BMW i3 vs. Tesla Model S: The Ultimate Comparison

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Having followed BMW's i3 electric car project for two years, I finally got some time to examine the i3's interior in detail. The BMW i3 goes on sale in the U.S. in the first half of 2014.

With so relatively few plug-in electric cars in the market, it's not a major exaggeration to say that in many cases they all compete against each other -- from those that cost under $30,000 to those that cost over $90,000. That, of course, never happens with "regular" gasoline/diesel cars.

Let me explain: I have seen plenty of examples of people who, one or two years ago, bought a Nissan ( NSANY) LEAF or Chevrolet Volt, but previously only purchased much more expensive cars --$100,000 and up. Likewise, more recently I have seen plenty of examples of people paying $100,000 for a Tesla where they had never previously thought of buying a car that's over $30,000.

The first implication of this phenomenon is that all the market-sizing estimates for electric cars are wrong. The market for electric cars is a lot larger than people think, even in the short run: People who can afford expensive cars buy cheap EVs; people who never thought about buying expensive cars before, now buy expensive EVs. This is why the Tesla ( TSLA) skeptics have been wrong at every turn.

This also has implications for the electric car intramural. Unlike in the old-world gasoline/diesel market, where there are numerous choices for every automotive segment, the EV world has only a handful of cars broadly available across the geographies, i.e., outside California where there are a few more choices.

Then you look at the sales statistics, you see that there are really only three significantly electrified cars -- those that run on electricity a vast majority of the time, or 100% of the time -- that have sold in meaningful quantities: Chevrolet Volt, Nissan LEAF and Tesla Model S. World-wide, Nissan has sold over 50,000, General Motors ( GM) approximately 50,000, and Tesla little over 15,000.

All in all, sales of all plug-in cars in the U.S. grew from 18,000 in 2011 to 52,000 in 2012 to an estimated 100,000-125,000 for 2013. It is in this context that BMW is starting to deliver the i3 in the coming months.

The i3 comes in two main versions: One pure electric with approximately 90 miles of range; the other with a gasoline generator and 2.4 gallon (yes, two-point-four -- that's not a typo) gasoline tank. The generator will yield an extra range of approximately 90 miles, and can be refueled at any gas station in seconds, just like every other car.

Compared to the Tesla, BMW i3 is shorter, narrower and taller. The turning radius is tiny, and it's easy to park and place in city traffic.

There is nothing on the road with the particular dimensions and architectural attributes of the BMW i3: Tall but narrow wheels, carbon-fiber plastic body, suicide doors with no B-pillar. Drivers of the BMW i3 will have people staring at them as if they were the first to wear Google ( GOOG) Glass. The BMW i3 makes a very strong design statement, arguably the strongest of any car in the market.

The interior also made it from the show car to the final product essentially unchanged. What does this mean? You have never seen a car interior like this. The dashboard alone would be the only one to be featured in The Museum of Modern Art -- it's that special.

The shape and materials of the dashboard curves are not only extremely attractive; they are also very practical. You can move from one side of the car to the other, without meaningful obstruction from a center stack.

The steering wheel has a uniquely shaped stalk-mounted gear shifter, and the steering wheel column has outstanding telescoping ability. Combined with an excellent seat, I was able to get a flawless seating position, which is sadly not available in all cars. It is equal to the Tesla Model S.

What about Tesla's famous 17-inch screen with superior controls? Yes, it remains superior, except for the fact that it's huge and it's therefore in the way from shifting from side to side in the car. BMW's dash looks a lot better from a MoMa perspective (i.e., with screens turned off), but you can't beat Tesla's screen technology for actual use.

Basically, Tesla focused on a great seating position and the best screen/infotainment system in the industry, by far. BMW is just as comfortable for the driver and passengers, but has a more beautiful and plush interior, although it is unlikely to come even remotely close to match Tesla's infotainment system.

The rear seat comparison is this: First of all, the Tesla fits three people; the BMW i3 only two. That is a deal-killer for some people, for sure. The Tesla also has slightly more leg and foot room. However, the BMW has more headroom, being comfortable for people almost 5'11 tall.

Luggage space: Not a close call. Tesla wins, by a mile. The BMW has a small but very usable space, and the rear seats fold flat. Not bad, but the Tesla is in a class by itself.

In terms of rendering a verdict for the interior comparison, you have to put it into the context of price. A loaded BMW i3 with range extender will likely be around $50,000. Tesla's 85 kWh battery model starts at $81,400, and the 60 kWh model $71,400. You can add a lot equipment to those base Tesla prices.

Tesla's 85 kWh model gives you 265 miles of range, and even the 60 kWh model will handily exceed the BMW's 180-mile range. However, you can quickly add up to 90 miles (realistically 60-80 miles, given the nature of a gasoline tank that shouldn't be run down to zero) of range in the BMW in a few seconds at positively any gasoline station. So from this perspective, you could argue that the BMW is at least equal overall compared to even the bigger Tesla battery version.

Performance-wise, the BMW i3 will lag the Tesla badly. The i3 range-extender version will do 0-60 MPH in approximately 7.8 seconds, and the top speed is 93 MPH. Tesla is obviously much, much faster, even if most people may deem the BMW to be fast enough.

The BMW i3 may have an advantage in terms of cost of repair. The outer body parts are mostly in plastic, and can withstand various kicks and dings.

We are likely to start experiencing comprehensive drive tests of the BMW i3 in the U.S. perhaps in December. What I mean by that is journalists would drive the car for more than just a few hours, alone in their own home environment. This is opposed to controlled drives on test tracks and equivalent.

Some will argue passionately that Tesla and BMW i3 don't compete in any way. Surely, some people will not consider the other car, for good reason. For example, the Tesla fits more people, more luggage, and it's faster. The BMW i3 will be easier to drive in small spaces, cost less, and it's got a spectacular design.

However, what I have learned from studying EV drivers is that there is a lot more purchase overlap than rational people would normally assume. Many people just want a really cool car, as long as it's electric in some form. For some of those people, they would consider both the Tesla and BMW i3, and for good reason.

The BMW i3 vs Tesla battle is the one people are asking about first, because Tesla is such a high-flying stock. The answer is to some extent inconclusive. However, how does the BMW i3 compare to Chevrolet Volt? Well, that will be the subject of another article.

Disclosure: BMW provided airfare, one night's stay in a hotel room and a handful of meals in order to enable this first-hand report from the launch event of the BMW i3.

At the time of publication the author was long GOOG.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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