BMW: Here's Why Our New Electric Car Is Better Than Tesla's

bmw ludwig willisch paula patton la auto show 2011 i3
bmw ludwig willisch paula patton la auto show 2011 i3

In an August earnings conference call, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk was asked about for his thoughts on BMW's new all-electric car, the i3. Musk broke out laughing.

He eventually pulled it together enough to say, "I'm glad to see that BMW is bringing an electric car to market. That's cool. There's room to improve on the i3 and I hope that they do."

Well, BMW has an answer, and it's better argued than Musk's point.

In an interview at the 2014 Detroit Auto Show, President and CEO of BMW North America Ludwig Willisch explained to Business Insider why the i3 is "the ultimate driving machine among the EVs."

The Production Process

When we asked Willisch how the i3 compares to the Model S, he started off by explaining how BMW makes its little electric ride. "You need to look at the whole concept," he said.

"We start off by producing carbon fiber in Moses Lake, Washington, with hydropower. Then we use fully recyclable materials to build the car. We build the car with wind power. So the whole production cycle is fully sustainable."

Meanwhile, he said, "others build electric cars the conventional way," he said, adding, "you need to look at the carbon footprint of the whole thing. I would dare say that nobody's at this point in time where we are, as far as the whole production process is concerned." (We got Willisch to mention Tesla by name only once.)

Tesla has never talked much about cutting emissions in the production process. In a 2010 blog post, VP of Manufacturing Gilbert Passin explained that Tesla uses powder paint instead of traditional liquid paints, to "substantially reduce factory emissions" without compromising on quality. We reached out to Tesla spokespeople for comment, but got no reply.

Drive Quality

The i3 will hold its own on the road, too, with a price tag well below that of the Model S. Willisch said. With a body made of carbon fiber reinforced plastic, the i3 weighs in under 3,000 pounds. The Model S tips the scale at just over 4,600 — that's a lot for a sedan.

Less weight means you get more out of each kilowatt. "What you feel is a normal feel of a car, yet you have the instant acceleration that an electric motor will give you," including the instant torque, Willisch said. "That's really great fun."

Here, Tesla can defend itself. The Model S is an absolute blast to drive, and you don't notice the extra weight when you hit the accelerator. It deservedly won Motor Trend's Car of the Year award in 2012, and Consumer Reports gave it its best score ever.

We haven't driven the i3, but the reviews have been positive. Car and Driver wrote, "Other than a shifter that seems designed to enrage, though, it’s hard to find fault with the i3 ... Capable and thoughtful, the i3 only strays from BMW’s core values in its daring design."


Then there's the question of cost. The i3 starts at $35,325. after a $7,500 federal tax credit. The cheapest Model S comes in at $63,570. The Tesla can go farther on a full battery than the BMW (208 miles vs. 80-100 miles). But BMW is marketing the i3 more as a city car, so that range will do just fine. Plus, you can take the $30,000 you save and buy a 3 Series for those road trips.

We'll withhold final judgement until we drive the i3, but give credit to Willisch/BMW for presenting a real argument, instead of just chuckling.

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