Tesla rocked the world in March when it introduced the Model 3, a five-passenger sedan with an electric-only range of more than 200 miles and a price tag of $35,000 before any incentives. While those specs are impressive, delivery is still a ways off, and Tesla is not the only player in the market.
The BMW i3 arrived on the market in the second quarter of 2014 with a battery-electric-only model and a battery-electric model with a small gasoline-powered range extender. It’s a compact four-door hatchback that is currently tied with the 2016 Lexus ES Hybrid for the No. 3 slot in our rankings of best luxury hybrid and electric cars. The i3 is also tied for the No. 6 position in our rankings of luxury small cars.
Which is the better electric car for you? Check out the following slides as we break down the pluses and minuses of each car.
Price – Winner: Tesla Model 3
The Tesla Model 3 is set to ship with a base price of $35,000 compared to the BMW i3’s $42,400, though the comparison gets more complicated when you consider the incentives. The federal tax credit of $7,500 may be available to many more i3 buyers than Model 3 customers.
Currently, the federal government grants a tax credit of $7,500 for the purchase of an electric vehicle, but each manufacturer is limited to selling 200,000 vehicles before that credit begins to taper off. Tesla may reach that cap with the sales of Model S and Model X vehicles before many, if any, Model 3s are delivered. In that scenario, the BMW i3 comes out $100 cheaper after its federal tax credit.
BMW is much further away from the 200,000 vehicle cap than Tesla is.
Availability – Winner: BMW i3
The BMW i3 went on sale in the U.S. in mid-2014 and a longer range version has been announced for model year 2017. Tesla announced that it plans to begin production of the Model 3 in late 2017, though the company has a track record of significant product delays.
Nearly 400,000 customers have put down $1,000 deposits on the Model 3, and auto industry experts believe that it could be 2020 before all of those orders are filled. Before production can event start, Tesla needs to finalize the car’s design, develop a supplier network, build an assembly line, certify all the components of the car, and perform crash tests. Plus, the company will have to dramatically ramp up production at its own battery plant – the Gigafactory.
Exterior Style – Winner: Tesla Model 3
Compared to its BMW i8 brother, the i3 isn’t the most attractive car on the road. Next to the i3, the Tesla Model 3 is downright sexy. The i3 does have a degree of techno-coolness, with its two-tone paint and available bright blue accents to let the world know it’s special.
The Model 3 prototypes shown so far have a four-door fastback design with a full-length panoramic sunroof, though the design of the production model isn’t expected to be finalized until June 30. Nearly 400,000 customers have put a deposit down on a car without knowing exactly what the final version will look like.
Range – Winner: Tesla Model 3
The Tesla Model 3’s predicted range of 215 miles bests the BMW’s EPA-estimated electric-only range of 81 miles and the 150-mile maximum distance an i3 can travel with the available gasoline range extender.
BMW announced a longer range version for 2017, with an expected electric-only range of 114 miles. The 2017 BMW i3 (94 Ah) gains a new lithium ion battery pack, which is responsible for the increased range. The new pack will also be included in the i3 REX model (with the gasoline-powered range extender), though its range estimate has not been released.
Charging – Winner Tesla Model 3
Tesla has announced that the Model 3 will be equipped for Supercharging at its proprietary network of
Supercharger stations. The network will need to grow to support the huge number of Model 3s sold, but it still provides an advantage over the i3. Model 3s can also use other public chargers.
Charging at Supercharger stations is free for Tesla owners and provides up to 170 miles of range in 30 minutes.
Like all non-Tesla plug-in cars, the i3 is limited to home, workplace, and public level two and three charging stations. Even in areas with well-developed networks and a high density of chargers, the public charging network is not yet completely reliable.
In some markets, BMW i3 owners are eligible to receive two years of free level three public fast charging.
Performance – Winner: Tesla Model 3
The BMW i3 can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in just over seven seconds, but the Tesla Model 3 is expected to get there in less than six seconds, even in its base trim. Tesla boss Elon Musk has indicated there may be faster versions of the Model 3.
All BMW i3 models are rear-wheel drive, while Tesla will offer both two- and all-wheel drive versions of the Model 3. The i3’s handling belies its boxy look with unexpectedly excellent agility.
Interior – Winner: BMW i3, for now
When Elon Musk presented the Model 3 to the public for the first time at the end of March, it was quickly apparent that the interior was far from a finished product. Many expect the final version to be cool and functional just because other Teslas are cool and functional.
However, nobody outside of Tesla really knows what the Model 3’s interior will look like.
The BMW i3’s interior is space-age cool, with many of its high-quality surfaces made from recycled materials. The cargo space is flexible with flat-folding rear seats, and the large rear hatch makes cargo loading a breeze. With the rear seats up, the i3 holds 15.1 cubic feet of cargo. Lower them, and the cargo space jumps to 36.9 cubic feet. The i3’s small rear side doors are hinged at the back, so passengers can access the back seat only when the front doors are also open.
Projected Reliability – Winner: BMW i3
The BMW i3 scores an above-average score of 3.5 out of five in our ratings of projected reliability, which are based on quality researcher J.D. Power and Associates’ Vehicle Dependability Study and Predicted Reliability ratings. The Tesla Model 3 has yet to be rated in either J.D. Power study.
But we can make some predictions based on Tesla’s reputation for reliability as reported by other assessors of quality. Consumer Reports withdrew its “Recommended” designation from the Tesla Model S after it received below-average scores on its Annual Auto Reliability Survey. The Model X has been plagued with problems with its Falcon doors, delaying its entry to the marketplace until recently. Tesla has already recalled the Model X to repair a problem with the third-row seat latch, and quality complaints about the electric SUV abound in online message boards, according to Consumer Reports.
The Tesla Model 3 will also be built on a new assembly line from a manufacturer with little experience in producing mass market vehicles, and Tesla plans to increase volume rapidly – factors that may negatively affect the quality of at least the first year’s production.
The BMW i3 comes with a four-year/50,000 mile warranty and an eight-year/100,000 mile battery warranty. Tesla models to this point have come with a four-year/50,000 warranty and an eight-year infinite-mile battery and drive unit warranty, though the final warranty specifications for the Model 3 have not been published.
Which Should You Buy? – Winner: It’s Complicated.
While the Tesla Model 3 clearly wins the majority of the categories that we have looked at, it’s still years away from delivery. If putting one in your garage intrigues you, put the $1,000 deposit down to claim your spot in line with the 400,000 or so other potential buyers.
But in the meantime, lease a BMW i3. A three-year lease deal will bridge the gap between now and the potential delivery of a Model 3. Currently, you can lease a 2015 BMW i3 with the range extender for three years at $239 per month with $4,164 due at signing. Given the rapid advancements in range year after year, it’s best not to lock yourself into an electric car by buying it.
By the time the Model 3 rolls out, the field of long-range electric cars is expected to be more crowded. The 200-mile range Chevrolet Bolt hits the road later this year, and new models from Hyundai, Ford, and others are expected to break the 100-mile range barrier.