There are actually a lot of options, but two vehicles really stand out.
The Generation 2 Chevrolet Volt (above) and the BMW i3 REx (below) are two purpose-built electric cars one could easily purchase second-hand for under $15,000. Mechanically speaking, these two cars are quite similar, both consisting of a liquid-cooled Li-ion battery pack, a gasoline range-extender to provide energy when the battery wilts, and a zero-to-sixty time of around seven seconds.
However, this is where any similarities end; in practice, these two vehicles are quite different. Here are the noteworthy differences between these two unique EVs.
Editor's Note: Andrew Lambrecht is a high school senior who runs an electric cars news website (thecurrentreview.com). He has always been very interested in electric cars, and since he will be applying to colleges soon, electrical and environmental engineering are on his mind. Congrats to Andrew for the nice website and hard work.
Meet the Competitors:
The i3 in this comparison is going to be a 2015 BMW i3 REx Mega World. This i3, in particular, is outfitted with the Technology Package (larger display screen), but no parking package. Its exterior color is Arravani Gray, and complementing the paint are the base 19" silver aero wheels. This 2015 i3 REx has a price of $12,000, making it the more affordable option. The Volt in this comparison is a 2016 Volt Premier in Iridescent Pearl Tricoat. This Volt is equipped with black leather interior and both driver assistance packages, save adaptive cruise control (available in 2017 model). The Volt's price is around $15,000.
Both the Volt and the i3 have about 45,000 miles on the odometer and roughly three years of battery warranty left.
In short, both of these EVs can easily propel you around town on electricity only. The BMW i3 REx can travel 72 miles on a single charge, followed by another 70-80 miles on the range extender. However, the i3 I drove was coded, unlocking the gasoline tank's full 2.4-gallon capacity. Additionally, when the vehicle was in "Eco Pro Mode," the predicted range amassed to 188 miles: 95 miles of electricity and 93 miles on the generator. Even when driving normally, occasionally accelerating hard, and using the A/C, plan to expect around the 72 mile EPA rating.
Contrarily, the Volt has a longer gasoline range and a shorter electric-only range. However, there is most likely no need to ever rely on the gasoline generator in day to day driving. The Volt's EPA rating is 53 miles electric-only, but it is very likely to receive upwards of 60 miles if you drive nicely. If you plan on driving on the highway (~60mph) and using the A/C, 45-50 miles is still possible. Once the battery reaches the lower reserve threshold, the gasoline generator will kick on, providing over 300 more miles of gasoline range.
This category is a draw because the i3 provides more electric range, but the Volt provides more gasoline range.
Undoubtedly, the i3 provides a much more engaging driving experience than the Volt. As a baseline, the BMW i3 has rigid suspension, ultra-responsive steering, and impressive handling. On the other hand, the Volt has softer suspension, lighter steering, and decent handling. Another driving dynamic is the power delivery, and these two vehicles execute this differently. First and foremost, the i3 is RWD, which most enthusiasts prefer over the Volt's FWD system. When accelerating, the i3 feels reasonably quicker than the Volt. The surge of 170 horses from the i3 feels exhilarating at almost any speed.
The Volt is still pretty quick with 149hp, and it pushes you to the back of the seat, just with less force. The final point to note is the traction control is far superior in the i3. The Volt will squeal its tires when accelerating under 20mph, whereas the i3 will not. A side effect is a slight diminution in maximum power delivery when accelerating hard. I prefer the more aggressive traction control over the Volt's relatively weak system. In closing, the i3 is quicker and more agile, making it the victor for this section.
There is no doubt that both of these cars are reliable overall. However, it should be known to avoid 2014 BMW i3 RExs due to some gasoline generator issues that may cost money down the road (note the 2014 i3 BEVs have fewer problems). The Volts are very reliable, and there are many up for sale with over 100,000 miles, which is a good sign. From reading forums of both vehicles, one can reasonably state that the Volt's gasoline generator is less prone to issues than that in the i3.
Other than that, the i3 I drove had an error code stating "Driver Restraint System Malfunction," which may be a software glitch or a bad connector. Regardless, one would have to take it into BMW as an out-of-warranty issue, which probably would not be cheap to fix. Upon some research, it did not appear this issue was uncommon in i3s. With that said, the Volt wins for reliability, making for a tie so far.
While both interiors look nice and (realistically) sit four, the quality in the i3 is superior to the Volt. The Volt's interior is adorned with hard, flimsy plastic, and its purpose is to mimic a conventional car. Everything from the turn signals to the door panels are hard-touch plastics. While some may not complain, I find it a little improper in a car priced around $40,000 when new. On the upside, both the front and rear seats are heated leather surfaces.
Unlike the Volt, the i3 has a very solid interior, with many unique materials and fibers from recycled sources. Most of the interior pieces are bespoke to the i3, including the drive selector, which may be the most intuitive in the whole industry. When opening the coach doors, the carbon fiber frame is visible, which only adds to the enchantment of the i3.
The i3 I drove beheld the "Mega World" package consisting of light gray cloth seats and dark gray trim. The turn signal stock feels very solid, just like any other component in the interior. Some people complain about the manual seats, but in reality, once you find your desired position, it would rarely need to move. In terms of interior quality, the i3 feels more open, and the material quality surpasses that of the Volt.
While looks are subjective, I think the i3's design is far more innovative than the Volt's. However, both designs fit for different purposes. The Volt's styling is more conservative, and it's almost as if the Chevy engineers were too wary of making it unique. But this isn't bad as some people may not want their car to stand out as they are multi-millionaire mafia bosses looking to go under the radar while being eco-conscious.
To say the i3's styling is anomalous is a massive understatement, and I think the designers did a fantastic job. Today, the original i3 still looks like a brand-new vehicle; that cannot be said for other cars. Quite possibly, the i3's design will remain timeless, and for that, the i3 wins the design category.
This is the last category, and it's important to note that both of these cars contain a wide range of technology. This i3 features automatic emergency braking, traffic jam assist, parking sensors, but no backup camera. For this, I was a little disappointed because the original sticker price was nearly $50,000, and you still had to pay extra for the "Parking Package." That was pretty disappointing. This 2016 Volt features automatic emergency braking, blind-spot warning, lane keep assist, a backup camera, and automatic parking - which almost reversed into a truck at a local Walmart parking lot.
For the battery technology, it is a draw. The i3 features a 22kWh liquid-cooled pack, which is capable of DC fast charging. On DC fast, the i3 can acquire 58 miles in 30 minutes. The Volt, featuring an 18.4kWh liquid-cooled pack, only has a 6.6kW onboard charger allowing for around 25 miles per hour when charging. However, the Volt makes up for this by having a much longer fuel range, alleviating the need for fast charging. Additionally, these cars have had only slight battery degradation, sustaining over 95% of their original capacity. Since they both share similar features, but have different purposes for their batteries, it is a stalemate.
According to these segments, the i3 is the champion by five to three. Regardless, both vehicles are excellent options, and you would not be upset with either one. However, if you want something unique that doubles as a sports car, the i3 is for you. Subtracting the battery and motors, the Chevrolet Volt is just a regular car for ordinary people.
Despite my adoration for the i3, I understand why some people may be ambivalent due to the styling. It sure would have had better resale value with less-controversial styling. However, marketing an electric car is complicated, and if you're eccentric enough to purchase an EV, you probably want a vehicle that serves as a conversation starter. All things considered, the BMW i3 is the best car for under $15,000.