First Comparison: BMW i3 vs. Chevrolet Volt

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Extended-range electric cars: It's a mouthful of a phrase. It also turns out to be the ideal compromise between the advantages of an electric car and the advantages of a gasoline engine car.

Many people do most of their driving to and from work, and they could charge their car at home as well as at work. However, they also need to be prepared for the unexpected trip of undetermined length, where charging stations may be nonexistent or otherwise impractical because of charging time.

When you gotta go, you gotta go -- and you don't want to be limited by your car's range or refueling capability.

There is a further delineation in the plug-in hybrid car market: full power electric versus blended power. There are many cars sold somewhere in the world already, made by Ford (F), Toyota (TM), Porsche, Volvo, Mitsubishi and Honda (HMC), among others, that are plug-in hybrids, but not 100% of the power is available in electric mode.

Basically, those cars operate in blended mode where if you want more than, say, one-third of available power, the gasoline engine will kick in. That has some merit, but is no fun to drive, as anyone who has driven these cars know.

At a minimum, this kind of plug-in hybrid with blended power will become the new baseline configuration for almost all automakers around the world. Apart from the aforementioned, BMW, Mercedes, VW and Audi have similarly architected models announced and ready for launch no later than 2015. This architecture will dominate car sales before long, probably by 2018 or 2019.

However, there are two plug-in hybrids in the market that do things a little differently: General Motors' (GM) Chevrolet Volt and BMW i3 with range-extender. Yes, I know there is also the Cadillac ELR, and yes I know all the differences and nuances. But for purposes of this discussion it is the same car as the Chevrolet Volt.

What these two cars do differently than all the other plug-in hybrids is they offer all of their power in all-electric mode. You can floor both the BMW i3 and Chevrolet Volt and they will accelerate up to their top speed in all-electric mode. It's 100% electric power.

What's the significance of this? It means both cars are fun and silent. It's the kind of feeling you get when you floor an all-electric car. For all of their differences, there is also a degree of similarity between flooring a $130,000 Tesla and a $30,000 Nissan Leaf. It's all about the instant torque, silence -- and lack of vibrations and rattles.

This puts the Chevrolet Volt and BMW i3 with range-extender in a unique position in the market right now. They are the only two cars where you get the full feeling of driving a powerful electric car, but with gasoline back-up for continuing without fear of getting stuck.

For all of their key similarity, what are the powertrain differences between the BMW i3 with range-extender and Chevrolet Volt?

1. Electric motor: The BMW i3 is more powerful and when combined with the lower weight, yields a slightly faster acceleration; 0-60 MPH is approximately eight seconds.

2. Gasoline engine: The Chevrolet has a 1.4 liter, 4-cylinder, compared to a BMW engine that's half the size: 2 cylinders and 0.7 liter. I will tell you the implications of this later in this article.

3. Battery and range: The Chevrolet's 16.5 kWh battery is EPA-rated at 38 miles, whereas the BMWs 22 kWh battery has not yet been rated by EPA -- but most experts are anticipating the BMW to yield somewhere around 90 miles of range.

4. Gasoline tank and range: The Volt is 9.3 gallons and the BMW is 2.4 gallons. The Volt will go 340 miles on gasoline, and the BMW has not yet been rated. Most people believe it will go approximately 70-80 miles on gasoline. You can of course refuel either car at any gasoline station.

What this means in practice is this: The two cars will operate similarly for the first 38 miles, at which point the Volt's gasoline engine turns on. The BMW's gasoline engine would turn on somewhere around 90 miles.

On the freeway, once the gasoline engine has turned on, the Volt has approximately twice the power of the BMW. This means it should perform better in long and steep uphill climbs -- we will be able to test this properly in the next few months. However, the BMW also needs to be refueled with gasoline very often, making it unsuitable for true road trips. Thus far, I only got to drive the electric-only version of the BMW i3.

What about charging the cars? On a regular 110 volt AC household outlet, the Volt would give you four miles of range for each hour plugged in; the BMW slightly more at five miles. On a 240 volt AC dryer outlet, the Volt would give you 10 miles of range for each hour plugged in; the BMW probably 25 miles.

Unlike the Volt, the BMW i3 also offers 440 volt DC charging, which would give it up to 80% charge (70 miles) in 30 minutes.

What about the interiors of these two cars? In the BMW you sit higher and it's easier to get in and out. The front seat is more comfortable and the seating position is better. The steering wheel telescopes better for people with long legs. The steering wheel itself in the BMW has nicer leather.

The back seat? A major drawback of both cars is they fit only two people. It's more difficult to fit your feet in the Volt, but once you're in the seat it may be a very slightly more comfortable place to sit. I call this a draw.

Luggage space? The Volt is slightly bigger. No mystery here.

In terms of driving the two cars, I have found three differences: The BMW i3 has a better one-pedal driving feeling. For the uninitiated, an electric car brakes itself when you lift off the accelerator. The BMW does this better than the Volt, which does it just fine -- just not as good as the BMW i3, which is class-leading in this calibration.

The other difference is the BMW has a more direct steering, which helps mostly in city traffic, and it will take some time go get used to at highway speeds. The other BMW advantage is its maneuverability thanks to its smaller footprint and narrower turning radius, making it ideal for city driving and parking.

The main differences between the BMW i3 and Chevrolet Volt come down to three things:

  1. Do you go on road trips? If yes, get the Volt.
  2. Does the 90 mile vs 38 mile electric range mean much for you? If yes, it's a big BMW advantage.
  3. Price. So let's talk about this.

The Volt starts at $35,000 and is $40,000 fully loaded. The BMW i3 with range-extender starts at $45,000 and is $56,000 fully loaded. Basically, the Volt's pricing advantage is at least $10,000, and that doesn't include any discounts not yet available on the BMW.

In addition, the lease pricing I have seen for the Volt suggests an even bigger difference in the Volt's favor.

Many potential buyers could go either way here. If both cars fit the bill, the BMW will give you a more exciting driving experience for a lot more money.

However, it's hard to argue that the Volt doesn't deliver more basic utility for a significantly lower price.

These are two of my most favorite cars of all time, and if you have the money you can't go wrong either way.

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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