BMW Is A Thoughtful Automaker — Comparing BMW i3 With Nissan LEAF For A Second Time

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“BMW is a thoughtful automaker,” Eric, my BMW i3 test driving companion, muses. Exceeding at thoughtfulness, I must agree, as I drive the BMW i3 one more time. This time, after months of driving a Nissan LEAF day after day, I test drive the BMW i3 fresh (not a bit car sick from test driving too many EVs in one day) and with plenty of EV driving experience.

The BMW i3 was an impressive experience on my first test drive. It was the most unusual new experience in driving to date for me.

Driving the BMW i3 was an exceptional experience the second time round — even after months of electric car driving with the Nissan LEAF under my skin. In adjectives, I think the first that come to mind for BMW i3 are unique, exciting, compelling. The first for Nissan LEAF is smooth, and oh, so quiet.

One of my sons and a BMW i3. Photo by Marika Shahan

To compare the Nissan LEAF with the BMW i3, I am still in love with the LEAF. However, the BMW i3 intrigues me as well, or more. It is a pleasant drive with more animated energy. BMW i3 drive has some high points. (Mentioned by an earlier EV Obsession post comparing the i3 and the Tesla Model S.) It …

  • is the greenest car on the market
  • is the most efficient car on the market
  • is a subcompact car
  • has stronger regenerative braking

The finesse of the LEAF and the BMW i3 compare well. I found the LEAF smoother initially — in the first test drives months back. The reason may be I was in the back seat of the BMW i3 in the first round of test drives … and the drivers were exploring the torque. The BMW is so lightweight and so quick that it did not seem as grounded from the backseat (as the LEAF). I felt a bit too air bound at times. Months back, the LEAF seemed smoother — perhaps because the drivers were not as speedy in the LEAF. As I drove the i3 the 2nd time, the airborne feeling was delicious and smoother by comparison.


Why should the BMW i3 not be lightly and feel air bound? One of the BMW i3’s notable strengths is the light quality of the “green” materials.

Those of us who enjoy the i3 often like the recycled look of the dash. The interior seems fresher due to this — as the car is the “greenest” car on the market (by more than one account). As a side note related to this, I hope one day the EVs we drive, and the computers and phones we use, will also be labeled FairTrade. When I buy “green,” I hope that means FairTrade labor as well.

The regenerative braking in the BMW i3 is seamless as a tool. Once the foot is off the acceleration, the braking takes place. The driver has no need to even put the foot on the brake. The BMW i3 brakes automatically if not accelerating. The drive is smooth and only requires confidence and a little bit of practice — the finesse arrived with a little more experience of that lightweight, amazing EV this time round, partly because I am accustomed more to the electric drive in general.

The gas backup with the BMW i3 REx makes almost all travel possible — long distances without worry of running out of range, as in the LEAF. What I love about the LEAF, though, is that there is no gas ever. However, distance traveling is not easily done. If traveling longer distances, the LEAF is time consuming, as relatively slow recharging is necessary intermittently. And unlike Norway, we do not have plentiful fast chargers in the US — yet.

Space is a bit less in the i3 than in the LEAF — it clearly has a smaller interior. The cab of the Nissan LEAF, the back seat, and the luggage area all seem to have more give than the BMW i3.

I cringe with cars that have smaller windows, and are low to the ground. The views in both the LEAF and the BMW i3 are equally good, some of the best I’ve experience in a car. Perhaps the BMW i3 is a bit better. Still, the LEAF is excellent. Full, large, spacious windows in the BMW i3 complement the stylistic modern EV. I need to test drive a Tesla again. It was the windows of the LEAF and BMW i3 that struck me as superior to the Model S the day I drove all three EVs.

After the recent test drive in the BMW i3, Eric and I went for a whirl in the BMW i8. It was great fun. A sporty EV lower to the ground and with radical doors, and luxurious, comfortable passenger seats that were securely smooth as we went zooming from 0 to high speeds in a flash. An EV for racing as well — no doubt.

BMW i8 Blue 17

Would I drive a BMW i3 and remain satisfied after the wonderful experiences I’ve had with Nissan LEAF. Absolutely.

The original test drive (not this recent one):

Related Stories:

BMW i8 Review (Exclusive)

BMW i3 Owner Review 

Tesla Model S vs BMW i3 — Chapter 3

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Cynthia Shahan

Cynthia Shahan, started writing after previously doing research and publishing work on natural birth practices. Words can be used improperly depending on the culture you are in. (Several unrelated publications) She has a degree in Education, Anthropology, Creative Writing, and was tutored in Art as a young child thanks to her father the Doctor.

Cynthia Shahan has 946 posts and counting. See all posts by Cynthia Shahan

42 thoughts on “BMW Is A Thoughtful Automaker — Comparing BMW i3 With Nissan LEAF For A Second Time

  • “The gas backup with the BMW i3 REx makes almost all travel possible — long distances without worry of running out of range,”

    Not quite, I’ve very nearly ran out of battery charge using the range extender. And that’s with the european version, where you can select the extender on manualy below 75% SOC.
    Go any faster than about 70, and/or too prolonged an uphill/too much headwind, and the REX just doesn’t provide enough power to keep the battery topped up. A very unpleasant feeling.
    I love my i3, but it is definetly not a long distance highway car. You have to keep watching that battery, or you can get cought…

      • 70mph of course. 112kph. I live in northern Scotland where weather conditions and terrain make driving the i3 a real test of it’s limits. The car performs exceptionaly well in snowy conditions. The traction control works very well and controlability is very good.
        The REX version only has a resistive cabin heating system as opposed to the full BEV’s heat pump. So despite the very good battery temperature control system, range loss due temperature is about 1% per degree C.
        Prolonged steep uphills are harder to quantify, but can be compensated by the ensuing downhill part because Scotland’s altitude differences are not that extreme, but noticable nevertheless.
        Aerodynamic drag increases with the square of speed. But because more distance is traveled per time, and because tire friction increases more linearly, range loss with speed is somewhere between squared and linear. An increase from 50 to 70 mph results in about 25% loss. The penalty for headwind is much higher however : At 50mph In a 20 mph headwind, although the car is travelling at 50 relative to the road, it’s aerodynamic speed is 70mph. The aero drag felt by the car is thus twice as much as it is without the headwind (70/50=1.4)squared=2. But the car travels the same distance. But because the tire friction part of drag has not increased, the range loss is lower than 50%. Maybe around the 35% mark? Consupmtion in those conditions can easily overwhelm the 20kw the REX can actualy deliver. A bigger fueltank doesn’t help much. If you ask me, the best would be if BMW would have used the 180Kg or so spent on the REX to add additional batteries. That could have had the early versions at 30+Kwh, resulting in an EPA range of 100miles+, making the car more usable.

        • Thanks for the info.

          “The car performs exceptionally well in snowy conditions.”
          -That’s great to hear.

          But yeah, think I’d be nervous with the REx even to try to get 158 km away in winter on (fairly fast, and also sometimes bumpy) Polish highways…

        • Time to get with the times Fred and get metricated. 🙂

    • Thanks. You know better than I. I drive Nissan LEAF and stretch that EVs range as far as I can. The BMW i3 must have seemed so much more possibility.

    • “Go any faster than about 70″…
      So, ok than, 65-70 is good for me on highways. I don’t need to be driving 90 mph.

      • That wasn’t realy my point. My point was that you might be fine at 75mph on a windless summer day on a flat road. But then you might run out of juice at 60 mph with a stonking 30mph headwind in rain at 5degrees C. My point is, don’t count on the REX keeping the battery topped up, no matter what. It clearly has limits.

        • Ok, then clearly we should be allowed to activate “hold mode” at say 40% battery capacity for long trips.

          • That makes sense. It also seems that the car should sense unusual drain and turn the ICE on sooner.

            I drove a rental truck with a broken fuel gauge to California and ran out of gas twice as I approached the Rockies. I was using miles driven as a standin for a fuel indicator. Figured out the second time that going west of the Mississippi is a very long, gradual climb uphill.

            A car with a computer should be able to look at speeds being driven along with energy used and calculate that the car is not driving on level ground, going against a headwind, more heavily loaded than usual, or something.

          • Hoping it’s not too long till this is the norm. I don’t really understand why it isn’t implemented into this vehicle, and other EVs in other ways (better range indicators) than it currently is. Lack of effort? More difficult than it seems?

          • Car designers/engineers design/engineer for the conditions they drive in?
            There’s no place in Europe that you can put your foot down on the highway and leave it there for days.

          • The car would have to know where you’re going to give you a better estimated range than it already gives you. I guess it could guess that you’ll keep heading in the same general direction but that’s not a valid guess in a lot of cases.

            If you can tell the car where you’re going, that’s a different story. Tesla’s navigation will tell you if you can reach a particular destination along the route it suggests for you and it takes into account elevation changes and supposedly even current (and predicted?) wind speed. Sadly I don’t have built-in navigation, but Kyle has talked about it. On my car, it does at least dim superchargers it deems to be out of range using the same kind of algorithm. I’ve found it’s very conservative – I once reached a charger easily (25 rated miles to spare) that the car claimed was out of range until I got about 60% of the way there.

      • From what I have read from multiple sources is that the REX can only do 70 on level ground. Many people have reported uphill speeds on gas only at about 40 to 50 mph on the freeway.

        • It can easily do 90! I’m guessing that what you saying is that that couls apply to the american version (where you cannot select the REX on any time you like (below 75% SOC)). What happens in the American version is, that the REX only switches itself on below 6,5% SOC. Now, if you happen to be driving below 70 (ish) in summer, on a level road, etc,… , then the REX will keep that 6,5%. At that stage, you can still go as fast as you like, but…
          But, if you are going faster, up a steeper hill, in colder conditions, rain, etc,… , then the REX will not provide enough power to keep the SOC at 6,5. So it will start dropping. Below 3,5 %, the i3 will then decide this is a very bad situation, so it will reduce the power output of the electric motor, to a level that’s equal or lower than what the REX can provide. So right untill the moment where you reach 3,5 %, you have all the 125Kw available. Below that level, the power is reduced to about 20-23Kw (read very little). At 70mph, in summer, dry road, etc, that is pretty much the amount of power you were using anyway. But remember that you got down to 3,5 % because you were driving in conditions that required more power than that. So indeed, in that situation, the car will slow down to whatever speed it can keep at this low power level.

          There! That’s yet another misunderstanding put to bed…

  • I can’t believe that nobody has made an aftermarket secondary fuel tank that fits inside a frame rail. The little tank seems to really hold back this car from being a true erev like the volt.

    • The tank quantity is not so much the problem. The problem is the power the REX can deliver. I.e. Not enough.

      • The REX has a ridiculously small gas tank and an engine too small to maintain speed up hill. In comparison the GM Volt doesn’t have those isues, Why? The reason is California’s zero emission credit system. GM doesn’t get as many zero emission credits due to the larger fuel tank and its ability to run 100% on gas. The REX on the other hand gets more credits because it’s gas engine is basically just intended to get you home in the event you run out of power.

        California give manufactures more credit if they limit the gas only capabilities to insure the car is operated in electricity only mode more offten. GM in comparison designed there car from the start as a fully capable no compromise plug in hybrid. In addition the credit rules the REX exploits did not originally exist. They were only created after lobying by BMW and others.

        • You say all that like it’s a bad thing. BMW makes using gas a chore, so electricity gets used as much as possible. Volt makes gas so easy to use, too many owners don’t bother to plug it in and just keep wasting gas.

    • The Volt is NOT a true EREV. Its three-clutch system allows the ICE to directly drive the wheels in certain situations. The i3 is a true EREV in that, even with the REx running, only the electric motor runs the drivetrain.

      • You are correct. It is BETTER than a true ER-EV, i.e., it can do MORE.

      • The volt connects the engine to the wheels when it is more efficient to do that. That avoids the energy losses in the generator, motor driver, and electric motor. Most of the time on the freeway the car operates as a EREV.

  • Here’s another entertaining take on the i3 which makes the BMW seem to be better than just its quirky looks.

    • That’s a great find. Thanks!
      Funny Robert not doing simple math. But, 50 mpg on the range extender is reassuring.

      • He is a British gem.

    • Great video. Love that guy. So funny and down to earth. 😀

      And love that car. 😀

  • The i3 gets credit for being “green”, but people must be not look past the marketing as the entire car is made of plastic (with carbon fiber), last I checked that is not nearly as recyclable as steel or aluminum. Still, i3 is probably my favorite dedicated EV, wish it had more range.

    • They also forget the CFRP panels are produced in Washington State, shipped (dirty bunker oil anyone?) to Germany where they’re assembled, then (possibly) shipped back to Washington State for someone to buy. Far from green.

      • Only the fiber is made in Washington State, using 100% hydro power, and shipped to Germany where all CFRP is manufactured. They’ve done the analysis very carefully and it was the best option – with the fiber tightly packed on the spools it is not as bad shipping penalty as you’d imagine. CFRP can be recycled and there are plants being built now to handle end-of-life and production cured scrap, just nowhere near as mature as Al/Fe. No fundamental barrier, just early days.

    • Carbon fiber is not always plastic. Resin is most often used.
      “The binding polymer is often a thermoset resin such as epoxy, but other thermoset or thermoplastic polymers, such as polyester, vinyl ester or nylon, are sometimes used.”

      i3 uses thermoplastic binder, but you would be hard pressed to find a greener auto assembly and manufacture, outside of the GigaFactory. Wind is used to supply some of the energy at their molding facilities.

      Recycled CF is a hot topic in Germany.

  • I’ve got an i3 REx in San Diego. The speed limit on our freeways is 65 mph, but when traffic isn’t backed up, it typically moves at 75. The REx kicks on when the battery state of charge drops to 6.5%. The engine rpm of the REx varies with load, but it doesn’t seem like it’s working as hard as possible to keep the charge at 6.5%. Big hills (we have plenty, and my house is pretty far up one) and/or high speeds will draw down the battery pretty fast. I’ve seen the “Low battery, performance may be reduced” warning a number of times, but only when I was pretty close to my destination. It certainly changes your driving style, but I haven’t been in that mode long enough to end up crawling on the freeway. I have ended up, on a long freeway upgrade, doing the speed limit in the right lane and wondering whether I would make it to the top of the grade without having to go slower. In hilly, freeway-dependent SoCal, where gas stations can be hard to find from the freeway, I don’t think I’d attempt a trip much beyond battery range.

    All that being said, a couple of days a week I drive a 78-mile round trip from my home in San Marcos to a volunteer job east of Ramona. My house is at about 1000 ft elevation, and I go down to about 400 feet and then climb to over 1800, and then reverse the process. In Eco Pro mode, having preconditioned before departure, I can usually make the trip on electricity alone. When I don’t, most often the REx kicks in while climbing the final hill to my house, anywhere from the last two blocks to the last 2 miles. I refill the gas tank when it gets down to about a quarter tank (about a half gallon left), and I generally go 1800-2400 miles between fillups.

    Once you get used to it, one-pedal driving is really nice for normal driving, and especially in heavy slow-and-go or stop-and-go traffic. It gets weird for spirited driving on winding roads, where you actually have to use the brake pedal as you enter a corner, because releasing the brake pedal doesn’t result in a cessation of braking like in a normal car. You have to push down the accelerator a bit to reach “neutral”.

    I test drove the Leaf and the new Volt before I got the i3, and I have to say, the i3 is way more fun to drive. It’s much closer to my previous Mini Cooper. The Volt isn’t bad, but feels heavy and the responses are a bit dulled, and I wanted more EV range. The Leaf is like my wife’s former 2008 Prius: a competent transportation appliance for people who hate to drive (to be fair, my drive in the Leaf was very short).

    • “I test drove the Leaf and the new Volt before I got the i3, and I have to say, the i3 is way more fun to drive.”
      — Definitely. That fun is one of the key things (the key thing?) that keeps pulling me to the i3.

      “The Leaf is like my wife’s former 2008 Prius: a competent transportation appliance for people who hate to drive (to be fair, my drive in the Leaf was very short).”
      — Hmm, my experiences were that the LEAF was WAAAAAAY nicer to drive than the Prius….

      • I’ll second that. I’ve owned a Leaf and a Prius; the Leaf wins hands down. It zips up hills, burns any (non electric) SUV off at the lights, and is minus the vibration and buzz.

        • I love the LEAF. I’ve got an article coming that has a similar title.

          It obviously isn’t as quick as an i3 or Model S, but it’s much nicer & more fun to drive than the gas Mercedes and BMWs I’ve rented.

  • Mine became completely green one day, seating on driveway as scarp metal, after 5 month.
    I am just glade it was my drive way and it was not the somewhere else, when i3 turn into total metal box. Cannot be more green than this.

    BMW don’t provide rental car while they trying to figure this, so they will research.with my expense.

    Please don’t buy this car.

  • I read these comments and it seems clear to me why the 200 mile range EV is so important, at least in the U.S.

    I think the average driver will put up with an occasional inconvenience, such as supercharging on a long trip. But I don’t believe the average driver will accept daily or weekly limitations with an EV.

    I drive a round trip of 70 miles twice a week. That distance doesn’t work with even the extended range i3 or Leaf. Where I live it may be 100F in the summer and -15F in the winter.

    These are city cars that enthusiasts are willing to stretch into general purpose vehicles.

    • 200 miles with supercharger network is definitely the minimum I think anyone would tolerate in a car that’s their only mode of transportation. Even with that, I keep running into circumstances I wish I had closer to 300 miles range so that we wouldn’t have to make time-consuming detours to hit a charger or just not do what we wanted to do. Though sometimes having to change plans can work out better. We’ve visited Anza Borrego many times and when we happened to be near there last weekend, I wanted to go check out the wildflowers. But all the superchargers are in a frustrating ring around the park, so I’d have to charge to full and then barely make it to the park and back, and there wasn’t time for that. So we found Alta Vista Gardens on the way back where we’ve never been, and that was more interesting. Ironically, Alta Vista has a bunch of sculptures by Ricardo Breceda which are also scattered around Anza Borrego.

      I’ve also been convinced to get a CHAdeMO adapter for the Tesla because we could have charged at a CHAdeMO location and done the Borrego trip.

      • Does Tesla have way to tell them that there was somewhere you wanted to go but the lack of Superchargers made it difficult/impossible?

        • I could just send the complaint to one of the various people I’ve worked with at service centers. They often ask for feedback anyway. But I can’t really expect them to start installing Superchargers everywhere I personally want to go…

          They are actually a couple months away from finishing a supercharger in Temecula which would have made the Borrego trip much more doable. I’m pretty sure they look at usage and figure out where new chargers make sense in a scientific way rather than putting too much stock in individual feedback. If they double the density of the network once more, putting a charger halfway between existing ones, I think things might be perfect for most trips. At least until too many cars start overloading individual stations.

  • Cynthia,

    You didn’t address the title of the article: Why is BMW a thoughtful automaker?

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