This month’s column marks a milestone: the first time we review two cars that are purely electrically powered. What makes this even more remarkable is that both cars are sophisticated, stylish vehicles offering everyday practicality—and even a decent helping of performance.
First up is the Tesla Model S, a mid-sized/large sedan that combines good looks, excellent performance, luxury, potential seating for seven, and the benefit of never having to pay for gasoline again. And did I mention it’s made in America? This car really represents the best of American ingenuity and manufacturing, cramming the latest technologies into a vehicle with zero emissions that is a blast to drive.
To start with, the Tesla doesn’t look like an electric car. It looks like a really attractive four door sedan/hatchback. The lines are curved and sensuous, and it has what looks like a traditional front-end grill, except that it’s solid since it doesn’t have to allow air to flow to a radiator. It therefore looks like a ‘normal’ sedan, albeit a good-looking one. When you approach the car with the key fob in your pocket, the door handles magically extend to allow you to pull them and open the doors. Otherwise they sit flush with the doors to improve aerodynamics. Once inside, a very modern interior dominated by a huge vertical screen in the middle of the dash lets you know you’re driving on the cutting edge. The screen is like a big iPad and can display two different things top and bottom. It’s operated similarly, with swipes and presses. It controls the audio, ventilation, navigation and car-setting controls, and even has an Internet connection. It also functions as the screen for the back-up camera. It also allows you to swipe a control to determine how far you want the large sunroof to open. Heated leather seats are comfortable and well-bolstered. An app allows you to remotely have the car to turn on its air conditioning a few minutes before you arrive so it’s cooled down by the time you get in it. The gauges in front of the steering wheel are digital and can be configured to give a variety of information, in addition to the speedometer. The rear seat is spacious, as is the cargo area under the rear hatch, which can be expanded by folding down the rear seats. The overall feel is very ‘techy’—I imagine they sell a bunch of these in Silicon Valley.
The biggest difference you notice initially driving an electric car is the lack of engine noise. When you start out, all you hear is the faint sound of the tires on the road. Because electric motors have all their torque from the get go, acceleration is brisk, zero to 60 in 4.2 seconds. That’s fast. It’s especially noticeable in 40 to 60 mph acceleration when stomping on the accelerator (I almost said gas pedal) literally pushes you back in your seat. Maximum range is 265 miles, with the bigger battery and digital displays keeping you well informed about your charge status to avoid range anxiety. The ride is luxury-sedan smooth, yet it still handles extremely well, thanks in part to its rear-wheel-drive configuration and well-balanced weight distribution. Steering feel is adjustable, and in ‘sport’ mode, steering response was nice and tight. Regenerative brakes do an excellent job of slowing the vehicle and even recharge the battery while doing so.
The only main complaint is that it’s financially out of the reach of most drivers, with a starting price of $70,000 and ranging to $125,000 and up. A $7,500 federal tax credit helps a little bit. (Oh, and not stopping for gas means I’d have to make special trips to Quick Trip to get my summer slurpees.) Tesla has a service and sale facility in University City.
Another exciting all-electric vehicle is the BMW i3. The i3 is a little bit funny-looking, with three side windows each of a different height. It looks like an electric car, with eclectic styling and a very open and futuristic interior. The closest thing to it on the market today in terms of looks is the Honda element, which also is somewhat boxy and has a rear-hinged rear door for easy back-seat access.
One of the most interesting things about the i3 is the fact that the interior is made of all natural materials: no plastics. The top of the dash looks like the black felt lining of a trunk. Even the carbon fiber reinforced plastic used in the body structure is made in a plant in Washington State that is 100-percent hydroelectric power. The i3 recently was voted the Green Car of the year at the New York auto show. Ironically, the only thing that can’t be green on the i3 is the exterior color.
The dash displays are basically two video screens: one behind the steering wheel for speedometer and other driving info, including remaining range; and a large, free-standing screen that looks like an iPad on the center of the dash that handles audio, navigation and similar functions. It, too, has a very ‘techy’ feel to it. The i-drive functions are controlled by a remote knob between the seats and require navigation through a series of screens, which can be mastered with practice. The gear selector is on the steering column, and there are no gears per se, just twist forward and aft for forward, reverse and neutral, with a button for park. Ventilation and audio controls are a series of easy-to-use hard buttons and a volume knob spread across the center of the dash. Heated seats are comfortable, but not as well-bolstered as one would expect in a BMW. The interior has a very spacious, roomy feel to it, aided in part by the lack of a center transmission tunnel. Rear-seat room is adequate, and the rear seats fold 50/50 to increase the decent-sized cargo area under the rear hatch. There’s also a small storage area beneath the front hood.
Acceleration is excellent, thanks to the instantaneous torque, both from a dead stop and when accelerating while moving. The lack of engine noise and lack of gear changes during acceleration reminds you you’re driving an electric vehicle. Of course, being a BMW, the i3 handles well, also. Regenerative braking slows the car like engine braking in a manual-transmission car; but even more so, that if you time it right approaching an intersection, you can take your foot off the accelerator and coast to a stop without using the brakes. Rear parking sensors come in the model without the back-up camera.
Driving range is 80 to 100 miles. A small gasoline ‘extender’ motor is available to charge the electric motor and adds about $4,000 to the price. Average monthly electric charging fees should be minimal, maybe $10 to $20. Think of all the time you could save not having to go to the gas station or bring it in for oil changes.
Gerd Petermann of Autohaus BMW says the i3's handling an performance are noteworthy. "It's very quick, and its excellent suspension was derived from the Sporty 1 series."
Prices for the i3 start about $42,000, and it is also eligible for the $7,500 tax credit.
Robert Paster (robertpaster.com) also is an attorney in private practice, concentrating in estate planning and probate.