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BMW i3 REx vs Chevy Volt: My Take

Test Drives | August 22nd, 2014 by 5
bmw-i3-chevy-volt

Last week I was contacted by High Gear Media Senior Editor, John Voelcker and asked if I had interest in doing a head to head …

Last week I was contacted by High Gear Media Senior Editor, John Voelcker and asked if I had interest in doing a head to head comparison piece between my i3 REx and a Chevy Volt. Green Car Reports contributor David Noland (who happens to own a Volt and a Model S) wanted to pit the Volt against an i3 REx and asked John to reach out to me and find out if I was up for it.

I liked the idea of swapping cars and driving side by side for a few hours and that met David’s needs as well. David wanted to do an efficiency test and measure the miles per kWh’s used driving 15 to 20 miles in a city environment, and then do the same thing at highway speeds of 65 to 75mph. Going in, David expected the i3 to be more efficient in the city driving test, but the Volt to be more efficient on the highway test where weight plays a lesser role and aerodynamics are more important. The i3 is tall, has a large front area and is a bit boxy compared to the Volt. This creates a much higher CdA which will lower the i3’s efficiency at high speeds. Having driven my i3 for a while now, I knew it would be more efficient in the city cycle, but I figured it would probably tie the Volt on the highway leg of the test. My i3’s life time efficiency so far is 4.5 miles per kWh and I do at least 50% of my driving at highway speeds.

BMW i3 REx vs Chevy Volt: My Take

David was also very interested to find out how the range extender performed. In my opinion, the i3’s range extender is largely misunderstood. Even months after the launch, few people really understand how it works, what it can and cannot do. It has been called everything from a “limp mode” to an “emergency use only” option, and quite honestly BMW hasn’t done itself any favors by not fully explaining how it works and how to use it properly. I promised David he could drive it as he wished, and even purposefully overwhelm the REx by driving fast enough to use more energy than the range extender could produce, should he desire to do so. At one point he even asked if I minded if he did just that, but due to the other traffic we couldn’t really sustain a speed much over 70mph for long and we were not going up and long, steep inclines so the REx was able to put out enough power to maintain the SOC between about 4% and 6%. In short, we couldn’t overwhelm it without driving in a an unsafe manner.

BMW i3 REx vs Chevy Volt: My Take

David averaged 4.1 miles per kWh over a 46 mile drive at highway speeds. This was driving about 15 miles in charge depleting mode and another 31 miles with the range extender running. The display only shows an average speed of 56.7mph, but much of the trip was done at 70+ mph

There aren’t many long climbs in my area and I’ve driven with the range extender on quite a bit. I haven’t found any condition where it isn’t perfectly capable of allowing me to drive as long as I needed to, including hundreds of miles if I really wanted. However I know the REx has its limits, unlike the Volt. I have heard stories of people not being able to maintain highway speeds as the car drops to 45 mph suddenly. That’s a problem that BMW needs to address. I think they need to make a better effort to communicate to the customers what the limits are, and I also believe the customer needs to be cognizant of the limits and keep an eye on the SOC under high speed driving up long inclines. It’s not a do-all-under-any-condition vehicle. The range extender has limits but I definitely believe that for the vast majority of people it will do just about anything they need. Also, since the i3’s electric range is double that of the Volt, the range extender will be used much less, so it’s reasonable to understand why it is less robust.

BMW i3 REx vs Chevy Volt: My Take

People are surprised when they see the i3 next to other EVs. It is larger than I believe many people think it is.

On the Road

I felt very comfortable behind the wheel of the Volt as I’ve driven many of them and have always liked the driving experience that they offer. However, this was the first time I’ve driven a Volt since getting my i3 REx three months and about 6,500 miles ago. The two cars definitely feel very different. The much heavier Volt absorbs road irregularities better and is quieter at high speeds, where the boxy i3 has noticeable wind noise. The i3 is much quicker, especially at higher speeds and has better braking and handling. The i3’s steering is more direct and sensitive and the Volt’s brakes seemed a little spongy or squishy compared to what I’m used to in the i3. The i3 is clearly more of a performance car, while the Volt offers a more supple, softer ride. The regenerative braking on the i3 is much stronger than the Volt’s, even in Sport mode and low driving gear. I’m sure I would adjust to it if I had a Volt for awhile, but I just couldn’t get myself to stop for traffic lights without needing to depress the friction brake pedal every time. I almost never use the friction brake pedal on my i3 unless it’s an emergency situation where I need to slow down unexpectedly. I really love this on the i3, and haven’t found any other EV to have a regen system that matches it. It’s definitely one thing that BMW got right. I know the Volt blends regen with friction braking so I suspect most of the time I depressed the brake pedal I wasn’t even using the friction brakes, but I’ve really grown fond of the one-pedal driving of my i3 that anything else now seems sub-standard.

I found both cars comparable in seating comfort and room, with the Volt having a larger cargo area. Because the e-drive motor and range extender are under the deck behind the rear seats, the i3’s cargo deck is higher, which cuts down on the cargo space, but it also doesn’t have a tailgate lip so you can slide objects in and out without having to pick them up over the lip to remove them as is the case with the Volt, which my bad back appreciates. Personally I like the uncluttered, modern interior look of the i3 better, and the large center display probably is the nicest I’ve seen in any car besides the Model S. However the exterior styling of the i3 is definitely unconventional and I’m sure many people will say they like the look of the Volt better, but styling is subjective so I’m not really going to get too caught up appearance here. One thing I really do like in my i3 is how the absence of a center transmission tunnel (battery tunnel on the Volt) provides a much more open, spacious feel in the cockpit. In fact, this makes it quite easy to slide across from the drivers seat and exit from the passengers door if you want to.

BMW i3 REx vs Chevy Volt: My Take

Efficiency

David really wanted to focus on the efficiency of the cars so we did roughly 15 miles of city driving, followed by 15 miles of highway driving at 60 -70 mph. There were a few occasions we got up to 75 or so to pass other vehicles but for the most part we drove in the middle lane and averaged a little under 70mph. In the city cycle the i3 averaged a 5 miles per kWh used compared to the Volts 4.5. The Volt did better than I expected in this part of the test though, which I am happy to report. On the highway test the i3 delivered 4 miles per kWh used and the Volt averaged 3.5 mi/kWh. David and I were both surprised that the i3 actually had a larger advantage on highway driving than it did in city driving, but was 14% on the highway. I suspect if we drove faster, and averaged over 70 mph, the Volt would have caught the i3 in efficiency. The test also isn’t perfectly controlled, since David and I aren’t the exact same drivers. However, we are both very experienced electric vehicle drivers, and understand perfectly well how to maximize efficiency with the use of regenerative braking and limiting jack-rabbit style take offs. We drove with the climate controls set to 72 degrees and the windows closed.

BMW i3 REx vs Chevy Volt: My Take BMW i3 REx vs Chevy Volt: My Take

Conclusion

Having had quite a bit of previous experience driving Volts, there were really no surprises for me. I have always liked the Volt, and nothing from this experience has changed that. It’s a very capable extended range electric car that offers a good ride, decent performance and nice styling. It is a better choice for long range driving (over 200 miles) and definitely if you live in a mountainous area. I can’t even count how many people I’ve recommended the Volt to; and many have stopped back to my restaurant weeks or months later to show me that they took my advice. With a starting price of $34,999 it’s a really a great deal. The i3 REx on the other hand starts at $46,125 which is $11,000 more. Yes, you do get a more nicely optioned vehicle but it’s very hard to ignore the $11,000 difference. If price is a big consideration then it’s hard not to pocket the eleven grand and take home a Volt.

BMW i3 REx vs Chevy Volt: My Take

However buying a car isn’t always a rational decision, and there are indeed emotions involved. If that weren’t the case we’d all be driving $15,000 Honda Fits. There are a lot of reasons why the i3 REx is a better EV for me than the Volt. First off, I drive about 33,000 per year, and the 38 mile AER of the Volt would mean I’d be driving on gas about as much as I drove on electric. The i3 REx will allow me to drive on electric over 90% of the time. For me to increase that 100% I’d need to jump up to Model S-type range because the times I have needed the REx were usually 150 to 200 driving mile days and there are no other current production electric vehicles capable of doing that without using a robust DCQC network which doesn’t yet exist in the Northast. Another consideration is the 3.3kW onboard charger that the Volt has. I’d find it very hard to buy any EV that was limited to 3.3kW charging. My i3 can actually charge faster from zero to full an a level 2 EVSE than a Volt can, yet it has twice the electric range. GM absolutely needs to upgrade the onboard charger to a minimum of 6.6kW for the next generation Volt in my opinion.

BMW i3 REx vs Chevy Volt: My Take

I’ve read many comments on various online forums regarding the size of the i3’s gas tank and I can say I categorically disagree with the notion that the car needs a larger gas tank. In fact, I’d be fine with a smaller one. If you think you need a bigger gas tank on the i3, then what you really need is a Volt because you’re buying it for a use that it’s not really intended for. The i3 REx is fine for driving in range extender mode for short distances, and I think it’s really a great car for trips up to 150 miles or so, but if you really need to frequently drive more than that, it just may not be the best fit. If you need to go further once a month or so, then sure that shouldn’t be a problem as long as you don’t mind the 2-3 minute stop to refill the tiny tank, but frequent long distance driving just isn’t the car’s best use.

I also put a big emphasis on the driving experience and the i3 is really a blast to drive. The Volt is fun in its own right, and it is certainly no slouch by any means, but the i3 is noticeably faster and has a much more direct steering feel. I also love the fact that the i3 is all carbon fiber reinforced plastic and aluminum, the open cockpit and simple dashboard with the large center display. It was indeed the better choice for me, but honestly, I would be very happy driving a Volt also, especially if I drove less than the 90 miles a day that I do now. I don’t think you can lose with either of these extended range EVs. Just pick the one that fits your budget, needs and desires and you’ll be happy with whichever you choose.

You can read David’s thoughts on his Green Car Reports article here.

[Source: bmwi3blogpost]

  • mckillio

    Thanks for the comparison review, very insightful. I don’t think I realized how big the i3 was either, do you think there’s a market for a smaller i1? Personally I prefer smaller cars and would love an EV in the subcompact class. I also never noticed the lack of a drive train tunnel in the i3 and how much extra space it gives you.

  • Alex

    Nice article, Tom. The price difference shrinks a little because in NJ there is no tax on the i3 but the Volt gets taxed.

  • Pingback: BMW i3 REx vs Chevy Volt: My Take | brainyseo.com

  • Doug

    Thanks Tom, this was a very interesting read and I can’t wait for the i3’s introduction here in South Africa. I was particularly interested in your comments about the driving experience and the limitations of the vehicle for long distances. This would be an issue here, where it’s commonplace for Johannesburg residents to drive 400 miles to the coast for a break. There are no plans to bring the Volt here, as far as I know.

  • Kent Beuchert

    Of course, those kWhr consumption figures need to be reduced by the 15-20% charging losses. There are several fatal flaws with these vehicles, irregardless of the invariably bogus and exaggerated emission reduction claims made by some. First off, the prices are obscene for this level of quality. Secondly, these types of vehicles are total failures at the box office – GM stands no chance of ever breaking even on their Volt. Resale value is poor, and will get much worse. The technology is pure Rube Goldberg – only the worst sort of engineer would ever create such a complicated machine, sure to be unreliable and costly, the last guaranteed by the fact that this vehicle will forever be an unadulterated proprietary animal – no independent garage would touch this mechanical monstrosity with a ten foot pole. Resale value will also be destroyed by the (undoubtedly unique, non-standard) and very costly battery pack, whose lifespan will not approach that of the rest of the vehicle. Add the fact that these two cars are totally unattractive and you have the only real winner – the guy who passes on these ugly ducklings. How can GM spend over a billion dollars developing the Volt and not bother hiring a decent stylist? I’ll tell you how – those GM morons thought the car’s “intrinsic value” was all it needed to be a popular choice. Cars like the Volt, selling for over $35K have no intrinsic value. But even enviro-nerds appreciate good looks (well, sort of). I hereby proclaim the Volt the Yugo of the 21st century. The records show that if there ever comes a time when an unknowing customer buys the 120,000th Volt, GM will have “only” have lost $10,000 per vehicle. If the Volt were canceled tomorrow (the smart thing to do) , I believe the cost per Volt produced will turn out to have been $89,000. The most humorous GM claim was that “the Volt technology will spread throughout our
    product line.” Now we learn that the Caddy that adopted the Volt technology has been cancelled for lack of interest and poor perforance. In sum, the Volt technology is just plain dumb. Not to mention pointless.

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