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.
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.
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.)