BMW's Tesla-Fighter vs. the Mercedes Electric: Car Fight!

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- This is a comparison of the electric BMW i3 and the Mercedes B-Class Electric, both of which will be in U.S. showrooms in the next few months. Together with the Cadillac ELR they represent the first attempts at offering more premium competitors to Tesla's (TSLA) dominance of the segment.

The BMW i3 is already available in Europe, and orders are now being taken for delivery in the U.S. starting in May. You can't yet order the Mercedes but it will be available starting this summer in limited geographies, most notably California.

The BMW i3 starts at $42,000, and comments from Mercedes imply that its model might be priced close to that number. More about that later. Let's start by examining the differences between the BMW and Mercedes point-by-point, and the bigger picture will be clear once you get to the end of this comparison:

Front Seats: Both cars are tall and are easy to get into. You sit at least a couple of inches higher than a regular midsize car thanks to the battery being baked into the floor and the tall roof.

The Mercedes Electric interior otherwise surprises you by looking exactly like a regular Mercedes interior. Many people would fail a blind test. This is good because it makes for a very good seating position and overall ergonomics. It is very comforting in its familiarity. There is nothing weird.

The BMW i3 is similar in that it provides an excellent seat and driving position, except that I found it to be even better than the Mercedes. Remember, the Mercedes already gets an A-, so the BMW getting an A isn't much of a difference. The BMW's steering wheel telescopes more for very tall drivers.

Other than that, the BMW i3 looks anything but conventional. The front seat area feels more spacious and brings the most futuristic cabin in memory. You can easily move from side to side, in case someone has parked too close.

On the whole, while the Mercedes is great for the people in the front seats the BMW i3 is even better, arguably the very best of any car at any price.

Back Seats: The Mercedes has just enough foot, leg and head space for a six-foot-tall person. It even squeezes in a foldable airplane-style table on the back of the front seats, which I was able to place with zero space left around my legs. You can fit a third person in the middle.

The BMW i3 has suicide doors, making for an unusual entry into the back seat. I find it to be just barely acceptable for two people six feet tall. No third person can sit in the middle, which is a deal-killer for some prospective buyers.

Verdict: For two people, Mercedes has a very slight advantage in the back seat, but its decisive advantage is the ability to fit three people in the back.

Luggage space: This one is easy. While the BMW i3 has a well-shaped and not ultra-tiny luggage compartment, it pales in comparison to the Mercedes. This is not a close call. You need luggage space, get the Mercedes.

Drivetrain capabilities: Here is where the biggest differences are. Let's start with the Mercedes.

The Mercedes only comes one way. It has a 28-kWh battery supplied by Tesla, and a powerful electric motor also supplied by Tesla. It will likely do zero to 60 miles per hour in close to seven seconds.

The charging is regular AC only, up to 10 kWh. However, as you may know, most U.S. public charging stations only supply 240 volt AC up to 6.6 kWh.

The Environmental Protection Agency has not yet rated the Mercedes for range, but most industry analysts estimate it will be between 90 and 100 miles. The Mercedes is heavier than the BMW but is very aerodynamically efficient, suggesting that it will do relatively better on the highway than in city driving.

The BMW i3, on the other hand, comes in two versions: pure electric and with an optional ($3,800) very small gasoline engine to serve as range-extender. In pure electric form, most industry analysts estimate  the BMW i3 will be EPA-rated for approximately 90 miles of electric range.

The range-extender adds a 2.4 -gallon gasoline tank for what is believed to be an additional 80 miles of range. This can be refilled at any time, just like any gasoline car. It is this feature that makes the BMW i3 a true Tesla competitor.

The other main difference is that either BMW i3 can be had with an optional $700 DC fast-charging unit working at 440 volts. This could enable up to 70 miles of range in half an hour. In comparison, on the U.S. electric grid with 6.6 kW of AC feeding the Mercedes, you might get as little as 13 miles per half hour.

As a result of these two differences -- 440 volt DC charging and the range-extender -- the BMW i3 offers a far superior capability compared to the Mercedes B-Class Electric. This is not a remotely close call. I imagine that for most people, the combination of these two advantages will be decisive.

How do they drive? Well, I have now driven the BMW i3 several times. It is fantastic. The regenerative braking is class-leading and that's an important praise as this is a key characteristic of an electric car.

The BMW's steering? It's extremely direct. This is well-suited for city driving where it is an absolute hoot to drive. The BMW turns like a London cab, and the whole package certainly makes it for the best city driving car of all time.

On the highway, the fastest I drove was 75 mph. The steering, being to race-car direct, takes some time to get used to because the slightest move by your hand means you lurch from side to side. That's great for a Formula 1 driver, but it will take more time than I had to evaluate it for everyday regular driving. Once I have had at least a few days in the car I will be able to provide a better verdict on the high-speed steering.

As for the Mercedes B-Class Electric, while I have examined the interior in detail for several hours on several occasions in the recent months, I have not yet driven it. Very few people outside of Mercedes and Tesla have.

However, I have driven the Tesla Model S and the Tesla-based Toyota (TM) RAV4 EV at length. They are both superb cars, and based on those experiences I have high hopes the Mercedes will be able to match -- but not necessarily exceed -- the BMW i3 in terms of the driving characteristics such as acceleration, braking, steering and overall handling.

I think the best thing that can be said right now is the BMW i3 is a unique and superb driving experience, and there is every reasonable expectation the Mercedes will feel a little more conventional but still be at least as good as the BMW. Basically, both cars would get an "A."

Other considerations: I talked about the price. The Mercedes is likely to come "only one way," i.e., fully loaded. The BMW i3 has numerous options and configuration abilities, just like with any regular BMW. It maxes out at $56,000.

This difference in options -- or lack thereof -- may also be reflective of a broader difference in availability. Mercedes has not yet announced any production targets or precise geographic distribution other than it will start in California this summer and be available more broadly in 2015.

On the other hand, BMW has been clear about the i3 being a broadly available world car on all major continents. A 30,000 annual production target has been discussed, not necessarily obtained already in 2014. BMW is making a big bet on the i3. It is as far from a so-called "compliance car" as it gets. For newbies, a "compliance car" is one that's made for only a few geographies such as California where sales of a certain number of electric cars are mandated.

In contrast, it is unclear whether Mercedes is making more than a relatively modest bet on the B-Class Electric as a contributor to Mercedes' net income. We will find out over time if I am wrong in that assumption. Mercedes will surely enlighten us in time for the launch this summer.

What is the bottom line: Based on what we know today, not having driven the Mercedes B-Class Electric yet, it has two objective advantages over the BMW: a back seat that fits three people and a much larger luggage space. The BMW has two decisive advantages in offering a range extender and DC 440 volt charging, enabling the car to be a far more effective competitor to the Nissan Leaf, General Motors' (GM) Chevrolet Volt and Cadillac ELR, and the Tesla Model S.

Final thought: BMW will be selling 30,000 of these i3 cars per year; Tesla sold 24,000 cars in 2013, with perhaps 40,000 expected for 2014. Considering Tesla's $24 billion market cap, does this mean that the i3 is contributing significantly more than $10 billion to BMW's market cap?

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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