Tesla Model S vs BMW i3 vs Nissan LEAF -- My Dilemma βˆ’

100% Electric Vehicles

Published on September 7th, 2015 | by Zach


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, WrocΕ‚aw (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 carwhich 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

Tesla Model S Brown Amsterdam 2

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).

Tesla Model S Brown Amsterdam

The downsides to getting the Model S are:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

titanium metallic 3

The Tesla Model S color I’m considering.


BMW i3

Black & silver BMW i3 at EVS27 in Barcelona, Spain.(This image is available for republishing and even modification under a CC BY-SA license, with the key requirement being that credit be given to Zachary Shahan / EV Obsession / CleanTechnica, and that those links not be removed.)

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. πŸ˜€

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.

BMW i3 and me at Arc de Triompf in Barcelona, Spain.(This image is available for republishing and even modification under a CC BY-SA license, with the key requirement being that credit be given to Zachary Shahan / EV Obsession / CleanTechnica, and that those links not be removed.)

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).

BMW i3

The exact BMW i3 I’m considering at the moment.

Nissan LEAF

Nissan Leafs Barcelona

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.

2013 nissan leaf

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.

Nissan LEAF SV

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. πŸ˜€

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):

Create your own user feedback survey

Also Recommended:

My Tesla Model S P85D Review

My BMW i3 Review

My Nissan LEAF Review


Don't forget to follow EV Obsession on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and/or RSS! Do it for electricity!

Tags: , , , , ,

About the Author

is the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular cleantech-focused website in the world, and Planetsave, a world-leading green and science news site. He has been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and he has been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, and wind energy since 2009.

Aside from his work on CleanTechnica and Planetsave, he’s the founder and director of Solar Love, EV Obsession, and Bikocity.

Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, SCTY, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB. After years of covering solar and EVs, he simply had a lot of faith in these companies and felt like they were good companies to invest in as a portion of his retirement strategy.

To connect with Zach on some of your favorite social networks, go to ZacharyShahan.com and click on the relevant buttons.

  • Eric

    I’m so glad you posted this. I am mulling over this same decision. Here are my thoughts.

    The Leaf is actually affordable and it has enough range for your daily commute. If you actually like the look of the Leaf, I think you should just buy that.
    The Tesla is ridiculously expensive and an extravagant super car. I admit I’m more interested in EVs for their fuel cost savings and an interest in electric motors. The Tesla will never pay for itself in fuel savings and is well outside of most people’s budgets. I think it would really hurt your argument for EVs. Electric cars must be affordable before they will be ubiquitous.
    The BMW is, I think, the best looking inside and out. It is also quite expensive.
    Just get the Leaf and rent a Prius for the occasional road trip.

    • Yes, I think the high price of the Model S will turn people away big-time. In the case of the i3, I can at least tell people there are very similar options for about half the price.

      I do really love the looks of the i3 (inside & out) as you say, the extra comfort, and the much better driving experience. But I certainly liked the LEAF more than any gasmobile I’ve driven. πŸ˜€

      • Doug B

        I am a 2014 Model S owner and a 2010 Leaf owner. and currently helping a friend check out the I3.
        IF the new 2016 Leaf due out within the next month really has a decent 110 mile range, that is a big factor in its favor. The I3 (nonRex) advertizes an option that allows a 110 mile range, BUT it limits speed to 56mph. not useful on US freeways. I suspect the new Leaf will be better than that.
        And the new Leaf may have other improvements.
        So, i suggest you take a close look at the new Leaf when it comes out before making a final decision.

        • Definitely. I wrote a long article about the potential new LEAF, and if it hits the market in time, I think it’ll require strong consideration. Waiting to see. πŸ˜€ http://cleantechnica.com/2015/08/18/2016-nissan-leaf-with-110-mile-option-im-stoked/

          • TomV

            Zach, what did you end up buying? I want to buy an EV, and should just buy the Leaf, (due to the lowest price of the three and decent 107 mile range) but the Bolt keeps tempting me to wait–ah the trials of an early adapter.

      • Eric

        In the past week I’ve been able to get out to the dealerships to take a much closer look at these cars and take some test drives. I still like the i3 except I’d never noticed its ridiculously narrow tires. Proportions are a huge thing to me and those pizza cutter tires are kind of a turn-off. I found the Leaf to be quite disappointing. It just felt like I was driving an expensive, bug-eyed version of the Versa. Why can’t electric cars be visually well designed? Why do they have to make a statement? Maybe the Tesla is the right choice, if you can afford one. For me, I’m sticking with the internal combustion engine until someone makes an affordable electric car for the masses and not just for the environmentalists. Sorry for venting.

        • That’s too bad. I love the i3 and actually like the look of the LEAF a lot, but these are subjective matters. The other top electric choices use the same bodies as their gas siblings — the VW e-Golf and Kia Soul EV — so may better suit your preferences, but idk. As for “affordable,” again, depends on the individual. With the federal tax credit, these models are all below the avg price of a new car, and then add in the gas savings ($5,000, $3,000, $10,000… depends on the individual) and you may well consider them affordable. But it all depends on the individual.

          • Eric

            It’ll happen eventually as prices come down and range goes up. Happy EV hunting!

          • Hopefully sooner than any of us expect. πŸ˜€

        • btw, i think those skinny tires are for aerodynamics — aka, fuel savings. but have seen others complain about them as well.

  • Eric

    I also am excitedly anticipating the release of the Tesla Model 3 and the Chevy Bolt.

  • Al Lopez

    I would get the Nissan Leaf. I have the Nissan Leaf and a 2010 Prius. I kept the Prius for long trips. I hardly ever use it.
    With the rebates available in California, I will be driving my leaf for free for three years. I have solar panels at home so I do not worry about electricity costs. I will sell my Prius and my Leaf when the Tesla Model 3 or E comes out. I will then drive my new tesla around the U.S. With no fuel charges.
    I can afford the tesla and the bmw but I choose not to. I just can not see my self spending that much for a car that will take me from point a to b.
    I would rather retire at 50 than spend money on an expensive car.
    Good luck on your decision.

    • Thanks for the tips. Yes, justifying the cost of the Tesla, even just for a 3-year lease, is hard to do. And really, I don’t like the size of it. But idk for sure yet. I’m really attracted to the i3, but idk, test driving all of them again should help me out.

      Definitely have my eye on the Model 3. Will race you to the reservation list in March. πŸ˜€

  • Paul

    Welcome to Sarasota! It’s a nice place to drive an EV. πŸ™‚ Having been a huge car guy for years I recently sold my BMW M3 to get a Leaf. I considered the i3 but was not enthused about the price premium and the tiny capacity of the range-extender made that mostly a joke in my mind. It was an adjustment, but I now completely love my Leaf. For the cost (and face it, the lease payments on those are just silly low, I’ve spent nearly as much on dinner as it costs to have the Leaf for a month) it is near perfect for the around-town stuff. There are a lot of free charge points around town and the car can get to a number of cities in the area. With that said, the Leaf is not my only car and my family still needs a long range (ICE) vehicle. For example, if you want to take that new kid of yours to Disney someday, good luck doing it in the Leaf. For now though, the 3 year lease on my Leaf is perfect and will time out such that I’ll pick up a Tesla to replace it in a few years time.

    • Hey, thanks! πŸ˜€ I’m actually from Sarasota, but haven’t lived there since I finished college in 2004. Was quite surprised when I got on some apps last week and found out there are a lot of charging stations there.

      Thanks for the great summary/short review, too. Crazy cheap, indeed.

      Also, any interest in a cross-state trip in the LEAF to attend the EV Technology & Transportation Summit in Cocoa Oct 20-22? πŸ˜€ Would be fun… I think. I’ll be presenting at the conference. πŸ˜€

  • Marcel

    If you mention leaf and i3, why not mention the e-golf?

    • I’m just not into it.

      • Marcel

        Superior tech and build quality to the Nissan Leaf. Better drive, more interior space and let’s not forget the car of the year 2013 was the Golf.

        • Yeah, I’m just not attracted to it, and VW hasn’t been one of the top 3 leaders in the EV transition. 2 big strikes for me.

    • Eric

      I like the e-Golf, too, as well as the 500e and Spark EV, but they’re not available in most of the country.

      • I do love the 500e. If it were in FL and the head of Fiat didn’t talk so much shit about EVs, I’d definitely be considering it.

        Seems a lot of people like the e-Golf, and I know it’s competitive. Just doesn’t do anything for me.

  • Rick Danger

    Zach, I think you’re going to end up with an i3 for now, but ain’t we all waiting as patiently as possible for the Model ≑? πŸ™‚

    • Haha. I’ll be honest, I have been strongly leaning toward the i3 the past few days. Was strongly leaning toward the Model S before that. Now, so many positive comments and pushes for the LEAF are coming in that I am less certain, but I’m still leaning toward the i3.

  • Eric

    As much as I love the i3, Model S, and Model X, I am waiting for a truly affordable electric car. The forthcoming Bolt and Model 3 are going to start in the mid thirty thousands, but that’s still more than I think I can really stomach. It’s just A-B transportation. When do you think we will have a sub $20k fully electric car available nationwide?

    • That’s a good question. (And I assume you mean new, since there are sub-$20,000 LEAFs used.) I’m not even going to take a guess, but hopefully not too long after the Model 3 & Bolt.

  • Roger Lambert

    Why not consider the 2016 Chevy Volt? It will handle your commute just fine – 95% of the time you would be running it pure electric. But no range anxiety for those times when you need to go further (stuff comes up, doesn’t it?). No need to pay for rentals for trips – and it gets mid-forties for highway mileage using the gas engine. Its about as inexpensive as the Leaf, and owners adore them. They say it is the best engineered G.M. product ever – it seems rock solid.

  • possen

    i3 is awesome. Highly recommend it. Always finding excuses to go for a drive and feel like my day is somehow missing something if I don’t get to drive it. Had mine 3 months.

    • I still remember it a bit and how much I loved it when I drove one 3 years ago. πŸ˜€ Enjoy your i3! Hope to be doing the same in a few months. πŸ˜€

  • blackandwhiteohana
    • It seems you are spamming. That article is pretty horrible/stupid, and a bunch of BMW i3 owners chimed in explaining why.

  • SparkEV

    Oldie, but instead of FL, why not move to DCFC available area of CA for few years and lease SparkEV? 6 months of Tesla lease (3 months if you’re poor) would pay for 3.25 years of SparkEV lease and then some. That could pay for lots of diapers or savings for next EV (Bolt? Model3?) I assume you already saw why sparkev in my blogspot.

    I3 is a great EV similar to SparkEV if not for its price. Also, I don’t know how many CCS DCFC are available in FL; plugshare shows very few.

    • Haha, FL is the place. I’m from Sarasota and want to be back on its wonderful beaches (nothing in Cali like them) and near parents.

      Not many CCS DCFC, but seem to be placed where I’d want them.

  • Garrick Staples

    Before you get excited with the i3’s suicide doors, I would spend some more time with them.

    I have a Honda Element, and sadly, rear suicide doors are now a complete deal-breaker for me. I will simply never ever own a car with rear suicide doors again. They are such a pain in the ass. They quickly became completely useless once you park next to anything. They regularly get in the way; even in my own driveway that is along a wall.

    • Hmm, will do. Need to test drive it 2 more times (once on my own & once with the wife).

    • claude laval

      I don’t see your point. Suicide doors or not they open up and older people getting in is much easier. Mine was an RX-8 and I could complain on a lot of thing about that car but not about the door…

  • Alan Stockton

    I also would recommend the Leaf, especially if you ever contemplate carrying more than 2 adults. We went and tried an i3. Although it is possible to get an adult in the rear seat, there is no toe-room under the front seats, so it is very cramped and uncomfortable–might work for really short distances. Also, my wife was freaked out by the “suicide doors.” I haven’t driven a Tesla, but I went down and sat in both the front and rear seats at an auto show, and, to me, the Leaf is more comfortable. I also don’t know where the EPA rating for the Leaf of 84 miles comes from–shortly after we leased the Leaf, we took it for a drive around the island of Oahu, including a couple of modest hills (from sea level to ~1000 feet and back again in both cases), and not in ECO mode. After just over 100 miles, we still had 7% left on the battery. We also have rooftop solar panels to power the car, there is essentially no marginal cost to driving an extra mile.

    • The only person who would really ride in the back (for the most part) would be our 1-year-old (so ~3 by the end of the lease), so no stress there. Also like th doors for that reason.

      “After just over 100 miles, we still had 7% left on the battery.”
      -Wow, that is awesome. And quite unusual. Must be the Hawaii air. πŸ˜€

  • maxholland

    Zach – sorry I’m late to the discussion here, but here’s my 2cents worth. Given how you describe your likely driving needs, I would advise the following: Lease a vehicle, don’t buy one outright. As you know, the range of these kinds of vehicles will quickly evolve over the next 2 or 3 years, as well as the fast charging capabilities and infrastructure. The options will thus soon be very different, and you may not need to make the compromises that these current 3 choices are presenting you with. In the short term, for the very occasional longer trips you mention, you could rent a different vehicle (Tesla, 2016 Volt, etc) for a week or two. Leasing will also move you towards future usage patterns, since much of vehicle use in the next decade and after will be ‘on demand’ rather than outright ownership (also much lower footprint). Good luck with your decision, and keep up the excellent work.

    • Yes, planning to lease.

      Unfortunately, I haven’t found anyplace that rents EVs in or near Sarasota, and I’d also probably move from FL to NC for one of those trips, so would need to take the vehicle.

      Back to leasing: Yeah, I don’t even know if I’d stay in the US more than 2 or 3 years, so not planning to buy unless I think depreciation would be less than the cost of leasing.

  • David R

    Just found a link to this article. Very exciting changes for you; so best wishes. One small issue you touched on is longer road trips. I wouldn’t add much weight to that aspect. I find it much better to tailor the transportation to the individual trip: planes, trains, or rental car. Going on a long distance trip for a wedding: big sedan. Moving across the country with dog and cat: minivan. Traveling across the Penn turnpike in January: Subaru. Although a short range EV would make for more adventures and stories to write about.

  • claude laval

    In the same paragraph you said that you planned to lease and still have the flexibility of changing the battery pack. I’m I missing something here?

Back to Top ↑