California’s automobile emissions and fuel efficiency requirements are the toughest in the nation, as most of us know.
Beyond the numbers, there is the requirement that manufacturers meet specific targets for sales of zero-emission automobiles. Other states – including New York, Massachusetts and Oregon – have followed suit by imposing similar regulations.
With today’s technology and infrastructure, zero emissions means all-electric. At last fall’s Los Angeles Auto Show, BMW rolled out its brand-new i3 subcompact all-electric vehicle, giving the media the chance to drive the car around downtown LA.
Last month, local residents might have noticed a fleet of small Mercedes-Benz cars in an unfamiliar hatchback styling clustered around one of the hotels in Palo Alto, where the company introduced the B-Class E-Drive to the U.S. press.
BMW delivered its first i3 to a customer in Massachusetts in May, and Mercedes promises its first delivery in early July.
Considering that both cars were designed to sell in the same states to meet the same mandates, they are similar in some ways but strikingly different in other ways. Both the BMW i3 and the Mercedes B-Class E-drive are subcompacts that will sell for nearly the same price, approximately $43,000. Both are all-electric, offering driving ranges of approximately 80 miles when fully charged, with a full charge taking roughly four hours at a 240-volt home charging station or one of the public charging stations popping up all over the area.
However, no one will mistake these vehicles for each other on the street. On the basis of size, the i3 is tiny, nearly 18 inches shorter than the diminutive Nissan Leaf all-electric car. By contrast, the Mercedes B-Class is actually longer than the Leaf.
In appearance, the i3 and B-Class are dramatically different. The B-Class looks like any other four-door hatchback – the chassis and body style are actually adapted from a gasoline-powered version introduced in Europe as part of Mercedes-Benz’s new front-wheel-drive lineup – and the styling is in keeping with the design of the overall Mercedes lineup.
The i3 is at the opposite extreme. It won’t be mistaken for anything else on the road. It boasts an in-your-face two-tone color scheme that emphasizes the carbon fiber used extensively in the body, an unusual window scheme and half-sized rear doors that open just enough to offer somewhat more convenient access to the small rear seats. It does have a hatchback, but cargo space behind the rear seats is quite limited.
Clearly, the product planners at the two German companies were targeting two different types of customers. We would guess that BMW expected its all-electric model to sell to urban dwellers that would use the car primarily for errands and in-town trips but want everyone to know they are trendsetting environmentalists.
On the other hand, Mercedes simply adapted its existing compact hatchback – the only difference is a 30 mm space added beneath the floorboard for the batteries – designed for younger buyers who needed a versatile car that might even meet the needs of a small family.
On the road, reviewers have noted different characteristics in driving and handling. The i3 is reported to provide typical BMW quick-response steering, acceleration and cornering, while the Mercedes is similarly consistent with that manufacturer’s reputation for smooth handling and response.
We expect that the reliability of both automobiles will be consistent with their reputations. The BMW i3 has been in development and testing for several years, and initial reports on the new car are good. The Mercedes-Benz B-Class E-Drive uses a powertrain and batteries developed in conjunction with Tesla – with whom Mercedes has a cooperative research agreement and a small percent of ownership – while the chassis and suspension are shared with the European B-Class and American CLA models.
So, if you’re considering the possibility of buying or leasing an all-electric car, you now have two more reliable options to consider in the midprice, midrange category. We can be certain that once you’ve seen and driven both of them, you won’t have any trouble making up your mind which one is better suited to your tastes and uses.