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