Green Cars

Published on November 2nd, 2015 | by Zachary Shahan

BMW i3 vs Tesla Model S — Decisions, Decisions!

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 safer
  • 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 compact car (which I like)
  • has the strongest regenerative braking on the market
  • 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 the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular cleantech-focused website in the world, and Planetsave, a world-leading green and science news site. He has been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and he has been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, and wind energy since 2009. Aside from his work on CleanTechnica and Planetsave, he's the founder and director of Solar Love, EV Obsession, and Bikocity. To connect with Zach on some of your favorite social networks, go to ZacharyShahan.com and click on the relevant buttons.



  • mesmorino

    Go on: Why is it awful?

    • TWD3

      The BMW i3 is awful for numerous reasons. Let’s start with the interior, ugly materials that are highly reflective in the windscreen which obstruct your view of the road as you drive. Also the handling, there’s a reason cars have wider tires than bicycles but not the i3. Its motorcycle like tires tramline on highways which means, the car steers to follow lines in the road without your input; on long road trips tramlining adds a lot of stress and is not much fun, when is undue stress behind the wheel ever a good thing?

      And then there’s the range of i3 and it’s weak range extending motor that will not allow for full power when engaged. My friends i3 driving to my home in the mountains in Southern California was not able to make it up the hill without the range extender kicking in. At this point his car was severely throttled or in other words, was not able to drive to its full potential and was very slow to preserve the battery. This means that a base model Prius could have smoked the i3 up the mountain road while my Volt with its more powerful range extending motor was much faster up a mountain than either the BMW or the Prius due to its stronger range extended power and better handling. To be fair, after recharging his car at my home in the mountains, he was able to stay on the battery the entire way down the mountain but my Volt still out handled the BMW in the curves.

      Safety, the BMW is nowhere near as safe as the Volt in crash tests. For a car as expensive as this BMW, its lack of safety is an unacceptable risk for owners to take in my opinion.

      Long-range comfort and practicality. Due to the BMWs limited cargo space, nervous Road manners on the highway, and limited range, it’s not even in the same league as the Volt.

      Bottom line, the only reason anyone buys the BMW is for the badge, or in the case of the author of this article, nationalistic loyalty (he hails from Europe).

      • mesmorino

        Fair points, well made- I don’t own either an i3 or a Tesla (or even an electric vehicle, period) so I can’t talk about either

      • I’m American, not German.

        To say the car isn’t great to drive makes me think you’ve never driven it.

        Yes, some of your criticisms are valid, but many are a matter of preference.

        Not sure what safety tests you’re referencing, but comparable safety tests in Europe ranked the i3 above the Model S. No such comparable tests in the US from what I’ve seen.

  • 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.

    • That is hard to believe. Not saying it’s not true, but I test drove these cars and thought the Volt was quite lame while the i3 was a lot of fun. Yes, the Model 3 is a different class, and thus twice the price. But I actually had more fun in the i3 in some ways.

      I have no need for BMW badging, but I really love the car.

      • TWD3

        Zachary you live in Florida. Your state has as many corners as a pool table. I live in Southern California and we have mountains. The Volt destroys the i3 on a mountain road. Also those ridiculous skinny tires tramline like crazy. They are initially quick and responsive however the car is nervous and skittish and as I said before, follows every line in the road without your input. Bottom line, the Volt is a better car than the BMW.

        • Ah, yes, I definitely agree with those points.

          I just personally don’t like the Volt, so it’s basically out of the equation. But well aware of the benefits.

          I love that initial acceleration of the i3, and the regen braking (great stuff!), and the sharp turning, and the view, and a few other things. But I’m definitely trying to figure out if the “skittish” nature of the i3 would bother me (or my family). If I assume so, then I think I’m going with the Model S.

          Honestly, I’ve gone back and forth between these two so many times I can’t believe it. Hard decision for me.

          I’m back in Europe, but will have to make the decision once we can finally live in Florida (immigration process for my wife is taking forever).

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