(Mat Peterson is the founder of Shiny Things, a Sydney-based team dedicated to making fun apps for kids packed with educational content. Shiny Things recently celebrated 1 million downloads from the App Store.)
Due to work travel I’ve had the distinct pleasure of being able to test drive the BMW i3 and the Tesla Model S before they have been released in Australia. In this post I’ll review them, alongside the Nissan LEAF, which is the best selling electric car on the planet.
The Nissan LEAF recently passed 110,000 units sold worldwide with cars being produced in Japan, the UK and the USA. In Australia it is relatively affordable option as a city-based family car with a base price of $39,990. Unfortunately we are stuck with the 2011 model as Nissan Australia overestimated demand and imported too many back in 2011, denying us the vastly improved 2013 version today.
“the odometer hadn’t even ticked past 3 digits on the test drive model”
Before you “start” it, the interior doesn’t scream new or different and because Nissan chose to put the batteries where the transmission and driveshaft tunnel would be, the interior space is identical to other cars in its class. Overall the interior was comfortable, albeit sparse, with nothing making it stand out as being electric or even futuristic.
Once moving the car was sprightly and very quiet. Road and tire noise whilst driving around Sydney was remarkably low which made the HVAC system stand out far more than it should have. Steering was unfortunately very loose and the car had body roll comparable to a Nissan March or Toyota Corolla which was disconcerting (electric cars are usually extremely planted due to a low centre of gravity).
I was a little disappointed in the performance and it definitely could have used a bit more grunt. Weighing in at 1,500kg and having 3 people on board, the 280nm of torque was simply not enough on some of the hills we encountered.
Like the other two cars I review later, I didn’t have a chance to deplete the battery, but quoted range is 120-160km which is more than satisfactory for city driving. With roomy rear seats and a relatively spacious boot, it is almost the perfect city car for a family, and it would be perfect if the price was cheaper (bring on EV incentives in Australia!).
Worth noting: I test drove the 2011 version at a Nissan dealership in Sydney and it was obvious there was little interest in the car — the odometer hadn’t even ticked past 3 digits.
The BMW i3 is the first ground-up redesign of an electric car by an old-world automaker and so far it seems to have been a hit. Whilst the design is polarising (I happen to think it looks like the future) the biggest problem BMW has is ramping up production so that they can fulfil demand. At last count they were producing 60 a day and were increasing their carbon fibre production dramatically.
The i3 is available to order in Australia today and the starting price is $63,990.
“truly a lovely vehicle to drive”
I managed to sneak in two test drives whilst attending CES 2014 in Las Vegas. The first thing you notice upon opening the door is how light it is thanks to a structure composed of a sandwich of aluminium and plastic. Then you notice something truly unusual, naked carbon fibre visible in the whole door frame.
Once in the remarkably slim but comfortable chairs, you’re surrounded by the best interior available in an electric car with more space than much larger vehicles. Unfortunately it only seats 4 and the boot is quite restricted, which may challenge many families.
Once underway—using the unusual gear rocker mounted to the steering wheel—you’ll find that the car drives just as well as any other BMW. It is planted in corners, has excellent steering with great road feel, and is wonderful to drive in city traffic due to its tiny turning circle and small size. Thanks to a nicely sized electric motor and a curb weight of 1,195kg, the i3 has remarkable performance managing to keep up with a BMW M3 between 30 & 70km/h.
Also, the regenerative braking is second to none as it has a lovely weighting and can bring the car to a complete halt, negating the use of the brakes entirely. It truly is a lovely vehicle to drive, even better than the Model S.
Quoted range is between 130-160km and it has the option of a range extender (a tiny petrol motor that charges the battery once it falls below 6.5%) which effectively doubles its range. I personally would avoid the range extender as its electric range is perfectly fine for a city.
Even if you can’t afford one, go test drive one to experience the interior as it’s what most cars will look like in the years to come. Just make sure it’s the cloth/fake leather model not the all black leather which looks and feels rubbish.
Overall, this is the best city car money can buy but unfortunately not the best car, which brings us to the Model S…
Tesla Model S
This is the best car money can buy, full stop (in the spirit of full disclosure, I have a Model S reserved). Unhindered by the need to keep selling gasoline powered vehicles, like Nissan and BMW, Tesla set out to produce a car to stand above all others and it also happens to be electric.
The first one rolled off the production line in 2012 and since then they’ve sold over 30,000 vehicles, with a backlog of orders (particularly from China) extending well into the future. The Model S will be available in Australia later this year for a price above $95,000.
“…it feels like a big hulking European sedan, until you push the accelerator.”
As a reservation holder, I was lucky enough to tour the Tesla Factory in California. I arranged a test drive at the same time and was handed the key for a P85 (the fastest Model S there is).
The exterior of the vehicle is stunning; it reminded me of a European exotic. Once seated inside however, the interior feels sparse and unfortunately very American. The quality of materials is not what you’d expect for a car of that price, and standard options like grab handles aren’t available. Also, the seats are closer in comfort to a 1990s Holden than a Mercedes Benz.
However, these things can be overlooked once you start playing with the 17” touch screen. Every item in the car (and thanks to a car-wide system bus it is every item) can be controlled via this screen, and it rapidly becomes obvious that this is the way things should be.
Once moving (and that’s a simple process as you only need to tap the brake to activate the car) it feels like a big hulking European sedan, and due to the fact that it weighs over 2 tons, it is. But that all changes once you push the accelerator to the floor. You are shoved back in your seat by 600nm of torque available from 0 rpm (you can’t help but smile when you floor it; fans call it the Tesla Grin).
0-100km/h comes up in under 4.2 seconds and it keeps on surging way past 200km/h. Even better, due to the exceptionally low and heavy batteries, it corners like its attached to rails and the brakes have excellent stopping power.
As I alluded to before, its one downside when driving (and parking) is the Tesla Model S’s size. Coming in just under 5m long and 2m wide with the mirrors folded, you’ll need the best of luck to find a parking spot in the inner city!
Quoted range of the Model S is 400-500km (yes, you read that correctly) and with the Tesla supplied SuperChargers being installed across the world, a full charge from empty takes less than an hour (and it’s free). We should all be thankful that Tesla exists because the Model S has been a rude wake up call for the rest of the industry.
If you ever have a chance to take a ride in one (I dare say you’d be foolish to miss it) insist that your driver pushes the fun pedal all the way to the floor; it’s worth the speeding ticket.