Tesla Model S vs BMW i3 vs Nissan LEAF — My Dilemma
It’s looking like I need to make a big decision within the next few months, and I thought it would be an interesting one to share with all of you and perhaps get your help with it as well.
As you may well know, I’ve been lucky enough to live car-free for 11+ years. No doubt about it, living in a nice location where you can bike, walk, and ride nice trams/streetcars for your transportation provides a much higher quality of life than having to drive on a regular basis. I’ve been fortunate enough to live in nice locations in Chapel Hill (North Carolina), Charlottesville (Virginia), Silicon Valley (California), Groningen (the Netherlands), and, for the past 7 years, Wrocław (Poland).
However, I’m now planning to head back to Sarasota (Florida) with my wife and our one-year-old girl, Lily. I’ve lived car-free there as well, and actually preferred it once I discovered it was possible, but I’m very well aware that it is much more challenging there and definitely not for everyone. Furthermore, it would definitely challenging with a baby.
So, the plan is to finally get an electric car — which I’ll admit I’m super stoked about! We will likely just drive 20 to 25 miles a day, as we’ll probably get a place near downtown or near my favorite beach, and then just take a 10-mile drive from home to one of those places and back every day or so. So, I think it is important to first note that we’d be driving far less than the average American, and having a long-range vehicle is definitely not necessary.
That said, my wife and I would also like to go visit a lot of places around the US. Obviously, if we were going to drive around this giant country, we’d be better off with a Tesla Model S (or X). However, I’m really not a fan of driving for several hours at a time — even if I’m doing so in the nicest possible car. I much prefer taking the train or (don’t attack me) plane to cover long distances. So, with that said, taking a slow journey up and down the East and West Coast with an electric car could be one possibility, or I could see us leaving the car at home and taking other modes of transport. It’s hard to say at this point, which makes the following decision more difficult.
Another thing worth noting here is that I am definitely an activist. I have been working to “help society help itself” since 1999 (iirc). Through various avenues, this is the door through which I approach many worldly actions. Basically, I think we should all be looking to help each other and the world, and I think that is an important part of many big and small decisions I make — consciously as well as subconsciously. Considering the global climate crisis, health crises that we just take as “the way things are,” oil dependency and wars, and the annoying noise of gasmobiles, I think we need to switch to electric cars, and I want to help make that happen as quickly as possible. So, while this may not be the norm for people considering a new car, I am keen to have that car inspire as many people as possible to go electric. It’s a significant factor in the buying decision.
I should probably note that we’re planning to lease. Aside from uncertainty regarding where to primarily live in the long term, I know that EV technology is projected to improve a lot in the coming years (particularly, the hearts of EVs — batteries), and I’d rather wait and get a Tesla Model 3, long-range Nissan, long-range BMW, or Chevy Bolt if I decided to make an actual purchase. Also, I’d love to get a car where you could actually upgrade the battery pack down the road without getting a brand new car. I’m not sure if that’s what I’d do, but I’d like to have the option.
That’s the general backdrop, so let’s get into the pluses and minuses of the three cars in the title (Tesla Model S, BMW i3, and Nissan LEAF) and my personal preferences and needs.
Tesla Model S
Without a doubt, this is the best mass-produced car on the planet. Whether you hear it from me, from Consumer Reports, from Motor Trend, from Model S owners, or from someone else, this seems to be well recognized now. Beyond the car you actually buy/lease, there’s also the awesome Supercharger network, regular over-the-air updates that improve the car, superb customer service, and the fact that you’re supporting a fully electric car startup that is doing more to advance the EV revolution than any other company. All great reasons to get the Model S.
I’ve driven the Model S (admittedly, the P85D) and didn’t want to get out of the driver’s seat. It’s a beautiful car that has so much smooth power that it makes driving more enjoyable than most of us thought possible. Obviously, this will also impress others and get them to want a Tesla, or at least an EV (theoretically).
The downsides to getting the Model S are:
- It’s expensive. Admittedly, it’s not really, technically a stretch for me to lease this car for a few years, but I’m not a billionaire or multi-millionaire who doesn’t have anything else to do with that much money. Furthermore, my wife is quite frugally minded and is not a fan of spending so much money on a car, no matter how nice it is. Lastly, I’m really not the type to spend a lot of money on luxury goods or for prestige, etc. It just feels wrong, obsessive, socially backwards, and even counterproductive.
- I really don’t like driving big cars, or even riding in big cars. It feels weird to me. And as the driver, it makes parking and sometimes driving more challenging and stressful. But it’s mostly just that I don’t enjoy it. As much as I loved the Tesla P85D’s power and acceleration, I didn’t enjoy the size of the car. As just one more point on this matter, being physically separated more from your co-passengers creates a different feeling and atmosphere — one I’d rather avoid all things being equal.
I think those points more or less covers the pros and cons of the Model S for me.
Clearly, if we were planning to do a lot of long-distance road-tripping and wanted to do that quickly rather than take our time, then a lot of weight would be put on the advantages of the Model S, but I don’t really see that being the case. Again a bit unique to our circumstances, our road-tripping doesn’t need to be limited to a certain, short time period (like 2 weeks) since I work online.
I loved the BMW i3 when I first drove it. At the time, I considered it the best overall car I’d ever driven. Of course, that was before I had driven the Model S… but yeah, I do really like the car. It has excellent acceleration, is really nice and comfortable on the interior, and has an attractive overall design (imho). The way the backdoors open, which apparently irritates some people, I really like since they make entrance and exit easier, make it much easier to load a baby and car seat (big win), and lock a kid into the car unless you get out (a safety bonus, imho, especially with our little one).
The car also has really sharp and enjoyable steering, is approximately the perfect size for my tastes, drives really smoothly, and has some of the best regenerative braking options around. It’s a genuine pleasure to drive, and I think will impress anyone I put behind the wheel… except someone who has driven a Tesla. 😀
One i3 owner I met in Vancouver while there for the Renewable Cities conference — a guy who actually owns an EV charging station company — put it like this to me: “it’s half the price of a Tesla but not half the car.” As much as some Tesla lovers love to bash the i3 for not competing with the Model S, in some cases, I think it’s solid to say that it’s a better value for the money. Whether that’s our case or not, and whether that’s the metric for determining which car to purchase, is up for debate.
The most obvious cons when it comes to the BMW i3 (and the Nissan LEAF) are its much shorter range on a single charge and the fact that it doesn’t have access to the Supercharging network. Additionally, while it does have SAE Combo fast-charging capability, that network is also much less ubiquitous than the CHAdeMO fast-charging network that the LEAF can use. However, I could get the i3 option with the range extender… which I’m not that attracted to and always thought I wouldn’t get, but I could end up choosing the REx if it looks like it would be needed for some stretches of travel along routes I want to take.
The other downside for me is that, from certain angles, I’m not that into the stubby look of the i3. I like a lot of other parts of the car and I like how it looks from various angles, but I prefer the general look of the Model S and LEAF… and that counts for something.
A significant pro in the i3’s bonnet is that it is the “greenest” car in the world, by more than one ranking. It is the most efficient, and it also went above and beyond when it comes to use of green materials. Furthermore, BMW has demonstrated serious leadership in the use of carbon fiber in cars (this was the first mass-market car to use it, I believe) and in scaling up carbon fiber production to make it cheaper (90% cheaper!) and more commonly used in cars from various brands. The weight/efficiency/green benefits of carbon fiber use in cars are quite notable.
Lastly (for now), I think BMW has demonstrated that it is the car company that is 2nd or 3rd most serious about advancing the EV revolution (though, Nissan is the other company filling that spot, and Tesla is #1).
And we arrive at option #3. I actually really love the look of the LEAF — it’s one of my favorite-looking cars. So before anyone complains about that, don’t.
Obviously, the big appeal of the Nissan LEAF is its affordability. Like I said above, I’m not one to spend more for luxury and I’m even turned off from luxury for luxury’s sake, so the LEAF really appeals to me in that it is everything I need — no more, no less. However, I am attracted to quality, and there’s no denying the acceleration, driving experience, braking options, comfort, and overall quality of the i3 and Model S are better. Also, as I noted above, the i3 is much greener, and that is important to me — I’m generally willing to pay more for products that have a light footprint, and for products that move us into a greener future.
I need to get in one again since my memories have faded since 2013, but the interior of the LEAF reminded me of a Toyota Camry, which is plenty nice for most people, including my wife and me. But it’s clearly not as nice as the i3’s interior….
As I noted above, the LEAF’s CHAdeMO fast-charging network is more built out than the i3’s fast-charging network. Whether that would matter for my trips, I’m not yet sure, but I’m beginning to look into it.
As far as how much each of these cars would be useful in getting other people to go electric, I don’t know. Clearly, the Model S would “wow” people a lot more, but the price tag will also scare people away and perhaps make people think that electric cars are only practical for the rich. The i3 will still “wow” people a lot, the price won’t scare people away as much, and this will make it easier for me to pitch people on slightly less wonderful and more affordable electrics like the LEAF. The LEAF will still “wow” people (just not as much) and will be within the budget of a lot more people. So, on the whole, it’s really hard to know which would have the most positive effect.
The range for each of these vehicles is well above what I need on a daily/weekly basis. I think the only place that becomes an issue is for road trips. Again, though, I need to consider and evaluate the road trips we’d actually want to take by car.
Each of these models has probably been my “top choice” at some point or another while thinking this over. I’m now leaning toward what I think will be the final choice, but I’m very curious to see what you have to say. 😀
For a little bit more fun, here’s a poll to vote on which car you think I’ll get (not which car you recommend I get):