approved for the sticker AND I probably won’t get it until after the green ones run out. I don’t know ANY of the Electronauts that BMW used to model the i3 program after, ’cause as small as a sample may be asserted, it’s pretty representative of the folks I know and interact with. Look at Todd’s guest post. He’s a huge fan drove a lot and wanted to stay on an unlimited mileage lease and is in a Toyota RAV4EV 2nd Gen as a result.

      • ca3

        There’s nothing stopping you from putting up your own survey.

        • kw

          True, but I’m not running an EV blog trying to do objective reporting.nnI guess this article just reminded me of when TE kicked up a fuss by regurgitating the Telegraph article with a negative spin (rather than technically assessing the i3 REx themselves which they’d driven only a few days earlier). It gets them a lot of traffic so I can understand why they do it.

          • ca3

            FWIW, I’ve seen many complaints on Facebook of Electronauts re: the very high lease quotes and poor residuals. Many of those have gone w/other EVs/PHEVs instead and a few are waiting it out.nI’m leasing a non-BMW EV and to me, those i3 lease quotes I’m seeing are simply INSANE.

    • ca3

      Honestly, I think more people should join FB. It’s not like you have to post anything or friend anyone. Some of my friends only lurk.

  • vdiv

    It is amazing, every once in a while I try to “splash some cold water on my face” and soberly think that Tesla Motors cannot be real, cannot be perfect, cannot last, and it’s just a hype. But that “cold water” eventually has the opposite effect. It wakes me up to the unfortunate fact that none of the legacy car manufacturers are truly committed to EVs the way Tesla Motors is.nnMaybe Nissan can prove this wrong. I really, really hope they prove this wrong. Carlos Ghosn said a few years ago in a movie “The public is expecting [EVs] from us. It is expecting that car manufacturers step up and present technology in order to respond to [global warming]… What is at stake is huge.” nnWe still do.

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  • drkennethnoisewater

    For 2x the price, you get so much more with a Model S.. It’s funny, but I think the ActiveE program has probably been better for Tesla than it’s been for BMW, and BMW have probably learned a whole lot of wrong lessons from their experimentation..

    • Dennis Pascual

      The ActiveE program made me more conscious of the environmental issues as well as “discover” the world of EVs. I reluctantly moved to Tesla because they make the type of EVs that BMW should be making. However, the i3 is still in play for me (I feel schizophrenic with this car) because it has the sweet spot in between the Roadster and Model S (in terms of size, handling, and onboard amenities for the commuter). However, as the article points out, the Active E was a better fit than the i3 for this former Electronaut.

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