Is the Chevy Volt the Closest Competitor to the BMW i3? If Not, Then Which Vehicle Is?


BMW i3 Overhead

BMW i3 Overhead

Now that BMW has revealed the production version of the i3, including most of its specifications and the MSRP with and without the range extender option, it seems journalists are struggling a bit when they are deciding what other car to compare it to. The result is, they are comparing it to just about everything else with a plug.

2013 Nissan LEAF

2013 Nissan LEAF

Since BMW claims the i3 will have about an 80-100 miles of range, the inevitable comparisons to the Nissan LEAF have happened. These have largely said the i3 will be faster, offer a better driving experience, has a nicer interior and offers electronic packages and a range extender that Nissan doesn’t offer. At the same time, the i3 is $14,000 more than a base LEAF S, has only a marginally better range, has less cargo room and the rear coach doors will be less functional than the LEAF’s conventional doors. The LEAF seats 5, while the i3 only seats 4. Exterior styling is pretty much a push, as both cars have unconventional styling that many have said they do not appreciate.

Is It the REx That Makes the i3 a Competitor to the Chevy Volt?

Is It the REx That Makes the i3 a Competitor to the Chevy Volt?

Others have pit the i3 against the Chevy Volt. There is a lot of sense to this comparison because the i3 and the Volt are the only two electric vehicles that have a range extender. The range extender is standard on the Volt; you can’t order one without it, while on the i3 it is an option. BMW has stated that they expect the vast  majority of i3s sold in the US to have the range extender option and I agree with that line of thinking.

The i3 has more than two and a half times the electric range of the Volt, allowing most owners to drive on electric a much higher percentage of the time, while the Volt’s range extender is more robust and allows the driver to continue driving uninhibitedly once it turns on, even up long mountain climbs. There is still some speculation that the i3 may have difficulty with long, steep mountain climbs once the range extender has come on. The thought is the REx may have difficulty replenishing the energy used in these extreme situations quick enough, but this is still an unknown.

Chevy Volt's Gas Tank Provides Up to 380 Miles of Range...i3 Can't Match That

Chevy Volt’s Gas Tank Provides Up to 380 Miles of Range…i3 Can’t Match That

Also, the Volt has a 9.3 gallon gas tank so you can drive it up to 380 miles without stopping for gas. The i3 has a 2.4 gallon gas tank so the total range will be less than 200 miles before needing to stop to refuel. The i3 is faster (0-60 in 7.0 seconds compared to the Volts 8.7 sec). Both cars seat 4 with comparable passenger volume but the Volt has more cargo room.

The Volt’s recent $5,000 price reduction makes it about $10,000 less than an i3 with the REx option, which should be the version of the i3 you use to compare the two. This is a significant advantage for the Volt and the recent surge in Volt sales is proof that people will buy them in large numbers if they believe they are properly priced. A typical BMW customer is accustomed to paying more than a typical Chevrolet customer, but will they see the i3’s advantages (performance, much longer AER, cutting edge tech, carbon fiber construction) as worth the premium is yet to be seen.

BMW i3 Live Debut - Photo Copyright Tom Moloughney

BMW i3 Live Debut – Photo Copyright Tom Moloughney

I believe if you must find an EV to compare the i3 to, the Volt is a particularly good one because they are the only two EVs that have range extenders and I definitely believe many customers will select the REx option. I believe that is true partly because many first time EV buyers will want the security of having the range extender there “just in case” and others will opt for it because they find the i3’s electric range to be short of what they want in an electric vehicle. I believe if BMW gave the i3 15% to 20% more electric range then the take rate on the range extender would drop precipitously. This is where I think BMW swung and missed. They had the opportunity to put some distance between themselves and every other EV out there other than Tesla’s products which are much more expensive.

What Does This REx-less Version Compete With?

What Does This REx-Less Version Compete With?

An i3 with an EPA range rating of 110  to 120 miles would have really created a new class of EV, instead they now have a premium version of a Volt combined with a LEAF. With electric cars, a lot of what’s premium about the car is range and I’m a bit surprised BMW didn’t get that message and offer slightly more range. They didn’t need to match Tesla’s long range vehicles though. If they just put some distance between themselves and the rest of the pack I think they would have hit a home run. I do believe the i3 will sell well, but it would have been much better received if it offered a slightly longer electric range.

My Tesla Model S For the Day!!! - Photo Copyright Tom Moloughney

My Tesla Model S For the Day!!! – Photo Copyright Tom Moloughney

Then there is the Model S. A lot of recent news stories are comparing the i3 to it. Tesla’s Model S is the benchmark that all other EVs, rightly or wrongly, will be compared to. That is because it’s such a great car. However nothing offered today deserves to be compared to the Model S, it really stands alone at the top of he EV hierarchy. It’s not only a great EV, it’s great compared to just about anything. I don’t like this comparison though, not because the i3 comes up short (literally), but because the least expensive Model S is nearly $30,000 more than an i3.

In fact, for what the least expensive Model S costs you could buy an i3 and a LEAF S and still have enough money left over to pay for the electricity to drive them both a combined 135,000 miles! Still, I understand why some people want to compare the i3 to the Model S. The i3 is the first EV coming from a “premium” auto manufacturer so they assume BMW was trying to go head to head with Tesla which they obviously weren’t. The i3 may very well prove to be as good at what it was designed for as the Model S is at what it was designed for, but only time will tell.

BMW i3 Live Debut - Photo Copyright Tom Moloughney

BMW i3 Live Debut – Photo Copyright Tom Moloughney

I haven’t seen anybody compare it to any of the low volume compliance cars currently being offered and I avoided using any of them here also. As compliance cars, the manufacturers only goal is to get them leased or sold as quickly and as painlessly as possible and they can accept huge losses in doing so by heavily discounting them, offering unlimited mileage leases and even giving away free charging equipment. This is all great for the customer, but it doesn’t allow a fair comparison.

I’ve seen a few people say it reminds them of an i-MiEV and granted the stubby nose can draw some similarities to the shape, but having driven a few i-MiEV’s and having sat in a few i3’s now, I’d advise people to see and drive the i3 before you try to lump them together because they really aren’t similar once you’ve seen the i3 in person. The i3 is more than a foot longer and 7 1/2 inches wider than an i-MiEV and has much more interior volume, plus it has 40% more range and the performance isn’t really comparable.

So while there is no perfect apples to apples comparison, I think the Chevy Volt is probably what makes sense the most to compare it to and that’s only if you are comparing it to the i3 with range extender. However I believe the i3 is different enough that it’s going to draw people that may not have bought a LEAF or a Volt, which is good for the plug-in industry. More choices will get more EV’s on the road and as they say, a rising tide raises all boats.

Editor’s Note: This post first appeared on Tom’s BMW i3 blog.  Check it out by clicking here.

Categories: BMW, Chevrolet, Nissan, Tesla

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44 Comments on "Is the Chevy Volt the Closest Competitor to the BMW i3? If Not, Then Which Vehicle Is?"

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Nice article Tom. As you say it is probably as close as comparison as you can get with the 14 EVs available. In the ICE world with over 200 vehicles to choose from rarely do people compare say a 4 cylinder to a 6 cylinder on the performance side or any vehicle with a $10,000 price separation economically. I think the i3 will bring some of the BMW faithful and another group of hold outs as you stated that really wants more electric range AND the extender. Really 40-80 miles with and extender is plenty. As you stated, we all look for a pure 100+ AER without an extender from someone in the EV world. If manufacturers do not respond to that need, look for Tesla to carve yet a deeper cut into the EV pie. Still I look forward to driving an i3 and finding out whether or not you opt for the Rex. Thanks again for the well crafted article.

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

BMW really needed >200Wh/kg density in their battery, it’s somewhat disappointing.

VW e-Up!

Just kidding, the i3 is something new on the market, it doesn’t have any direct competition and even in cars with ICE’s there’s really not many comparable cars (Mini Countryman? Buick Encore? Fiat 500L?).

Well, since my i3 will likely have a small REx engine, I’m going to compare it to a lawn mower. Don’t look at me like that! Stranger comparison have happened before. And as Steve Juvertson seems to think, anything is fair game if a car looks like an odd duck. So don’t tell me this is wrong. At least I’m not calling it a compliance car!

I really wished BMW used a 24-25kWh battery pack vs 21. That would have allowed a solid 103-110 AER.

Higher density Li-ion tech (like Envia) are still 4+ years away. I could see a 2018 version of the i3 with an 45kWh advanced Li-ion battery pack get almost 200 AER. 2017/18 is also when Tesla will roll out Gen 3.

Nice write up. I think you are 100% correct in that they had an opportunity to distance themselves with a real 120+ EV mile range (winter 90-100).

I think this is off the mark tho: “The i3 has more than two and a half times the electric range of the Volt, allowing most owners to drive on electric a much higher percentage of the time”.
See Volt and LEAF owners article here:
Volt Vs. Leaf practical range comparison

As well MNL poster ( jhm614 ) reference:
if you open The 2013 2nd Quarter Report ( ) and look at pages C-2 and D-2, you will see that the average EV Project Leaf driver drives 29.5 miles per day and the average EV Project Volt driver covers 41 miles per day.

Tom, I know you have had the Mini and the Active E, so you have to be licking your chops, waiting for the i3. I have also been waiting for a chance to drive the i3. I love the materials, construction, wheels and technology. I can even live with the styling. I believe the aluminum and CFRP design makes steel converted ICE EVs look antiquated. But, the range has me perplexed. I am kind of in no-mans-land. I really need a little more range, but I don’t want to hassle with the REx. I just don’t want to deal with gas, oil, maintenance and smog or else I would consider a Volt. I am hoping the official range comes in near 100 miles and 124 miles in Eco Pro+ mode. Otherwise, I may end up leasing a LEAF.

Nice, well-written, enjoyable to read article Tom!
I agree that, if BMW had just gotten the range up to 110-120 miles, they would have carved out a nice niche for themselves for a few years.
They could possibly have put the extra batteries where the REx goes, and so offer either 80-90 miles AER with the REx, or 110-120 miles AER without it. It would be interesting to see how those variants would sell.

There are only two vehicles with range extenders: The Fisker Karma and the BMW i3. The Volt’s ICE is not exclusively a range extender. When all three of its clutches engage, its ICE drives the wheels directly.

The BMW i3 with the range extender’s 0-60 time is much closer to the Volt’s: 7.8 seconds. The EV-only is the one with the 7.0 second 0-60 run.

While the performance of the i-MiEV isn’t even close to the BMW’s, the measurements are very similar. 1 foot difference in length? Mostly in the nose of the BMW. The BMW’s 9 inches wider, which is still narrow by US car standards (70″ wide, about the same as a Honda Civic).

The i-MiEV has more cargo room with the seats up (260L vs. 377L) and down (1100L vs. 1430L). I wouldn’t be surprised if passenger carrying room isn’t about even, with the i-MiEV’s taller roofline.

In short, the BMW i3 is a VERY nice i-MiEV, with an independent rear suspension, nicer interior, REx option, and equally questionable styling. 🙂

Anyone looking at the i3 would be wanting a more upscale, stylish EV. So they wouldn’t be looking at the Leaf. But more like the more stylish and upscale Focus Electric for 80 EV miles.

But if they are looking for daily EV use and longer range to replace an ICE vehicle, the choice would be the Volt for 40EV miles and 380 total range, or Fusion Energi for 21 EV miles and over 500 miles of total range.

If the consumer is looking for the style and upscale status of the BMW i3, the more domestic wagon looking C-Max wouldn’t do it for them.

Clearly a BMW customer would not be seen in the i-MiEV.

LOL — I wouldn’t have either, if it weren’t for the $69/month lease… 😉

Aaron — nice deal!!!

I agree that the i3 is really a new segment. Nobody has pursued the “underpowered” REx idea yet. Making it optional and having a large EV range are also basically a new segment. It is also priced in no mans land a little bit, between the Volt and Model S. It will be interesting to see if it steals sales from other EVs, or just grows the market in general like the Model S did.

It seems perfect for the suburban super-commuters that put 20k+ miles a year on their car. I used to be one of them. But with my driving habits now, I am not sure this is a good fit. The LEAF lease is up in June, it will be an interesting decision on what is next.

Josh, I think I understand your concern, and that of most others who have commented about the REx, but if anyone says that it’s underpowered again, I might throw a fit. I think we can expect that BMW engineers did their job and designed a car that’s fit to drive in all conditions. I dissected the numbers from all angles, including inclines and freeway speeds, and the REx will not feel underpowered. Guaranteed.

Those that started that talk did not know what they are talking about. All they needed to hear “motorcycle engine” and started spewing nonsense. Most of these folks did not run any of the numbers and did not think about this as an engineering problem. They react on pure emotion and gut feeling. It’s very frustrating to see.

I almost wish that BMW did not release the origin of the range-extender engine. If they just shared some of the data and metrics, including maximum speed on inclines in REx mode, this whole “limp mobile” talk would not have happened. Either way, I hope that this will be put to rest, once the i3 can be test driven and we hear reports from first owners.

Amen to that. Let’s at least give BMW the benefit of the doubt. They’ve earned it.

I would hope that you are correct. But there have been articles quoting BMW reps recommending to expect to only use the REx as a last resort. How can the engineering retain full power when the i3’s motor is 125kWs but the REx generator only provides 50kWs?

Didn’t Nissan make all sorts of recommendations that were based on sales and business considerations in their owners manual? As I explained on the other article, the REx will be complemented with battery energy to provide nearly the full power to the motor. The REx will come on when the state of charge is 20% and there is plenty of reserve in the battery to support aggressive driving or long hill climbs at that point.

The average energy demand in city driving is about 10 kW, which will allow the REx to recharge the battery at a fast clip. It may even shut off, when the state of charged has reached a certain higher level (BMW did not say when). The only scenario when the average energy consumption exceeds what the REx can supply is fast freeway driving (over 70 mph) and long hill climbs (over 45 mph on 6% or steeper grades). Even then, the battery has enough energy to support such driving scenarios for fair amount of time (up to an hour).

I talked to people from BMWi in Europe, and they said that the performance of the BMW-i3 with REx, while using the REx, is not different from driving when the REx is turned off. Not even in the mountains (where I live). It is designed to behave the same while driving with or without the REx turned on.

Even with the tank filled up a second time without having the possibility to charge, performance will not change much. Only from the third tank on, still without having charged, you will encounter a lower performance in mountainous regions on longer climbs.

So the situation is much more positive than most people think (or write).

However, this doesn’t mean that performance never is effected. The tank is small, so after a maximum of 300 miles you will be filling up the REx a third time. So if you are driving hundreds of miles in the mountains without ever charging, you will see a lower performance. But because mountain roads are mostly curvy and you are driving at slower speeds anyway, the only way you will feel the difference in performance is while overtaking.

I like the i3.
but as a Chevy Volt owner I would NOT get the RE.
because of the 0-60 penalty.

I am ready for some scooter accel and the i3 and the spark go there.

If your driving less than 60 miles per day then why drag around a bunch of extra weight your not going to use.???

All the extra weight does is slow you down.

Agree 100% if you only drive 60 miles a day. But what if two or three times a month you need to drive 120 miles or so? Or if something comes up during the day and you need to go an extra 30 miles or so? The range extender will add a half a second or so to the 0-60 time and even cut some miles off the AER, but it eliminates the range concerns that will pop up from time to time. I agree with the article, the take rate on the REx will be very high, even though it costs $3,800.

Jerry, what you describe is almost exactly my situation: 40 to 50 miles most weekdays, around 100 once or twice a month, plus sporadic unplanned errands.

I drive a Leaf. For me, DC quick-charging takes care of those occasional trips beyond range beautifully.

This is especially true now that quick-chargers are pretty much everywhere in my area.
As BMW made the IMHO unfortunate decision to go with another standard however, their vehicles won’t be able to use the current infrastructure, making the REx more necessary.

That’s a fair concern, the BEV should be noticeably zippier. I drive an ActiveE now, which presumably has the same motor and drivetrain and it’s plenty fast off the line, despite its portly 4000 pounds. The REx version of the i3 will be more than 1,000 pounds lighter. That’s very significant and definitely fun to drive, despite the added heft of the REx.

I’m a BMW fan (have owned several) and now drive a Volt. While I am still interested in the i3, I can’t help but wonder “What if GM had released the i3 and BMW had just released the Volt?” Would the “BMW” Volt be hailed as the best thing since sliced bread with better styling, no “crippled” range extender, and more than enough miles for the average commute? Sort of makes me wonder if I’m not letting my love for BMWs cloud my judgement. It certainly doesn’t help that the preview drive reviews coming back from the major car mags are all indicating it doesn’t really drive like a BMW…that part is a real bummer for me.

I think the highly efficient tires are responsible for this. Fortunately, tires and wheels can be replaced. I love the planted feeling of the ActiveE, and I expect to something similar from the i3, courtesy of the light passenger cabin. I think you are right, brands have a tremendous pull. Both Nissan and GM did an awesome job with their 1st gen EVs. I have to admit that as an EV fan, I’m definitively excited that BMW got into the game. If they build something, people will take notice. It’s going to be good for all EVs. I think the brand will lure a lot of people out of their ICE cars to come and take a look. Some of them might decide that perhaps the LEAF or the Volt worked better for their situation. That said, I’m convinced that a rising tide will lift all boats. It’s awesome to see iconic brands get so involved. To me, that’s the final confirmation for any new technology. Sort of like when IBM decided to build PCs after they saw the Apple II.

Do yourself a favor and drive whatever car you are interested in Chris, don’t let the “experts” tell you what drives good and what doesn’t. You can find just as many positive i3 driving reports as there are negative ones. You be the judge. I’m not 100% clear on why you would think the range extender is “crippled” but you can certainly believe that if you wish. Nobody has reported on it yet since no reporters have driven the range extender models yet. I don’t think your blinded by and BMW affection, it is simply a more advanced vehicle. It has more than twice the electric range, is the first production car to be all carbon fiber and aluminum, has adoptive cruise control with automatic braking assist, all LED lighting, traffic assist – it will basically drive itself in city speeds under 30mph, the navigation system works with the range estimator to tell you if you’ll make a destination or not with your current state of charge and used real time traffic conditions and even topography (no other EV does this) and you can order it with or without a range extender – again no other EV offers that. So… Read more »
I’ll definitely drive it (heck, we drove almost 20 small SUVs before we bought my wife’s Volvo last year…let’s just say I am a little obsessed), and make my own judgement, but given that both Road and Track and Motor Trend were luke warm on the driving dynamcs and Car and Driver’s comments were conspicuous by their absence I don’t think I am going to be “Wow, this is sweet”. In fairness, the current 3 series has also faltered with many BMW enthusiasts decrying its loss of steering feel and handling so the alternatives aren’t so hot on the ICE front either. The electric torque and smoothness will be awesome, but (and this is big) it is awesome on almost ALL electrics. Soon that smoothness and torquey feel will be the norm (heck, a Spark EV will probably feel as fun). You are correct in that we don’t have any concrete evidence that the range extender will be crippled. Just a lot of conjecture that 35 hp won’t be enough to maintain a 70 mph freeway speed for any distance (or climb a grade, etc.). That may be true, but it may also simply not matter 99.999% of the time… Read more »

The answer is that the i3 (with REx) doesn’t have a direct competitor. The Volt is the closest competitor, but it’s not a direct competitor, for all the obvious reasons people familiar with both cars know. I don’t think one can say objectively that one is better than the other; they’re just different, fulfilling the needs and preferences of different people. That said, some things will be possible to measure with relative objectivity — especially reliability and durability. That will take a few years to sort out. At this stage, I like both.

There is one other 4-seater EV with extended range the i3 could be compared to (other than on price), especially because of the pure series nature of the gas generator, the Fisker Karma. The long term reception of the i3 would depend not only on the car itself, but also on BMW’s and dealership network support for it, and the treatment of their customers. Indications including current experience and new services for the i3 such as loaner vehicles for long trips are good. Tesla did set the bar rather high for what a luxury EV experience could be, but BMW is not new at this. I think it is fantastic that the German automakers are finally getting in the EV space. Could not do it soon enough. They have a lot to offer and there has certainly been a vacuum felt without their approach to making cars. Also the i3 is not going to be the last EV BMW makes and it is certainly going to evolve so the initial rather disappointing EV range could be improved upon soon. Last but not least, the Volt needs some competition. For almost three years now it has rained the EREV space virtually… Read more »

I was anticipating a near perfect design with the I3RX. For a car designed to drive around a big city, it will do well except for a few of those people that use the RX on a daily basis; putting gas in every 2 or 3 days would be a PITA. I actually like the looks, except for the kidney grills which I think should have been dropped for BMW’s EVs. I thought the RX in the U.S. versions operated differently for the CARB requirements for ZEV credits? The Volt is our only vehicle and has taken us on longer trips with no problems. My ultimate EV would be designed like the I3, except have a RX and fuel tank large enough to go 350 miles on 1 charge and 1 tank, with an AER of somewhere between 60-80 miles. All reliable EVs are welcome; since everyone has different needs.

i3 is already a fail

The upcomming Mercedes B Class !!

THE CHEVY VOLT IS A HYBRID. A diesel locomotive is a hybrid. Nuclear submarines and nuclear aircraft carriers are hybrids. PLEASE STOP REFERRING TO THE CHEVY VOLT AS AN ELECTRIC CAR! IT IS NOT! THE VOLT, BY DEFINITION IS A HYBRID. AUTOMOBILE (it also happens to be a very nice automobile and you should check one out if you have a chance – not much space in the back seat – but as a 1 or 2 person commuter or around town’er it’s awesome). Despite how much the “automotive biz world” would like to market catchy phrases to sell their products, a plug-in EV [a true Electric Car, e.g. Original Detroit Electric my Great Aunt drove in the 1920’s] is one that does not have an internal combustion engine on board to extend range. Think clearly, is a Prius an EV? GET THE POINT! Please stick to definitions and not marketing jargon. All you are doing is proving to people like myself you really have no clue about what you are talking or writing about. I am a believer of alternative fuels for transportation. I have been an EV enthusiast since the late 1970’s; a professional Environmental Scientist since the… Read more »