Published on October 31st, 2015 | by Zachary Shahan


BMW i3 vs Tesla Model S — The Dilemma Continues

October 31st, 2015 by  

Originally published on EV Obsession.

Well, I was hoping to get more clarity by test driving the BMW i3 and the Tesla Model S 70D one day after the other last week. Unfortunately, I walked away more undecided than before the test drives. Mixing in test drives of the Nissan LEAF (which we got for my mom), Chevy Volt, Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid, Cadillac ELR, and BMW i8 probably didn’t help, but I think I’d be in the same situation either way.

Tesla Model S red blue black grey

BMW i3 white and black

The BMW i3 acceleration is really lovely. It is second only to the Tesla Model S, imho. And even so, it has a sporty feel that I like more in some ways. I thought I was a little bit crazy for that, but just read a comment the other night from someone who has an i3 and a Model S and uses the i3 as his daily driver because of that sportier feel. The Model S is reserved primarily for road trips.

Tesla Model S charging

However, the Model S has the i3 beat on a number of important points, and it would be somewhat criminal to not mention those. It’s…

  • much more spacious for passengers and cargo
  • has much longer range
  • has Supercharger access
  • has very cool and useful autopilot features
  • has an awesome infotainment and navigation system
  • is continuously improved via over-the-air software updates.

Just writing out that list, my 50–50 dilemma is now weighing more in favor of the Model S. It’s still hard to justify spending so much money on a car, but those are some strong advantages.

While it can be hard to justify the extra “fun,” arguably unimportant extra space, and potentially unnecessary extra range of the Model S, the thing that keeps coming to mind is how much safer the S is. Florida is one of the most dangerous states in the US for driving (maybe even the most dangerous). One would hope that we’d never be in an accident, but if we were….

Additionally, I was reminded at the Nissan dealer that $1 doesn’t = $1. The price of the LEAF jumped ~50–100% from what we were initially being told before all was said and done. The guy we worked with was nice, and he got us some extra discounts we didn’t really qualify for, but that’s just the way things roll at dealerships. So, I think the next step for me is getting the BMW dealer to give me the real monthly payment estimate and then to compare that to the Model S estimate.

If only Tesla still offered the Model S 40. That would genuinely be ideal for me (I think)… well, it would still be too large for my taste, but I think I could live with that. I don’t need the extra range that sits largely unused on a Model S 70 and up, and it’s certainly not worth a premium to me.

The BMW i3 does still have a few benefits that I hugely value as well. It…

  • is the greenest car on the market
  • is the most efficient car on the market
  • is a subcompact car (which I like)
  • has stronger regenerative braking (which I love)
  • is more economical (clearly).

Yes, I left acceleration off of both lists. While quite different, I think acceleration is comparably enjoyable in these two vehicles. (I reserve the right to change my mind after a back-to-back test drive.)

In the end, I now need to get my wife into both of these vehicles and discuss the cost (or maybe not…) with her.

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About the Author

is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the typed word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession, Solar Love, and Bikocity. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in.

  • Andy

    It is also important to compare how your purchase will impact your economy. I live in the USA, so on the plus side of the Tesla I would include 100% made in the USA. My purchase would go to American workers, and back into my local economy, which would eventually help me even more.

  • TWD3

    I own both a Volt and a Tesla (and a BMW M Coupe and Cadillac CTS V Coupe). My best friend owns the i3, a classic ’73 911 and a new BMW M4. Here in Southern California we have mountains; great sport’s car roads. A few weekends ago we drove up to my place in the mountains, Idyllwild to be exact with its Numbering of North America: hwy 243: 27 miles of twisting turns both tight and sweeping with short and long straights. Bottom line: my VOLT smoked his i3 up and back! (and we charged our cars at my place before the return trip the following day).

    Background: We are both track day drivers so we understand performance driving. The Volt handles much faster than the i3 and is far more comfortable and practical. My buddy was a bit demoralized by the results especially given the fact the Volt is so much more practical and less expensive. As a side, the Tesla (90D) is in a whole different league compared to the Volt so an i3 really is a distant 3rd in this contest.

    If you don’t want to spend the money for the Tesla which is the best car in this contest get the Volt. About the only reason I can think that anyone would purchase the i3 is insecurity i.e. the need for BMW badging.

  • wattleberry

    Some points in favour of the Tesla. To me, Teslas’ residuals are much less likely to be affected by the constant shadow of obsolescence when better batteries appear, because they already have a practical range. No other make has the update feature, another value protector. Also, it would be unusual and refreshing to hear reports on one of the lower spec models in the S range instead of the almost total attention hogged by the 85s.
    The size of the Tesla is entirely to scale in the US whereas the i3, for instance, is more at home in older countries not built for driving.
    Whatever your choice, it won’t have been made without adequate guidance!
    Good luck.

  • Wow, great find, and tip. If I found such a deal, I’m sure I’d have to take it.

    “The i3 and MS are so different, the only way they are remotely comparable is that they both are EVs and that the BMW is the closest in price (if you could call it close) to the MS.”
    -This is exactly what I was thinking ~1 hour ago. It is partly what makes the decision so hard. The things I love about the i3 aren’t in the Model S, and vice versa.

  • Jenny Sommer

    Do you really need a car?

    • In Sarasota, yes, we will. I’ve been car-free for 11+ years. It’s really the way to live, imho — much nicer. However, I want to live by the beach again and by my parents again, which means Sarasota. With a wife and baby, that means getting a car.

  • Ken

    Hi Zachary. Some very important things to consider.

    BMW is a fossil fuel car company that has not truly committed to the type of EV that will make a difference to our global warming crisis in terms of attracting a true mass customer base. Rewarding them for that behavior may not be the best idea. The money you give them can be put toward the design and marketing of more fossil fuel cars. Better to give money to a company that has similar goals to yours.
    Also rewarding the fossil fuel car company dealers’ dishonest sales methods is another practice that shouldn’t be encouraged.

    Also, the BMW value will crash as soon as the 200+ mile mass market priced EVs appear – though that may not be a concern if you are leasing.

    Finally, you can’t put a price on the safety of yourself and your family. The extra money for the Tesla is worth it just for that.

    • Thanks. Though, I see the action of getting an i3 rewarding BMW for the effort it is putting into electrics. It is one of the only electric cars built electric from the ground up, and it is one of the only electrics that is genuinely being offered in practically every market (I track sales in a bunch of countries, and it is consistently at/near the top… because BMW is actually trying to sell it).

      As far as safety, someone (“No way”) posted in this thread or another one European crash test results that indicated the i3 is actually safer for passengers.

      Decision is definitely not made yet. We’ll see…

      • Ken

        BMW does not seem to have any intention to sell a long range, mass market price vehicle in mass market numbers. The main thrust of the company is to still drag their feet on any clean tech and make as much money as possible while poisoning the planet. The majority of any money they receive will go toward fossil fuel cars, not clean tech. This is through their own admission.

        The i3 is designed to meet the ever stricter emission standards in many countries. It is not, in any way, reflective of the vast majority of BMW vehicles or revenue. The only indication is that BMW will continue down a destructive fossil fuel path.

        Tesla is the only company that has proven dedicated to actually making EVs in numbers that can actually help our global warming crisis instead of a small number of government placating compliance vehicles.

  • jack8trades

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the all-wheel-drive of the Tesla 70D — surely that’s a benefit on rainy roads in Florida? The top shopping list item on my next EV will be AWD. I have lots of uphill gravel-road driving that you probably don’t, but most people have the issue now and then of trying to accelerate on rain-slick roads, especially turning from a stop, which strains traction in a 2wd vehicle.

    • Hmm, I was figuring it’s not needed/useful in FL, and the Tesla sales rep said the same and is himself going to get a 70.

      • Ken

        There is a huge difference in road holding with AWD in all weather, especially rain, making it much safer.

        I switched from a rear wheel drive Tesla and there is no comparison.

        Test drive a Tesla D and you will see.

        • I actually test drove two D models (P85D and 70D). They didn’t have a 70 for me to test.

  • Johnny Le

    You should get the model S and be done with it. Just the fact that it will get better over time is worth the money. You also write a ton more articles about Tesla than BMW. Imagine keep writing awesome news about a car you could have had. We all know for Elon this is just the beginning. So a lot more exciting stuff are coming.

    Also, think about this. If you get into an accident with your child in an i3 and it could have been avoided in a model S due to some new features, you wouldn’t be able to forgive yourself.

    • “Just the fact that it will get better over time…”

      -This topic has come up a lot in my head since I know it result in a lot more stories.

      “You also write a ton more articles about Tesla than BMW.”
      -Good point.

      “Also, think about this. If you get into an accident with your child in an i3 and it could have been avoided in a model S due to some new features, you wouldn’t be able to forgive yourself.”
      -Now you’re just playing dirty 😀 But it’s true…

      • Johnny Le

        Sorry, not trying to play dirty since I have no dogs in this fight, but that’s the main reason Tesla got me. I can’t think of buying any other cars at this point. Tesla is improving things fast while the i3 will remain the same and get worse over time. We never know what new features Tesla will come up with and when we will need them. Even now it seems impossible for a model S to hit another car. Only other cars hit it. Avoiding accidents is better than finding out which cars protect you better in one.

  • Manitou820

    At the end of my 3 year Leaf lease, I had the same debate on which car to get. I ultimately went with the i3 for a couple of reasons.

    A 5 year loan for a Model S 70D was around $1400 a month (yes I would eventually get back the tax credits, $13,500 total here in Colorado) versus I ended leasing my i3 for around $300 a month.

    The closest Tesla service center is 80mi each way and I’m not ready for that kind of a drive if I have any warranty issues.

    In Colorado the super charger network is not sufficient to cover our back country road trips ever summer so I still need an ICE vehicle as a second car.

    I ended up with a 24 month lease on the i3 hoping that by the time it’s lease ends the Model 3 might be available.

    • Thanks for the input. Useful. How are you liking the i3?

      • Manitou820

        I love it! The Leaf was a perfect car to learn about living with an EV. However the Leaf is pretty boring and lacks the enthusiasm. The i3 is a blast. Fast enough and sporty enough to be an excellent daily driver. I love the huge amount of regen, which makes one pedal driving very easy. The interior is extremely high quality. And it works great to haul my two kids and wife around town for weekend errands.

        If Tesla had a more competitive leasing program, I probably would have leased a Model S. I’m very hesitant to purchase an EV right now because of the potential for huge depreciation. The residual of my Leaf at the end of it’s lease was $15,500. It was only worth about $10,000 at that time. That means Nissan took a huge hit. These great lease deals from GM/Nissan/BMW put all of the depreciation risk on the automakers. Tesla’s are holding their value pretty well right now, but they could take a huge hit if a new Model S is released, a worthy Model S competitor hits the market, or if something terrible were to happen to Tesla as a company.

        • Thanks. Very useful info. Those are definitely some of the big things attracting me to the i3.

          And, yes, I need to put an article up on this, but heard at the EV Summit that Nissan and others who would know are expecting used LEAFs coming off the lease to sell for $8,000-10,000. Probably great used car options!

    • Michael Gentry

      I’m a lurker – haven’t posted until now. I thought I’d add my 2 cents. My wife and I have been leasing an i3 for about 8 months ($300/month, including down payment). With the technology improving so quickly, it didn’t make sense to buy an EV.

      We love it for short jaunts (35 miles each way). We also have a 335d for longer trips. We use the i3 for about 60% of our travel (around 1000 miles/month). Didn’t see a need for the quick charger or the REX.

      With the seats down, the i3 has more storage space than the 3 series bimmers. Front and back seats are just as roomy.

      We have a PG&E EV rate – we start charging at 11PM and it’s ready to go by 7 AM – for around $2.00 for a full charge. Have never used a charging station, except for the drive from Sacramento to Monterey.

      We are looking forward to the Tesla 3, tho’ we’d be tempted to stay with BMW if the ranges were comparable. It would be nice to not need an ICE for longer trips.

      I really like the regen – I practice mindful driving, only using the “gas” pedal as much as possible

      • I love getting these perspectives from different drivers. Thanks for chiming in. 😀

        • CB

          “I love getting these perspectives from different drivers.”

          We just bought a Spark EV and it’s amazing!

          It probably doesn’t accelerate as fast as the other cars mentioned, but it still feels like a racecar, and it’s a fraction of the cost… 16k new with Cali rebates.

          …don’t know about regressive, sad old Florida… :/

          The Bolt is supposed to be even better; more than double the range and heaps more room. Stupid name, but amazing car. The engineers and the fossil-funded marketing team are locked in a death struggle!

          • Bob_Wallace

            You mean you’re not excited about riding around in Ol’ Sparky?

          • CB

            Lol! The Spark name, I actually like.

            Naming a car “Volt” and then naming another car with similar technology “Bolt” is a marketing strategy so questionable, it smells like intentional undermining of a product… something these companies have a history of doing…

  • hybridbear

    “It’s still hard to justify spending so much money on a car, but those are some strong advantages.”
    This is our dilemma when considering a used Model S as a potential next vehicle when our Focus Electric lease ends. However, we would use the additional passenger space multiple times a week, so that is a big factor for us & eliminates the i3 & Volt from our consideration.

    • Yeah, the passenger space is a big plus if useful. For our situation, I’m just not sure it is. And same with all the extra range and other advantages. It’s all just “that’s nice” or “that’s cool!” but not really super important to us. And the price is… well, a lot higher.

  • For me, it’s the Chevrolet Volt!

  • BlackH20River

    To bad the BMW looks like Cr#!

    • Calamity_Jean

      You’re entitled to your own opinion, but the one I saw in my neighborhood was rather cute IMO.

  • owlafaye

    Articles like this make me believe the author is frantically fishing for readers by using high interest names like Tesla.

  • owlafaye

    The Tesla has over a decade of research and development in electric drive ONLY. As cute as it may be, the BMW is way behind the electric technology of the Tesla. Throwing in range, reliability, low maintenance, spaciousness, luxury and cost, the Tesla is a hands down winner.

    Articles like this make me believe the author is frantically fishing for readers by using high interest names like Tesla.

    • Haha, definitely not fishing for readers. lol 😀 I’ve genuinely gone back and forth between these cars probably 100 times. It’s a very, very tough decision for me.

      • CB

        Why aren’t you looking at any of the traditional American manufacturers?

        They’ve got some good stuff!

        Between the 2, I would say go Tesla because Beemer drivers are douchebags.

      • owlafaye

        I have never seen a TeslaS driver that didn’t have a smug look on their face.

  • dogphlap dogphlap

    Good luck with your quest. Starting to sound like the i3 is pulling ahead at the moment.
    Anyway I thought I’d fill you in on my biggest unresolved problem with the Model S which I had prior to version 7.0 firmware update from 6.2. Now all fixed. Thank you Tesla.
    I am so pleased this is no longer an issue.
    I drive differently to a lot of folks and one of my idiosyncrasies is to use cruise control nearly everywhere, frequently adjusting speed as if it were a hand throttle.
    Now Tesla warns that the traffic aware cruise control should not be used on normal suburban roads because it used to get confused by sharp bends, traffic turning off in front etc. Ignoring that advice results in quiet heavy braking and consequently being nearly rear ended in normal driving. That behaviour was so scary I had reluctantly given up cruise control use, but no more, since the last firmware update. It seems the cruise control has been tamed and now behaves perfectly. I am so pleased about this but realise that most drivers were less affected than I was by the hyper vigilance of the earlier version.
    Another useful improvement is the hill hold feature that stops the car from rolling backwards (and a little less importantly, forward) on a slope. Another idiosyncrasy I have is I like to use the handbrake a lot rather than heel and toe and with the Model S there is no hand brake (and heel and toe in an electric car is going to be a lot different to a gas car since the brake overrides the accelerator anyway). This improved hill hold feature goes a long way towards solving that small problem.
    I’m kind of slow so I’ve yet to try the auto-steer, auto-lane change and auto-parallel-park but next week I will try at least one of those.
    I suspect I will not leave auto-lane change enabled for long since I use my indicators to inform other motorists of my intentions, and that may be many seconds before commencing a manoeuvre so the delay from starting to indicate to moving out of my lane may only suite me in a minority of situations. Also I don’t like the car accelerating by itself while the lane change is under way (you used to be able to turn that behaviour off, not any more).
    I am so pleased Tesla has given me a usable cruise control, and I still have the 1kph increments and the next 5kph divisible speed increment which I really like along with the ability to go to the current speed limit by holding the stalk towards you for a second or so (have not tried that bit yet). Nice to now have the currently set cruise speed displayed clearly also.
    Other improvements I appreciate are the speed limit is now permanently displayed on the drivers display (it used only to be there briefly when that speed changed, often necessitating glancing over to the 17″ display where it was permanently displayed). Displaying trip distance since last charge is also welcome.
    While the new auto-steer gets all the press for me it’s the other changes that I really appreciate.

  • TedKidd

    Absolutely! Gotta have the wife’s thoughts!!

  • Alaa

    is the greenest car on the market
    is the most efficient car on the market
    is a compact car (which I like)
    has the strongest regenerative braking on the market
    is more economical (clearly).
    None of the above is true!

    • if you’re going to say these things aren’t true, i’d like some proof.

      1) a few ratings have put it #1

      2) this is based on info from the EPA:

      3) Sorry, it’s a subcompact — even better.

      4) i may be wrong on this one, but need some proof that i am, because i’ve tested most of the EVs on the market and the i3’s seemed to be the strongest. i believe i read that somewhere as well, but don’t remember where.

      5) umm, how is the i3 not cheaper than the Model S?

      • Maxwell Erickson

        I think four is interesting, because I’ve always had the impression that the Tesla’s regenerative braking was far stronger than other electric cars on the market. Did the i3 feel a lot stronger?

        • Sorry for the delay, but yeah, the i3’s felt notably stronger. I also think I read somewhere that Tesla’s is a little weaker to protect some part of the drivetrain more. Seems BMW pushed it furthest because its ActiveE drivers wanted it as strong as possible. They also apparently have some nifty feature where it is not as strong when driving at high speeds (for obvious reasons). Maybe that’s how they get around the risk Tesla perceived.

  • Adrian

    Whatever you end up getting, think about a lease. There’s so much improvement and price reduction coming in the next few years.

    • Yeah, am pretty set on a lease… unless I saw a great deal on a used Tesla.

      • No way

        Then it’s pretty much settled then? An i3 now for a 3 year lease and then you can get a Model 3 if you want to try a Tesla, both smaller and cheaper than the S/X. 🙂

  • Jason Fice

    The Model S weighs about 2000lbs more than the i3 (4600 vs 2600) so it makes sense that the i3 would feel sportier and be more efficient. Batteries weight a lot and it seems silly to carry that mass around with you all the time if you don’t care about the added range. Just my two cents.

    • “The Model S weighs about 2000lbs more than the i3 (4600 vs 2600) so it makes sense that the i3 would feel sportier and be more efficient.”
      -Yeah, this didn’t hit me so much (as regards the drive quality) initially, but when test driving the 70D and i3 close together, I really experience it… just took some processing to hit me.

      “Batteries weight a lot and it seems silly to carry that mass around with you all the time if you don’t care about the added range. Just my two cents.”
      -Definitely agree.

  • Shiggity

    Buy the Tesla already Zach and stahp teasing us.

    • lol. i’m hoping to just win one in a raffle. 😀 that would make things simpler 😀

  • kvleeuwen

    Personally, I don’t value safety features that high.
    Every car on the American and European market is ‘safe enough’. If you’re scared by the fact that your life depends on others behaving on the road, then don’t drive at all 🙂
    Safety is a big emotional factor, manufacturers know that and value those features accordingly, but at some point ‘improvements’ are not rational.
    The biggest safety factor will always be the behavior of the one behind the wheel.

    I agree that of this two cars, the Model S is in most regards the better car. But what would you do with the $60.000 you keep in your pocket when you go for the i3? You will have less car, but more solar for example.

    • dogphlap dogphlap

      It is not just Zac, the car will be expected to carry a wife and a baby/young child eventually.

      • I think he’s saying there’s not much difference in safety levels between all cars. I don’t really buy that, but “No way” made a significant point that seems to do away with the “Tesla is safer for us” argument.

        • kvleeuwen

          Not exactly, just that the price for a added safety should be considered in its own right.
          If the risk at serious injury is reduced from 0.0003% to 0.0002% (which will be marketed as a 50% reduction) comes with a price tag of €60000, you are better off by improving your insurance (which covers more risks).

          There is definitely a difference in safety levels between cars. But at the same time, I don’t think there is a car on the (EU/US) market that is genuinely unsafe and should be avoided on safety grounds.

          The real risks in cars are (for now) in the judgment of drivers. Eliminating the driver, as Tesla does, is a promising take on safety – but yet unproven.

          • “The real risks in cars are (for now) in the judgment of drivers. Eliminating the driver, as Tesla does, is a promising take on safety – but yet unproven.”
            –No argument there. But some do clearly handle an attack better than others, and protect the occupants more accordingly.

      • kvleeuwen

        I understand, and everybody must make their own decisions 🙂
        The idea that you should buy the safest car your money can buy, is (in my opinion) just kidding yourself. Will you immediately sell your car when a safer one is released?

        I’m sure Zach will make a balanced decision to drive the car best suited for his situation.

    • Ken

      Wrong. Every car is not ‘safe enough’. Gasoline cars cause 33,000 deaths and millions of serious injuries a year in the US alone.

      Not ‘safe enough’ at all.

  • tmac1

    Agree on the real cost of i3; I looked at the i3 when it first came out and lease payments were closing in on Model S which I knew I could not afford, so I went to Chevy.

    The practical thing for you is the Model S but you love the i3. I think your head tells you Model S but your heart says the i3. Since we know most people (maybe not you) base a lot of major purchases on emotion not intellect I smell a Bavarian answer for you soon!!!!!!!!!

    • Haha, I think you’ve read me too well. 😀

    • But I should note, I am genuinely bouncing back and forth the two several times a day. Sort of crazy.

      • Coley

        I think thon Musk bloke must be a bit of a ‘tightwad’ ( is that the correct American term?) for not just giving you a model S, given the amount of endorsements and advertising his products receive on here.

        • There’s a decent consensus here about that. I’m not sure if he knows who I am, though. 😀 But I am pretty sure we’ve sold some Teslas in some way or another. 😀

      • Brooks Bridges

        Many of us would LOVE to have your dilemma 🙂

        Always loved fun to drive cars then we moved to Eastern Shore of MD and roads are 99% flat and straight. My wife’s Mini Cooper is wasted.

  • No way

    Regarding the safety the i3 is hardly far behind the Model S. In the Euro NCAP (which is the only test both have done as far as I know) the i3 beats the Tesla in adult protection (inside the car) and child protection (inside the car). The two categories that most people find most important.

    The Tesla beats the i3 in pedestrian safety and driver assist features. Which of course also are important, but more for the people you hit than yourself.

    • Wow, that is huge. Great to know, so thanks a ton!

    • Interesting the Tesla beats the i3 in pedestrian safety… isn’t it physically impossible to hit someone with the i3 when you’re lower than 30 mph? I’ve seen those videos on YouTube where people drive it through a small course blindfolded and it’s impossible to crash it!

      • interesting. don’t think i’ve seen such videos. have a link?

      • No way

        It is testing when you hit someone at a certain speed etc. They have the tests specified on their site.
        So you’re not allowed to “cheat” by not hitting the target. Auto braking is now part of the test though but that goes into the driver safety assist category.

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