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WATCH: Is BMW's new i3 the iPad of electric cars?
Apple revolutionized an industry with the first wildly successful mass-market tablet. Can BMW pull off the same trick in the electric-car market?

There are a handful of electric cars on the market today, from the relatively affordable Nissan Leaf and Ford Focus Electric to the luxury-priced Tesla Model S. None of them has yet achieved what Toyota did with the Prius — the first gas-electric battery hybrid car to make it big.

But now, with its new i3 electric car, which was unveiled Monday, BMW is aiming not just to repeat the Prius coup, but to replicate the success of the iPad.

When Apple introduced its first iPad in 2010, there were already tablet computers on the market. But people weren't buying them, and the iPad was considered a risky move on Apple's part. Three years later, the iPad still dominates the market, with several Android-based tablets (that largely copy the iPad) gaining ground and Microsoft's latecomer, the Surface RT, massively underperforming expectations.

The iPad wasn't (and isn't) the cheapest tablet on the market, and neither will the i3 be the cheapest electric car when it arrives in Europe in the fall. (The i3 should hit the U.S. in mid-2014.) The base version will sell for $41,350 in the U.S., plus another $4,000 to add a small gas engine that doubles the driving range. That puts it somewhere between the Leaf (about $25,000) and the Tesla Model S (starting at about $70,000). See a comparison of electric cars below, and Bloomberg's face-off between the i3 and Model S here:

The rest of the numbers are on par or better than BMW's lower-priced competitors: The i3 has a 170-horsepower engine, goes 80 to 100 miles on one charge, accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in seven seconds (the Leaf takes 10 seconds, the Model S, 4.2 seconds), has a 22-kWh lithium-ion battery that will charge in about three hours using a 220-volt outlet, and has a top speed of 93 mph.

What does it look like? In photos, it's "like an elongated Mini with a BMW grille," says Stephen Edelstein at Digital Trends. "In reality, the i3 appears much taller and wider than the average micro car." But that's just scratching the surface. From its carbon fiber-reinforced plastic body to its aluminum chassis and recycled-plant dashboard, the i3 was designed from the ground up, making it the rare car that's "truly new."

Not only is the i3 "not another retrofit hack-job that stuffs an electric motor and battery pack into car that was never intended for electrification," says Damon Lavrinc at Wired. It's also "the most innovative thing to come out of Munich in a decade."

Like the Tesla Model S, the ground-up design offered BMW's interior designers and engineers a blank canvas. There's no transmission tunnel running down the center, allowing the i3 to have a perfectly flat floor.... BMW was able to nix the pillar that would normally prop up the roof between the front and rear doors, while pushing the wheels to the outer edges of the corners. That means a vehicle with the footprint of a compact car and the interior of a mid-size sedan, plus the ability to get into the backseat without a Cirque du Soleil performance thanks to rear-hinged, suicide-style rear doors. [Wired]

When you add in the extras, the i3's "incredibly reasonable" sticker price might push up toward $50,000, Lavrinc says, "but even then, for something that's better packaged, better executed, and more refined than any other EV on the market, BMW is playing in a game of one." For those "driving junkies that have been looking to go electric, it could be the best option this side of a Model S."

Actually, despite all the hype, says CNET's Wayne Cunningham, "BMW's vision for a clean, futuristic urban vehicle doesn't reach far beyond what has already been put on the market by Nissan, Mitsubishi, Ford, and Honda." That means it will face the same obstacles, especially in range-anxiety-prone America, and a small, five-door hatchback "may not fit the brand perception BMW has built up in the U.S."

All in all, BMW's "technical specifications don't make the i3 look much more attractive than other options," says Cunningham, though "upscale buyers may be more attracted to the brand." And if the i3 "holds up BMW's Ultimate Driving Machine mantra" when we're actually able to take it out for a test drive, it may just "win converts through a premium ride experience."

From its "i Remote" smartphone app to BMW's smart decision to offer i3 owners "gas-powered loaner cars during the days when they need a vehicle with longer driving range — on, say, a weekend road trip," says Brad Tuttle at TIME, this new "funky-looking four-seater" may well "prove to be more practical and appealing than its battery-powered peers." But there's another way BMW is aiming to be like Apple: The company plans to make a profit on each i3 from day one.

Analysts don't actually expect BMW to sell that many i3s in the first year — maybe 20,000, say Chris Reiter and Angela Maier at Bloomberg. That's in line with Tesla's Model S, but far short of the 100,000 Chevy Volts that GM sells every year. These modest expectations may actually work to BMW's advantage, though, analyst Juergen Pieper at Bankhaus Metzler in Frankfurt tells Bloomberg. Given all the earlier hype about electric cars, he says, "the expectations for the i3 are now so low that BMW is actually in a position to positively surprise with that car."

Here, BMW CEO Norbert Reithofer makes his pitch for the i3 to The Wall Street Journal:

And this is a look at how the i3 stacks up against some of its competitors:

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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