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BMW i3 vs Chevy Bolt vs Nissan LEAF (Comparison Review)

I recently test drove the Chevy Bolt (at last!) and also spent some time driving a 2015 Nissan LEAF again (due to our i3 being in service). The differences were striking, and I have to say that the Bolt was a letdown — compared to the electric cars I’m used to.

I recently test drove the Chevy Bolt (at last!) and also spent some time driving a 2015 Nissan LEAF again (due to our i3 being in service). The differences were striking, and I have to say that the Bolt was a letdown — compared to the electric cars I’m used to.

I had been told by some people that the Bolt would have better acceleration and drive quality than the 2015 BMW i3. Boy, were they wrong! The Bolt is a solid electric car with a tremendous amount of range for a fairly affordable price. It has quite decent tech, including cool blind spot warnings on the side mirrors, and a conventional exterior and interior, which many people prefer over the design of the i3 and LEAF (I don’t, but I can understand why some people do). The Bolt is still a car I could happily recommend to many people, but man, it does not have the drive quality of the i3.

The LEAF doesn’t either. The LEAF and Bolt have a similar “floating” feeling. Actually, Jessica Feinleib recently described the drive quality of the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid and it very much made me think of this feeling you get while driving the Bolt or LEAF: “Driving the Pacifica feels like driving a silent, fluffy, and fast cloud. This is a pleasant sensation, but I understand that those who ‘like to feel the road’ may not enjoy this ride, and they should look elsewhere.” The LEAF and Bolt aren’t giant minivans, so I’m sure the feeling is a bit different, but this description does capture the feeling of those vehicles at times. That’s not how the i3 feels. The tiny, profusely light i3 has a sporty, super fun, superfood-fueled acceleration.

To some people, like my mom, this doesn’t matter. To me, it’s a deal-breaker. The i3’s peppiness and go-cart-like feeling is too much fun and too helpful in various driving circumstances to pass up, especially when you can get a used i3 for less than a Bolt and barely more than a used LEAF (whose sub-par batteries degrade faster than the i3’s Samsung SDI battery cells). As I’ve noted before, I actually find the i3 even more fun to drive around the city than the Tesla Model S — which is sacrilege, but after a few weeks with the i3 and a year with the Model S, I think I can confirm this is not a dream. (I’m eager to see if the Model 3 sets another high bar for city driving. I should be test driving one soon, and we’ll also launch our long-term review of a Model 3 next week.)

Regenerative braking is another key part of the driving experience, and the i3 again wins the competition. The 2015 LEAF’s regenerative braking is much weaker than I remembered. Too much time with a Tesla or i3 definitely spoils you in this regard. The Bolt’s regen braking is not quite as strong as the i3’s, but it’s closer to that than the 2015 LEAF’s regen braking — in fact, it’s one of the stronger regen braking systems on the market. However, as some writers and readers explained recently when discussing this, it doesn’t have the refined feel of the i3’s regen for some reason. The Bolt is much heavier, and I’ve seen it said that the one-pedal braking is strong in part because the car is just heavy. The i3, on the other hand, is super light, so the quick one-pedal braking is more mechanical. However, Model S regen feels refined, similar to the i3’s, so I don’t think it’s just about weight. I don’t have enough technical knowledge to figure it out, but the i3 regen braking feels way nicer and more controlled, and the i3’s is still the best I’ve experienced. Also, the i3 takes you to a full stop without using the brake pedal, while the Bolt needs help at the end to make sure you don’t bump into the car in front of you. [Update: Some commenters are saying the Bolt regen will take you to a full stop. Not sure how that got missed/miscommunicated. An excuse for another test drive!]

Handling was covered a bit in the paragraphs above, but I’ll just emphasize that this is certainly a part of the driving experience that sets the i3 apart. The i3 turns on a dime and sticks to the road like a slug (a hyperactive slug). Without doing too much beyond testing the acceleration for a moment, the Bolt’s wheels lost their grip during my time with the car. The LEAF would probably do the same if it had enough spunk behind it. (Note: I’m cautious with the i3, as I don’t want to end up with the roof on the ground and the wheels in the air, but just in the midst of daily driving, the i3 handling makes a world of difference for the driving experience and the fun factor.)

I’m not going to touch exterior design comparisons — there’s too much subjectivity there. However, I know that people, more or less objectively, like to have space. Somehow, despite being an “ultracompact” car, the i3 is designed in a way that it feels much more spacious in the front seats. The Bolt and LEAF are fine — normal — but the i3 feels more like a big bubble you get to travel around in — from top to bottom of the driver and front passenger seating area. Again, this is even something I prefer in the i3 compared to the Model S. (Though, I’m confident the Model S is more comfortable for a long road trip — except, perhaps, for the front passenger, since there is just a superb amount of elbow space in the i3 that you don’t get in the Model S or any other non-SUV I’ve been in.)

The rear seats of the LEAF and Bolt seem average — not too cramped, not too opulent. But they are both in the compact car category in the US, so don’t expect CUV legroom. The i3’s back seats are something you just have to experience. They are different. It’s hard to put them into any category or compare to anything else. You sit a bit higher, your knees also poke upward more, but there’s space if your legs aren’t too long. I’m a little more than 6 feet tall and thought they were fine, but I haven’t sat back there for more than a short drive.

If you’re considering the back seats for young kids/babies with car seats, the i3 wins hands down. It is quite easy to load them thanks to the “suicide doors” (which I also find helpful for preventing accidental death or injury, since there’s no chance the little ones can open the door by mistake/fiddling once the front doors are closed). The ISOFIX hooks are super easy to find and use, way more so than in the LEAF (I did not test in the Bolt). And the minions have superb visibility out the window because they sit rather high up next to low windows. They even see through to the front seats and front of the car quite well.

Overall, I’m clearly a much bigger fan of the BMW i3 than the Chevy Bolt or Nissan LEAF. If long range is what you need and a Tesla is just too expensive, yes, the Bolt is a solid buy, but it is not nearly as fun or enjoyable as an i3 or Tesla. I still like the Nissan LEAF if quick acceleration and superb handling is not what you’re after. It’s the most affordable car of the pack if you’re buying new, and new LEAFs have excellent autonomous driving features and regenerative braking, from what I’ve seen. But if “new” isn’t a necessity for you, it’s more than obvious that my suggestion is to get a used i3 and skip both the Bolt and LEAF.

Of course, go on test drives yourself! Personal preferences vary, needs are diverse, and you may have starkly different opinions on the value or attractiveness of these three cars.

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