BMW charged boldly into the realm of electric vehicles Monday morning with the official unveiling of its fully electric i3 compact car.

The all-new hatchback is the first built under BMW’s i sub-brand of electric or hybrid-electric vehicles, which will be among the first mass-produced vehicles in the world to use lightweight carbon-fiber bodies.

“This is a true BMW that takes the brand to a new level,” Ludwig Willisch, president of BMW North America, said in an interview last week previewing Monday’s announcement. “It takes us to a new level of modern mobility.”

The i3 will start at $42,275 and will go on sale in the U.S. next spring. The car’s electric motor will have a “real world” range of 80 to 100 miles, BMW said. Customers looking to double the i3’s range have the option of a small gas-powered generator for an additional $3,850.

The 22-kWh lithium-ion battery will charge in about three hours using a 220-volt outlet, and a fast-charging station can add 80% of the charge in 20 minutes or 100% in 30 minutes, BMW said.

Despite being an all-new product, this isn’t the first time the i3’s drivetrain has been on the road. For several years BMW used two pilot leasing programs with an all-electric Mini Cooper and BMW 1-Series to get real-world data from customers on their driving habits in electric vehicles.

Willisch said this testing was crucial to bringing the i3 to market.

“We learned lot of technical stuff that you only learn when you put the cars into real life and real consumers’ hands,” Willisch said. “Then you really see how much power a windshield wiper or headlight will use.”

The drivetrain on the 1-Series ActivE is identical to that in this new BMW i3. The electric motor makes 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. A single-speed transmission directs power to the rear wheels.

BMW said the i3 will do zero-60 mph in about 7 seconds and will have a top speed of 93 mph. Helping that acceleration is a low curb weight of around 2,700 pounds — about 500 pounds less than Nissan’s all-electric Leaf.

These weight savings — which also make the car more efficient — are the result of using lightweight materials for the car’s construction. The entire passenger cell is made from carbon fiber, which BMW said is as strong as steel but 50% lighter.

Though carbon fiber construction is typically only seen on high-end (and pricey) exotic cars, BMW said that it’s been working since 2007 to reduce the time — and therefore cost — associated with building this i3’s cell.

In addition to using this material on the i3, BMW will also use it on the i8 hybrid-electric sports car due out in 2014.

“It’s still quite an endeavor,” said Willisch. “We’re really stepping into uncharted territory. We had to build thousands of them to get processes right.”

Despite potentially heavy R&D expenses this project incurred, BMW said the development costs have already been paid for. The automaker was confident the production costs of this car will be easy to cover.

“We’re closer to making money on this car than people think we are,” said company spokesman Ken Sparks.

The automaker declined to say how many i3 vehicles it hoped to sell. A price tag of around $42,000 puts it above many all-electric competitors like the aforementioned Leaf, the Honda Fit EV, or the Ford Focus EV, yet arguably offers a more contemporary design and premium construction.

The i3 comes with items like alloy wheels and BMW’s iDrive navigation system. The upright design of the hatchback gives the interior an open, airy feel. Simple controls and a pair of LCD screens keep the cabin uncluttered. The car seats four, and the smaller rear seats are accessible through a rear-hinged door on either side of the car.

Sales of the car in California will certainly be closely watched by BMW. The California Air Resources Board has mandated that zero-emissions vehicles must account for 15% of all new vehicle sales by 2025, up from less than 1% now.

This has led to a price war among electric-only models, with many now offering lease deals of around $199 a month. BMW said it had no plans to get involved in such a pricing strategy, and that it would reduce production before it started cutting the i3’s price.

In addition to the car’s unique construction, the i3 is also a radical departure for a company that hangs its hat on the driving dynamics of its vehicles. BMW is clearly eager to position the i3 as the spirited alternative in a segment it says lacks a fun-to-drive car.

“The i3 is highly emotional, and so much fun to drive,” Willisch said. “It will be a benchmark for driving pleasure.”

When asked whether he felt other all-electric cars that i3 will compete with were lacking this element, Willisch was unequivocal: “Yes,” he said flatly.

(c)2013 the Los Angeles Times. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

Photo Credit: BMW Debuts All-New i3 Electric Car, which will start at $42,275 and will go on sale in the U.S. next spring. BMW / BMW