Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What Should The i3 Be Compared To?

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.

A LEAF charging at my restaurant
Since BMW claims it will have about an 80-100 mi 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
A Volt on display at Nauna's
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.

The i3's interior is nicer than any other IMO
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.

My Model S for a day!
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 iMiEV and granted the stubby nose can draw some similarities to the shape, but having driven a few iMiEV's and have 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 iMiEV 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.


  1. I don't think there is a need to compare the i3 to anything, but if one must, I would compare it to any of the functionally similar ICE cars, or for a comparison to another EV, to the Honda Fit EV. Since the i3 will not be on the American market until Spring of 2014, perhaps there will be something else to compare it to at that time (a 2015 Fit EV replacement from Honda?, or a 3rd gen Tesla on the horizon).

    I think BMW in the past has said they expected uptake for the gasoline REx would be greater initially, but as people became accustomed to living with BEVs, the demand for the pure EV version would become greater.

    Because of the substantial extra weight for the range extender and its various pieces (gas tank, muffler, generator, etc.), the REx version will have a lower pure electric range and worse performance and handling. There will also be a tank full of toxic, explosive, smelly liquid in the car, the i3 will vibrate when the engine is running, expel noxious fumes, require oil changes, etc. Since the vast majority of American drivers travel less than 40 or 50 miles per day, and many of them have a second ICE car for longer trips, the REx will likely be a psychological crutch for most people, although certainly genuinely useful for some. In any case, the REx option is not a panacea, and not without its drawbacks.

    As always, however, the more choices the better, and comparisons will vary with each individual's transportation needs and aesthetic predispositions. I'm therefore happy that BMW is offering both versions -- makes more people happy. In a few years there will be better batteries, and more choices to hopefully satisfy everyone. Just not today.

  2. Two comments:

    1. I think BMW is being conservative with their range numbers, and that in actual use most people will indeed get 100-120 miles of range out of the car. The exceptions will be those in very cold climates -- NY/NJ not being particularly cold :) I mean Minnesota, Canada, et cetera. So, for the rest of us, I'm hoping to be pleasantly surprised once the real test drives start happening later this year.

    2. Now that I've completed my comprehensive "checklist for the perfect EV" ( http://electrifyatlanta.com/wp/?page_id=25 ), I'm circling back to use it to evaluate the cars on the market. And I'm seeing that the Volt really does do many, many things very well. If nothing else, it is more refined since it's been out for three full years -- there are plenty of little things that GM fixed in the Volt in year two, little tweaks that make the car a joy to live with. I expect we'll see the same from BMW and the i3 -- a lot of little annoyances at first, many of which will then get fixed in its second year.

    I'm still leaning towards the i3 (instead of another Volt) after my early Volt lease runs out in December, but it's turning more into a vanity issue. I think I just want to be on the bleeding edge. Evaluated more soberly, the Volt is very compelling.

  3. I like the Volt comparison, but it's true there just isn't a perfect match. The all electric version can definitely be compared to the leaf and the Focus electric. However I usually compare a 3 series to a Maxima or an Impala. BMW makes luxury sports sedans that usually cost more and offer more.

  4. I would compare the i3 to it's self. This version of the i3 may not be perfect but it's a very good start. It's a huge effort by a huge premium automaker and that is big news and deserves big respect. The i3 is now a platform that can change and morph as needed. The heavy lifting being done. Once this car is in the hands of customer BMW will be able to learn a lot and go forward designing changes into future versions of i3 and other plugin cars they make. Some, like me, may think they should have listened more to plugin car owners to gain this knowledge before coming out with the i3 but that's not how BMW rolls. :) All good. Plugin cars will get more interesting as CA regulations ratchet up in the next few years. I'm so glad and proud my state has made the world automakers make better cars for us!

    1. i completely agree. How can you compare the revolutionary i3 to ordinary stamped-steel cars? Its mass-produced carbon fiber body makes it truly unique; you can't just take that out of the equation.

    2. I agree as well. I did this post because I've seen it compares to every other EV out there, most notably the Model S and none of them are really fair comparisons (for either vehicle). Taken on the surface it's another 4 seat EV that can go about 80 to 100 miles, and we've heard that before. The beauty of the i3 is in the tech that went into it. There really is nothing like it.

    3. But what is the REAL benefit to the BMW i3 owner of all this tech if the car doesn't travel any further than a Leaf. That's what I can't get my head round. Why bother when they could have made a steel bodied car (like the Leaf) and got the same range. I'm struggling to see what's the benefit. I agree had the CFRP body given the i3 a range of 120 miles I would feel differently.

    4. As you can see from the post I too wish BMW had offered a longer range and I am convinced they will ultimately realize it was a mistake and correct that with future models. However you asked what the benefit was. By reducing the car's weight they were able to use a 21.8kWh battery which is 8% smaller than the LEAF's and still give the car a slightly longer range. The battery is the most expensive component of the vehicle and by reducing the size they were able to offset the extra cost of the CFRP and aluminum. So you'd say they really didn't accomplish anything because they only save the amount of money it cost them to use the advanced composites and there is some truth to that. However the i3 is just the stepping stone to future models. Cars that will share the technology and lessons learned by BMW in creating this vehicle. They had to start somewhere. This isn't BMW's be-all-end-all electric vehicle. It's just the beginning. I think you'll see longer range, larger all electric and PHEV's come out of the i brand soon, and they will all be better vehicles because of what BMW learned from making the i3. BMW has always called this the Megacity car. It's specific use is for cities and immediate surrounding suburbs. They added the range extender along the way in an effort to widen the appeal and I think it will do that. I'd prefer a 125 mile i3 but one with the range extender will work for now. I doubt I'll need the range extender more than 20 times a year, I can live with using 10-20 gallons of gas while driving 35,000 miles per year. Not everybody shares that opinion and they have other options. We'll all get there eventually, it's just not going to happen overnight.

  5. All the tech makes the i3 about 650 pounds lighter than the Leaf, which translates to much better efficiency, handling, braking, and performance. That's what the tech gives you; that's what makes the i3 a BMW. If someone doesn't care about those things, and only cares about range, then there are other choices that might work better -- including ICE cars, which have lots of range. Plug-in hybrids can give you enormous range and the ability to operate in electric mode for shorter distances. BMW's small Concept Active Tourer is a good example, and seems to be headed for production (so might be a better choice for some people). It's also an example of BMW putting i3 tech into its other cars.

    Nobody has claimed the i3 is all things to all people.