Does Tesla Have a Competitor in the BMW i3 EV?

BMW i3

While the launch of a new BMW (BMW.PK) might not have been world news a decade ago, the rise of the electric vehicle industry has brought German luxury automakers into the fold. In fact, one might say that Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA), the hottest EV player of them all, has found a worthy adversary when it comes to the luxury plug-in car market.

Other big-name upscale brands like Lincoln (NYSE:F) and Cadillac (NYSE:GM) have introduced hybrids among their flagship sedans, yet BMW has boldly gone down the all-electric road — there is also an optional hybrid version. The BMW i3 production model was showcased this week to a highly captive audience in New York. The rumors and photos leaked beforehand captured the car accurately, and the list of surprises was short.

In brief, the BMW i3 will cost $41,350; use a 22 kWh lithium ion battery; travel 80-120 miles on a full charge; take 30 minutes on a fast charger to get full battery power into its pack; and go 0-60 in just over 7 seconds (numbers courtesy of Automedia.com). The i3 will be on sale in the spring of 2014. From this vantage point, the car doesn’t seem to threaten Tesla’s distinctive Model S in the luxury EV market.

Tesla Model S I

Tesla’s Model S goes 0-60 in under 6 seconds in each of its three variants (60 kWh, 85 kWh, and 85 kWh Performance). A full charge delivers drivers a range of 265 miles at most, and 200 miles at the very least when blasting the air conditioner and stereo. Immediately, it looks as if the BMW hasn’t conquered the first lesson Tesla learned in electric car manufacturing: don’t show any weakness.

Driving 100 miles or less (some estimates suggest the i3 can go 120 miles) puts the i3 in the “range anxiety” category, a dubious distinction among electric cars in a gas-powered world. Another drawback is the i3′s look. Instead of the elegance projected by the Model S, the i3 recalls the Mini Cooper. It’s cute, but it seats only four people comfortably, and has that stunted EV look critics dislike.

Yet the $70,000 elephant in the room cannot be ignored. Tesla’s elegant sedan comes at the steepest of prices, and the i3 costs nearly $30,000 less. Indeed, what the BMW i3 has achieved is significant. BMW has entered a bona fide German luxury vehicle into the fray, and it outstrips most of the EV competition in its price range. The Ford Focus Electric and Chevy Volt don’t stack up favorably against the i3.

The all-electric Focus gets approximately 76 miles on a full charge with a base price of $35,995, while the 2013 Volt notches fewer than 40 miles on a charge and starts just under $40,000. Between the superior performance and style of a BMW i3, both GM and Ford should be concerned about their electric car entries.

As for Tesla, the Model S isn’t going to be challenged until the BMW i8 appears. According to reports, this model would be a luxury sedan that is as eye-catching as it is high-performing. No word is available on when the i8 will appear, but it looks to be at least eighteen months away. For now, the Model S will keep Tesla riding high. The i3 can pick on cars its own size.

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