Electric La-La Land: BMW and Mercedes-Benz battle for the battery-powered heart of West Los Angeles.
In Los Angeles County, and particularly on the ocean side of the I-405 freeway, eco-awareness is the highest virtue. The Tesla Model S is the halo car, and most cabs are Priuses. ChargePoint.com’s online locator lists a staggering 49 electric-car chargers in Century City, the 176-acre high-end westside district built on what was once the back lot of 20th Century Fox. That’s 15 more chargers than the whole 49.5-million-acre state of Nebraska can claim.
There isn’t any place in North America more eager or ready for the all-electric BMW i3 and Mercedes-Benz B-class Electric Drive than trendy, liberal, and prosperous West L.A. But, as electric cars with less than 100 miles of range, the i3 and the B are constrained by a tight support system. The public chargers in populated areas are often in facilities where the parking is expensive. C/D paid only $1.16 per car in electricity to charge the BMW and Mercedes at a port in Century City, but the building dinged us another $35 each for parking.
Meanwhile, at a charger in Oxnard, a coastal city about 50 miles north, the parking was free during the three-hour recharge, but the only place to hang out was a Subway/Shell station across the street. And chargers are often unmarked or squirreled away in, for instance, the valet-parking garage at the Universal City Hilton.
Familiarity with the fledgling charging eco-system makes living with these cars more straightforward. But their use demands careful planning in a way the 200-mile-plus-range Tesla doesn’t. The easygoing freedom offered by gasoline-powered cars is a far-off dream with these things.
Still, the assumption that all electrics perform the same—whirring anonymously from tee box to fairway to bunker to green—doesn’t align with reality. Except that both suckle from standardized SAE J1772 connectors, start at about $42,000, and are more or less equally quick, these two couldn’t be more different in conception or character. The B-class is an electric Mercedes-Benz. BMW’s i3 is a moon buggy.
2014 Mercedes-Benz B-class Electric Drive
Second place: Electric La-La Land.
The B-class is indeed the most ordinary car Mercedes makes. It’s a five-door, front-drive steel box, or a VW Golf for people who want a Benz. It’s been available in Canada with conventional powertrains for a few years, but it’s hitting the United States for the first time now and only in Electric Drive form. Well, not all of these United States—just the 10 (plus Washington, D.C.) ZEV ones.
With thick and comfortable power front seats, a swath of wood across the dash, big circular eyeball vents, and the familiar COMAND system aboard, the B-class ED is immediately recognizable as 3935 pounds of pure Mercedes. Except for the Tesla parts.
The B-class ED is to the BMW i3 what the Honda Civic hybrid was to the Toyota Prius: A sensible retrofit, not an attention-getter.
The drive system comes from Musk Industries and consists of a lithium-ion battery pack under the car’s floor and a 132-kW electric motor in the nose. That’s 177 horsepower with an instantaneous 251 pound-feet of torque available. Paddle shifters behind the steering wheel let the driver select three levels of regenerative-braking action, with the most aggressive almost negating the need for the brake pedal during regular commuting.
Silent, laid-back torque production is the goal of most current Mercedes engines, so the Electric Drive in the B-class embodies a Mercedes ideal. On a full charge the B-class waltzed to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds and completed the quarter-mile in 15.4 seconds at 92 mph. All while feeling as if it were floating atop a meringue of electrons.
Meringue, however, isn’t sticky. The B-class only managed a 0.75-g skidpad orbit, and it plowed through the slalom at 37.6 mph. After all, two tons is a lot to carry atop four 225/50R-17 Michelin Primacy radials.
It’s roomy, it rides well, the steering is nicely weighted, and visibility is great. In every practical way, the B-class is easier to live with than the i3. But it disappears in Southern California. No one complimented it, and no one asked about it. It’s a car that people react to with shoulder shrugs instead of conversations.
The B-class Electric Drive is a better Mercedes-Benz than the CLA. But as an electric car, it’s a cautious, tentative machine. It’s a mere conversion job up against a full-throated rebellion against conventionality.
2014 BMW i3
First place: Electric La-La Land.
This car’s front tires are so skinny that they should be slicing ham. The exterior styling plays as parody of current BMW design. Inside, it looks like a Burberry picnic basket stuck in a fiberglass mop bucket. It feels as if it were whisking you to the exciting—okay, maybe not that exciting—future lying ahead.
It isn’t wholly successful, but the i3 is, like the Tesla Model S, a swing for the fences. That’s apparent at the doorsills, where unpainted carbon fiber shows off the radical structure of the car: a composite cabin sitting atop a welded-aluminum skateboard chassis. It’s also apparent on the scales, where the i3’s 2853 pounds undercut the B-class by more than a half-ton. BMW has placed the heavy battery low and at the center of the car with the electric motor slightly above and forward of the rear axle. So, the i3 has a slight 51.8-percent rear weight bias while lightweight body panels keep the center of gravity low—like a proper BMW.
Those skinny front tires—155/60R-20 Bridgestone Ecopias on the test car—only have to steer and brake in the rear-drive i3, and that pays off in the immediacy of its reflexes. Meanwhile, any tendency of the 175/55R-20 rear tires to wander gets countered by BMW’s stability control. The ride is stiffer than in the B-class, but the handling is sharper and more fun.
BMW rates the i3’s motor at 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, enough to knock the feathery BMW to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 15.3 seconds at 86 mph. It pulls only 0.78 g on the skidpad, but it’s very exploitable grip. And it cruises through the slalom quicker than the Benz at 39.3 mph.
The rear seat is great for dogs but lousy for humans. The minimalist decoration won’t please everyone. The mix of materials is amusing, with the wood-covered dashboard tray obliquely reminiscent of the old 2002’s catch-all trough. But the two display screens serving as instrumentation could be larger, the seating is only lightly padded, the back-hinged rear doors are silly, and the A/C is miserable at its job. But if you want the usual, shop Mercedes. Also, because of electrical interference, there’s no AM band on the i3’s radio, but Limbaugh listeners aren’t likely to buy this car anyhow.
BMW threw aside most of its traditions and preconceptions in designing the i3, and that pays off in an electric vehicle that’s quicker than its competition and about 25 percent more efficient, sipping amperage at aC/D-observed 123 MPGe versus the Mercedes ED’s 97 MPGe. The range difference between the two—we estimate 79 miles for the BMW and 84 miles for the Benz—is close enough to be essentially meaningless. But on most 240-volt chargers, the Benz’s larger battery will take an extra hour or two to replenish.
Efficiency, however, is boring. Ambition is exciting. And the i3 has ambition in its soul.
Final Scoring, Performance Data, and Complete Specs
|2014 BMW i3||2014 Mercedes-Benz B-class Electric Drive|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$51,175||$50,710|
|LENGTH||157.8 inches||171.6 inches|
|WIDTH||69.9 inches||70.3 inches|
|HEIGHT||62.1 inches||61.3 inches|
|WHEELBASE||101.2 inches||106.3 inches|
|FRONT TRACK||61.9 inches||61.0 inches|
|REAR TRACK||62.0 inches||60.9 inches|
|INTERIOR VOLUME||F: 50 cubic feet
R: 34 cubic feet
|F: 49 cubic feet*
R: 41 cubic feet
|CARGO BEHIND||F: 37 cubic feet
R: 15 cubic feet
|F: 34 cubic feet
R: 18 cubic feet
|MOTOR||AC permanent-magnet synchronous||AC permanent-magnet synchronous|
|POWER HP @ RPM||170 @ 4800||177 @ 12,500|
|TORQUE LB-FT @ RPM||184 @ 0||251 @ 0|
|CAPACITY||22 kWh||36 kWh|
|ONBOARD CHARGER||7.4 kWh||10.0 kWh|
|LB PER HP||16.8||22.2|
|TRANSMISSION||1-speed direct drive||1-speed direct drive|
|SUSPENSION||F: struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
R: multilink, coil springs
|F: struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
R: multilink, coil springs
|BRAKES||F: 11.0-inch vented disc
R: 11.0-inch disc
|F: 11.6-inch vented disc
R: 11.6-inch solid disc
|STABILITY CONTROL||traction off||partially defeatable|
|TIRES||Bridgestone Ecopia EP500
F: 155/60R-20 80Q
R: 175/55R-20 85Q
|Michelen Primacy MXM4 ZP
C/D TEST RESULTS
|0–30 MPH||2.7 sec||2.7 sec|
|0–60 MPH||6.5 sec||6.8 sec|
|0–90 MPH||16.4 sec||14.7 sec|
|¼-MILE @ MPH||15.3 sec @ 86||15.4 sec @ 92|
|ROLLING START, 5–60 MPH||6.5 sec||6.7 sec|
|TOP GEAR, 30–50 MPH||2.5 sec||2.5 sec|
|TOP GEAR, 50–70 MPH||4.1 sec||3.8 sec|
|TOP SPEED||92 mph (gov ltd)||101 mph (gov ltd)|
|BRAKING 70–0 MPH||163 feet||188 feet|
|0.78 g†||0.75 g|
|610-FT SLALOM||39.3 mph||37.6 mph†|
|CURB||2853 pounds||3935 pounds|
|EPA CITY/HWY||138/111 MPGe||85/83 MPGe|
|C/D 170-MILE TRIP||123 MPGe||97 MPGe|
|C/D ESTIMATED RANGE||79 miles||84 miles|
|IDLE||41 dBA||34 dBA|
|FULL THROTTLE||67 dBA||64 dBA|
|70-MPH CRUISE||67 dBA||64 dBA|
*C/D est. †stability-control inhibited
Max Pts. Available
2014 BMW i3
2014 Mercedes-Benz B-class Electric Drive
|FIT AND FINISH||10||9||9|
|FUN TO DRIVE||25||20||16|
* These objective scores are calculated from the vehicle’s dimensions, capacities, rebates and extras, and/or test results.