I finally got the option of switching to a fully electric car after using a hybrid car for some time. The hybrid, an Audi A3 TFSIe, was okay’ish, but just a stopgap until upgrading to the real deal. I used it for about a year to bridge the pretty long delivery times for EVs. As with all Volkswagen cars, the Audi was a solid car but plagued with software issues. At the same time, none of their brands were able to deliver an EV within 18 months or less, so I looked elsewhere.
Since I despise SUV-style cars, there is little to choose from, and the company car policy narrowed it further down to two options: the BMW i4 or the Tesla Model 3. I went for the Bimmer, and it was delivered after only 6 months of waiting. A year ago, I was pretty convinced to go for a Tesla, but that changed quite drastically after test-driving the i4 earlier this year. Three things that swayed me over to Camp BMW were: interior, ride comfort, and practicality. Let me explain.
Tesla is known for its very minimalistic approach to the interior; there are hardly any knobs, and everything is controlled through the central screen, at least as far as security regulations allow. This was already awkward during my Model 3 test drive some time ago, and it became obvious that this is not for me. I heavily rely on muscle memory when driving; I keep my eyes on the road, not on a display in the peripheral visual field that has a menu structure that hides basic functions away. This creates too much mental load for me. I’d even consider it a security risk due to distraction.
BMW also uses a huge curved display in their iDrive 8.5 system, but all the relevant information is in the driver’s field of view. That’s a huge difference. The number of knobs is already pretty reduced, but they are still practical and can be operated without looking off the road. The system is also very advanced and snappy, much better than what VW provides. Certainly, Tesla’s software is even more refined and better integrated, but the difference has become pretty small.
Other than software, the materials, haptics, and geometry of the BMW i4 are superior. One can argue about taste, but it feels much more luxurious and offers neat options that are not available on the Model 3 for manufacturing efficiency and margin. Holding the toy’ish steering wheel of a Tesla and looking at the plasticy interior just does not feel like a €50k car to me. The same goes for a lack of modern-day features like a HUD, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration. A feature update is far overdue for this car.
There seems to be consensus that the Model 3 has a “sportive” chassis and damping. I dare to disagree. It’s just poorly built or adjusted. Driving it on some bad roads reminded me of driving a 1980s-era car with basic steel springs. It does not “dampen away” bad roads; it just rumbles along. The suspension may be stiff, but it’s just not comfortable. The i4 is a very different proposition, with air-ride dampening in the back and a well-balanced experience. Sure, it does not feel like a hard-core sports car, but that’s not what I am looking for, and that’s also not what a mid-range Model 3 is really delivering.
The Model 3 is a practical car in general. However, the hatch is far too small to use all that space. You could not get a bike in there, and stacking luggage for a road trip would feel like playing Tetris. The BMW i4’s hatch opens entirely, including the rear window. That allows a lot more space to actually put things in the trunk. Simply put, the i4 is more useful in daily business.
So what don’t I like about the BMW i4? Well, foremost, it’s the front design. The “grill” just looks totally awkward and misplaced on an otherwise beautiful grand coupe. I don’t mind that too much, though, and I’d definitely pay extra to replace it with a nicer option. It’s totally subjective, and I don’t like the round front of the Model 3 either. That car looks like a piece of soap.
While the BMW i4 interior is one of the best I’ve seen so far in mid-range EVs, some items feel misplaced in a car like this. Especially the buttons on the center console next to the iDrive wheel feel very cheap and are not worthy of a €65k car. The same goes for the hood, which hides the front cupholders and wireless charging pad. Making this more high-end would certainly not break the bank for BMW but improve the overall quality impression. Speaking of the charging pad, BMW went for a horizontal surface to put your phone on. Apparently they did not expect that people would accelerate with their EVs, so the phone slides away from the pad all the time when having fun. Other brands solve that with angled charging pads.
Since the car shares a platform with the ICE 4-series, it has a transmission tunnel and a regular bonnet. Not having a frunk is no big deal, but the transmission tunnel takes a lot of space at the rear, considering that the roof is already so low that you can’t have someone with >185 cm sit there for an extended period of time. Reducing the size of the bonnet could certainly add 20cm or more space for passengers; for a 4,76-meter-long executive car, there is not a lot of space.
The speed limit of 193 km/h seems to have been added exclusively for model segmentation. The i4 M50 has two motors and is limited to 225 km/h, but I don’t see a reason why the lesser models would be capped below 220. They have plenty of power and torque, and it does not feel like the electric motor would be a limiting factor here. Even the power consumption stays acceptable once top speed is reached.
Everything else about this car is very positive: it has good efficiency (15 kWh/100 km is possible when driving carefully, but who would?) and is very well-built. It’s a great car with an electric engine rather than a native EV, but that’s fine since its EV qualities are outstanding. I saw DC fast-charging rates of 180 kW after preconditioning the battery.
Even the eDrive35 version, with its smaller 61 kWh battery, is perfect for longer trips on the Autobahn. Taking a 20-minute break to relax and charge every 300 kilometers is completely reasonable for me. In 95% of all cases, I charge at home anyway; having a fully charged EV at my disposal every morning is so much more convenient than pumping dinosaur blood! The interesting thing about range anxiety is that almost always, drivers without EV experience are affected by it.
iDrive 8.5 is far better than anything VW has hacked together so far, and it’s a breeze to use. Even the Apple CarPlay integration works flawlessly; although it only supports wireless CarPlay, cables are only for charging. Oddly enough, there is a single USB-A socket in the front, while the sockets in the center box and the rear are USB-C. That one USB-A socket is probably only good for updating maps from a USB stick, as the hood won’t close with most USB devices plugged in.
The handling of the car is phenomenal considering that it weighs just over 2 tons. It’s certainly not super agile on curvy roads, but it’s much better than anticipated. While turning requires at least 12,5m, which is a lot, moving the car in the city or other restricted spaces works very well in general. With the rather low top speed, cruising on the Autobahn is very comfy, and noise isolation is excellent.
Considering those minor issues, I think it is fair to say that the Tesla Model 3 is the better EV, but the BMW i4 is the better car overall.