2017 BMW i3 vs 2017 Chevrolet Volt: Compare Cars

December 16, 2016
2017 Chevrolet Volt

2017 Chevrolet Volt

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The BMW i3 and Chevy Volt both are small plug-in electric cars, but the two cars tackle the range-extended electric vehicle question in very different ways.

The latest Chevrolet Volt is essentially a plug-in hybrid, but it's the only one on the market that drives entirely on electricity until the battery is exhausted. In that behavior, it's similar to the BMW i3, a battery-electric vehicle that offers an optional small, 2-cylinder "REx" range-extending engine for around $4,000 — the sole electric car in the world that can be ordered with or without an engine.

So which one should you buy—the refined new Volt, or the intriguing i3?

On our scale, the Volt is the runaway winner here simply because its real-world benefits outweigh the fact that the BMW i3 has a nicer interior. What was once a close battle has eroded even though the BMW has the option of a greater range for 2017. 

MORE: Read our latest reviews of the 2017 Chevrolet Volt and 2017 BMW i3

The all-new Chevrolet Volt is sleeker, better-looking, quieter, faster, and more refined than the first-generation car sold from 2011 to 2015. It remains a compact five-door hatchback with only four seats, though it now has a fifth "seating" position that's largely restricted to agile and tolerant teenagers willing to sit on a small padded hump and straddle the wide battery tunnel. The Volt's steel construction is largely conventional.

Launched in May 2014, the electric BMW is one of the most advanced vehicles of any kind sold in the U.S. It's light, custom-built, and the most efficient vehicle of any kind sold this year (in its battery-only form). The subcompact five-door body shell is made of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic, and it rides on an aluminum chassis that contains the battery pack, electric motor, range extender, and the crash structures. For 2017 it adds a higher-capacity battery pack rated at up to 114 miles of total electric range.

2016 BMW i3

2016 BMW i3

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2016 BMW i3

2016 BMW i3

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2016 BMW i3

2016 BMW i3

Enlarge Photo

The little BMW, with its contrasting black panels, is unusual, distinctive, and futuristic-looking. It's a tall, slab-sided hatchback with two long front doors, plus rear "carriage doors" that can't be opened unless the fronts are opened first--meaning back-seat occupants are dependent on the front-seat passenger to get in and out. The Volt is a low, wedge-shaped hatchback that some have compared to the last Honda Civic in its shape. Regardless, it's handsomer, racier, and altogether better-looking than its predecessor to most eyes.

Inside, the BMW i3 has a low, wide dash with a rectangular display screen sitting above it, and another screen in the instrument cluster that again sits above the dash surface. Its design theme is akin to Scandinavian modern, with some organic shapes and optional raw-wood appliques over some of the hard-plastic panels. The Volt interior is more cockpit-like, but it's now quite conventional, with soft-touch surfaces and available two-tone upholstery treatments that convey a premium feel. The entire control interface shares a lot with other GM small cars--which, in this case, means it's well designed and intuitive for the most part.

But it's the powertrains that set these cars apart. The BMW i3 has a choice between carryover 22-kWh and new-for-2017 33-kWh lithium-ion batteries under its floor, powering a 130-kw (170-hp) motor that turns the rear wheels. The REx range-extended version is availbale with the larger capacity battery and it includes an upsized-for-2017 gas tank (from 1.9 to 2.4 gallons). It's heavier than the battery-electric version, which comes in at 81 mpg. Its efficiency is rated at 111 MPGe when in electric mode, and 35 mpg when running on the range extender — versus 98 MPGe and 37 mpg for the Volt. (Miles Per Gallon Equivalent, or MPGe, is a measure of how far a car can travel electrically on the same energy that's contained in a single gallon of gasoline.)

2017 Chevrolet Volt

2017 Chevrolet Volt

Enlarge Photo
2017 Chevrolet Volt

2017 Chevrolet Volt

Enlarge Photo
2017 Chevrolet Volt

2017 Chevrolet Volt

Enlarge Photo
2017 Chevrolet Volt

2017 Chevrolet Volt

Enlarge Photo

The Volt now uses a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine paired with the latest Voltec two-motor plug-in hybrid system. The 18.4-kWh battery pack in the tunnel and under the rear seat gives 53 miles of electric range before the engine switches on, up from the previous model's 38 mpg combined. When operating in range-extended mode, essentially as a hybrid, the 2016 Volt is rated at 42 mpg combined. In electric mode, its efficiency is rated at 106 MPGe.

Both cars behave like battery-electric vehicles up to the limits of their battery capacities. Then each car's engine kicks in. The i3's engine powers a generator that sends power to the traction motor through the battery pack — and recharges the battery just enough to provide a bit of an energy buffer, but not trying to recharge it beyond that. The BMW i3 keeps its engine on most of the time when it's in range-extending mode, but because the little motorcycle engine is behind the passengers, under the rear deck, it's not as apparent. It sounds rather like a little motorboat engine in the distance, actually.

The new Volt behaves more like a plug-in hybrid once its battery is depleted, with the engine switching off at extended stops and the car moving away under electric power before the engine comes back on again. Unlike the BMW, its engine will mechanically clutch in to drive the front wheels directly when its control software indicates that's more efficient than charging the battery, but all of that is entirely imperceptible to the driver and passengers. Engine noise is apparent but well muffled, and the driving responsiveness is that of an electric car.

The BMW i3 REx has one major and important caveat, however. Under the heaviest power demands, its engine may not be able to provide enough output to sustain the car. On rare occasions, for instance at high speeds on uphill stretches, carrying heavy loads and with all the climate controls working to overcome cold temperatures, the car may drop from freeway speeds to as little as 45 mph until its engine catches up and restores enough energy to the battery that it can resume full speed. It's rare, but it does happen.

It's also worth noting that the range-extended version of the BMW i3 (known as the REx) has a tiny gas tank of less than 2 gallons that has to be refilled every 65 to 75 miles. The Volt, on the other hand, has a combined battery and gasoline range of about 400 miles--meaning it's more practical for long-distance trips. (It's designed that way specifically to comply with specific rules in California, but the result is a drawback for those North American buyers who may want the car to cope with longer-distance road trips as well.)

The Volt starts at about $34,000, with the BMW i3 REx roughly $10,000 more. If you're looking for a mostly-electric car that eliminates the range anxiety of a battery-electric vehicle, they're the two best choices. If you're willing to sacrifice the prestige of the BMW brand, and overlook any negative perceptions of Chevrolet cars, the Volt may be the better way to find a vehicle that meets your needs.

The Volt is our choice, giving an excellent blend of conventional styling and interior with a smooth, powerful, advanced, and energy-efficient powertrain. The second-generation Volt retains all the good points of the first edition, while fixing some of the drawbacks and adding more range. Unless you're smitten with the BMW's admittedly very nice interior, the obvious buy here (at least to us) is the more practical Volt. 

Summary

7.7
Expert Rating
The 2017 Chevy Volt offers excellent fuel efficiency, and refined driving, improving on its predecessor in every way that counts.
6.6
Expert Rating
The BMW i3 is a technological and stylistic tour de force—yet like any technology, it's nearing its sell-by date.

Styling

7.0
Expert Rating
The 2017 Chevy Volt is crisp and rakish on the outside, with a refined and intuitive interior.
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6.0
Expert Rating
It's not exactly pretty, but the i3 remains distinctive, daring, and like nothing else on the road.
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Performance

6.0
Expert Rating
The 2017 Chevy Volt is smooth, quiet, and fun to drive, with high range and a surge of electric power when you need it.
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6.0
Expert Rating
We're not sold in the i3's range-extender, but its "one pedal" driving characteristics are impressive.
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Comfort & Quality

6.0
Expert Rating
The 2017 Chevy Volt is smooth, quiet, and pleasant to drive, but only really holds four people, snugly.
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4.0
Expert Rating
Though the i3's front seats are comfy, access to the back is compromised by its rear-hinged doors and its trunk is small.
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Safety

9.0
Expert Rating
The 2017 Chevy Volt aces every safety test. Why no perfect score? Advanced features are bundled into pricey trims.
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The i3 hasn't yet been rated for its crash performance.
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Features

8.0
Expert Rating
The 2017 Chevy Volt's EV power is its most notable feature; additional features including adaptive cruise control keep it competitive this year.
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7.0
Expert Rating
A good warranty and lots of optional features offset the i3's relatively sparse base package.
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Fuel Economy

10
Expert Rating
The 2017 Chevy Volt is rated at 53 miles of electric range and 42 mpg combined, putting it among the most efficient of all cars sold.
Read More
10
Expert Rating
Though it's not a range leader, the i3 is an impressive electric city car.
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MSRP

from $33,220
from $42,400

Invoice

from $31,891
from $39,930

Fuel Economy - Combined City and Highway

42
N/A

Engine

Gas/Electric I4, 1.5L
Electric

Drivetrain

Front Wheel Drive Read Full Specs
Rear Wheel Drive Read Full Specs
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