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BMW i3 vs. Chevy Spark EV: Bavaria and Detroit may be closer than you think

BMW finally took the wraps off its entry into the electric-vehicle arms race on Monday, and it looks like the new i3 EV was driven off the lot of some near-future sci-fi movie. The innovative tech touches and design ideas show that BMW has poured a lot of thought and effort into its first pure EV.

It will also cost you: MSRP is just over $42,000, or $45,000 optioned up, which is probably not surprising for a BMW on the cutting edge. But is the BMW i3 going to be that much better than the $27,500 Chevy Spark EV, which debuted in Portland just a few days ago? Both cars are about the same size, have similar ranges, similar power profiles and similar in-car tech. A quick overview shows the i3 will come in three trim levels: Mega, Giga and Tera (please, stop this naming trend already) and will feature a range of between 80 and 100 miles from its 22-kilowatt battery, depending on how hard you like to gas it.

The i3 is loaded with new-think car technology, from its carbon-plastic construction, innovative aluminum “Life” frame, weird tires and eco-friendly materials to its safety features and connectivity. BMW says it’s the future of urban driving, and we’re inclined to agree that driving electric cars is the way to go in the big city.

I drove the new Chevy Spark EV at its Portland debut and while I have yet to drive the i3, I think an initial comparison, at least by the numbers and images seen so far, is in order.

Performance and range

BMW is claiming 170hp and 184 pound-feet of torque from its rear-wheel drive motor setup. Sounds good. The front-drive Chevy Spark EV is down on horsepower at about 130, but it crushes the Beemer with 400 foot-pounds of torque. BMW is claiming the i3 will get to 60mph in 7 seconds flat, while Chevy is claiming 7.6 seconds for the Spark EV – making it the fastest kid in class for the moment. All I can say to BMW is: we’ll see.

2014 Chevrolet SparkEV exterior front left angle motion

The new Chevy Spark EV goes on sale only in Oregon and California to start and is based on the regular gas-powered Spark model.

I’m not one to doubt German engineering, but since it’s the twisting power of torque that gets you off the line quick, let’s just say I’m skeptical of BMW’s claim. Gearing can have a large effect on acceleration, so perhaps BMW’s i3 is geared “short” while the Chevy has longer legs. BMW says its motor has consistent power output to its max redline of 11,400rpm, so it could be a “screamer” of a motor while the Chevy likes to dig deep. There is more than one way to make speed after all, but so far, I’m siding with the torque monster until proven wrong. Advantage Chevy.

The Spark EV’s top speed nanny ruins the fun at 90mph while the BMW lets you get a ticket for 93mph…

The Spark EV’s top speed nanny ruins the fun at 90mph while the BMW lets you get a ticket for 93mph, but I’m not sure I’d like drive either of these very small cars at those speeds in anything but a very straight line on very smooth pavement. Call it a draw, slight advantage to the Bavarians.

Range-wise, the BMW is claiming 80 to 100 miles from it’s 450-pound, 22-kilowatt-hour battery, while the Chevy says you can get 82 miles from its 560-pound, 23-kilowatt-hour lump. Both are lithium-ion and both companies claim they use the battery weight to give each car a 50/50 weight split. How BMW pulls more range out of less battery remains to be seen, but with weight, output, power contouring and so much more in the equation, I’ll reserve judgement for now.

When the Spark EV runs out of … spark … you’re done until you can get it charged up again, which can take 20 minutes to reach 80 percent charge using the Combo DC charger* (early models won’t work with this charger) or seven hours (!) using a 240-volt connection. BMW claims the same for a fast charge, and it’s ready to use the Combo DC charger now, or drivers can get a three-hour recharge on 240 volts  with a hot 38-amp current – if you can find it.

2014 BMW i3 front motion

The BMW i3 was just introduced and is an all-new, purpose-built EV. It is not adapted from an existing BMW model.

Also, the i3 can be ordered with a built-in gas-powered “range extender” generator located under the rear of the car. The motorcycle-sourced 650cc gas engine only generates electricity to run the car’s electric motor, which is similar to the Chevy Volt’s setup but the BMW system seems more like a Band-Aid than the Volt’s purpose-built gas-electric system. Plus, it’ll cost ya – in several ways. First, it’s almost a $3,000 premium. Second, it tacks on another 300 pounds to the car’s 2,700-pound weight, and at the back end no less. Goodbye 50/50 weight split. Also, the fuel capacity is 2.4 gallons, so don’t plan any trans-Siberian trips if you pony up for it. And, of course, you’ll need to buy that $10 splash of gas, which is sort of defeating the purpose of this car.

But the fact that you can get it at all, as expensive, heavy and last-chance-ish as it may be, gives it an edge, however small, over the Spark EV.

Appearance

What can I say? The BMW looks great, with those suicide doors, that fancy frame, sub-dermal tail lights and its eco-flag waving proudly in the ionized air. The inside sports a gonna-get-dirty-fast light-colored steering wheel, vast acres of recycled wood panels installed by happy workers in wind-powered factories (no joke!), two square flat panel screens and hopefully a dozen or so USB ports (I’ll find out). The outside fairly reminds of one of the original iMacs with its transparent surfaces and German techno-industrial CAD-CAM lines. Can I get it in Bondi Blue?

On the outside, the Spark EV looks just like the gassy Spark, which is to say it’s not stopping supermodels or the geek set in their tracks. It looks like an economy car, and in the truest sense of the word, that’s what it is.

Built on the econo-box Spark platform with somewhat major modifications, the lower-buck Spark EV forgoes leather surfaces tanned with oil-leaf extract (again, not kidding) and “responsibly farmed” eucalyptus wood (so not kidding) for, well, plastic and stuff. Is the Spark EV ugly? Certainly not, it’s just not as remarkable as the BMW.

That said, I’m not so sure the BMW interior isn’t eco-overkill, if there is such a thing. I’m kind of afraid to dirty it, lest I get stink-eyed by a passing tree hugger. Kudos to BMW for going the extra zillion miles on the eco theme, but it almost too much of a good thing. Are any parts of the car edible?

2014 BMW i3 interior front and rear

Here’s something we haven’t seen in a while: suicide doors. Despite their dark name, this configuration should make getting in and out of the BMW easier.

Conversely, the Spark EV looks nice enough on the inside and there’s a handy tray in the passenger dash to hold your celly, but beyond that it’s a bit drab, especially next to the clean-sheet Bimmer. But credit where credit is due: The Spark EV also sports an easy-to-read LCD driver’s cluster and a fairly spacious screen in the dash, with a good-looking tech interface that was easy to use and informative. It’s familiar, that’s for sure. Maybe some sustainable seaweed seat material in the next version, Chevy? OK, thanks. BMW wins this round by a bamboo stalk, but it may just be that I feel guilty for that time I dropped a Dixie cup on the beach at the Oregon coast.

Technology

It’s game on here, as both cars feature vast tech suites, apps, connectivity, apps and tape players. OK, no tape players, but both cars feature next-level smartphone integration for music, chatting and keeping tabs on the car itself while it’s charging up or just waiting patiently for your attention.

It’s game on here, as both cars feature vast tech suites, apps, connectivity, apps and tape players. OK, no tape players.

However, the Chevy may have a leg up on the BMW with Siri Hands Free, which allows Apple iPhone owners to sync up their smartphones and use their familiar buddy Siri to make calls and otherwise control the phone while keeping their eyes on the road. Other non-Apple phones will have the usual sync features through Bluetooth or a USB cable, but will likely be less chatty.

BMW is in the fight with its ConnectedDrive suite of infotainment tech, which will also sync up with the iPhone, but with no love for Siri. However, the built-in navigation system is always on the lookout for charging stations, while Chevy urges smartphone owners to use BringGo for navigation and spotting electricity spigots. And really, who want’s to pay a bunch of dosh for in-car navigation when its ON YOUR PHONE.

The Chevy is largely outclassed by the enormous safety tech suite available on the BMW, which includes a laundry list of sensors and minders, including Navigation Professional with advanced real-time traffic using a touch pad, Traffic Jam Assist (a cool semi-autonomous driving feature), BMW Assist with Enhanced Bluetooth and USB with BMW Apps, Online Information services, Deceleration Assistant, ACC Stop & Go, Speed Limit info, Forward Collision Warning, Pedestrian Protection and City Collision Mitigation, Parking Assist with a rearview camera and Park Assistant, which BMW says “helps take advantage of tight parallel parking opportunities” and Front Auto Park Distance Control. BMW also has it’s own version of OnStar called the BMW Assist Plan.

2014 Chevrolet SparkEV interior tech entertainment console

The Spark EV’s tech suite includes this LCD touchscreen with the car’s major tech systems. Siri Hands Free is there for iPhone users.

The Spark EV isn’t exactly an old Vega in terms of safety gear, however. Buyers get 10 airbags, three years of OnStar including directions help, Stabilitrak with traction control, tire-pressure monitoring and an upgraded car alarm system. Both cars feature ABS brakes.The Spark EV also adds an 8-year, 100,000-mile warranty that includes roadside assistance. While the Spark EV doesn’t have the alphabet of acronyms the BMW has, it still has you pretty well covered, and many of the top safety features in the BMW are included in optional Technology, Driving and Parking assist packages BMW did not specify prices for. It will be interesting to see where a fully decked out top-line Tera-trim level i3 lands in terms of dollars.

The Spark EV also features a Sport mode, which ups the driving dynamics – but taxes the battery. Both cars feature driving assistants or coaches that will either help you or teach you to drive like your battery life depends on it (because it does). If you want to do the green thing in the i3 and go for that 100-mile range, there’s ECO PRO and ECO PRO+ modes (what, no ECO PRO + PRO?) to help you out.  Beyond that I guess you could get out and push the i3 for truly maximum range.

In the Spark EV, a clever display in the driver’s pod shows best and worst range estimates and calculates your recent driving behavior to show which number you’re trending towards. Both cars feature regenerative braking systems to stuff braking energy back into the battery. 

The one place where the BMW shines is its approach to frame technology. BMW uses an aluminum space frame complimented by a lot of what BMW calls Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic, or CFRP. Without doing a technical dissertation, lets just say CFRP is very lightweight, very strong and is very good at absorbing impact energy, according to BMW. The stuff is actually made in Washington by happy workers in a plant juiced by renewable hydroelectric power. No joke (again).

Cost

Keep in mind that Uncle Sam will gift a $7,500 tax credit for buying either car while California folks can reel in another $2,500 kickback from the state. That brings the Spark EV to $17,500 in CA or twenty large elsewhere while the BMW is still in the mid-to-high thirties after you get your tax coupon and check. Other rebates in your state may sweeten the deal further – or not.

2014 Chevrolet SparkEV front left angle

While the Spark EV isn’t the high-tech, high-gloss centerpiece the i3 is, it’s specs square up pretty well. And it’s fast.

Plus, Chevy has what I like to call the “The Lease:” $999 down, $199 a month for three years. Figure in the fact you’re not buying gas and it’s a crazy good deal the BMW won’t likely be able to come anywhere near. After looking at their comparable ranges, performance numbers and tech bits, unless the BMW can make me see rainbows and unicorns while I drive to forget it’s wallet-flattening window sticker, the price prize definitely goes to Chevrolet.

Winner?

Despite comparisons, both cars are wins for drivers. I’ll reserve ultimate judgement for the BMW after I get some seat time in it but it looks to be a typical, albeit totally new, BMW: precise, ingenious and likely fun to drive. If the BMW comes out a tick faster in the quarter mile than the Spark EV, then they have my congratulations and I say let the games begin when it comes to pushing the (speed) limits in the nascent field of pure EVs. But bottom line is this: the Spark EV does about 95 percent of what the BMW does for so much less it’s laughable. No, it’s not a cool, eco-embracing clean-sheet design like the i3, but it’s close enough and I had a good time driving it. It was impressive.

Besides, with all the cash you’d save with the Chevy, you could buy a used BMW motorcycle engine with an actual motorcycle attached to it and get your “extended range” that way with cash left over for swankier wheels, spiffier paint and all the beaded seat covers you can carry in the Spark EV.

2014 BMW i3 exterior left 2

The i3 heralds a new era for car design for the EV age, with new materials, a radical new design and new way to think about getting around in a car.

Looking at the bigger picture, either car will get you where you want to go, at any legal speed or better with comfort, control, safety and best of all, zero gasoline (unless you get that wee gas engine option on the BMW).

Now that I’ve had time to drive cars like the Tesla, Spark EV, Energi and bikes like the Brammo Empulse, I’m convinced that driving electric is our future, and a great one at that. I love the noise and power of a good gas engine like any gearhead, and I have a garage full of gas-powered toys. But I hate buying that liquid dinosaur. The i3 and its growing number of cousins, including the Spark, Volt, Leaf, Prius, Model S and others, signal that carmakers recognize the end of the oil era is coming, and good riddance. My next car is going to be an electric car in some form. The quiet ride, smooth power, simplicity and savings are just too good to ignore any more. You get both with either the Spark EV or i3.

I’m sure the BMW has a higher cool factor than the somewhat spartan Spark EV, but I’m willing to be the nerdier driver for the difference in dollars.

I've been a wirehead and motorhead since I could turn a knob or throttle - and then I fell in love with photography, so Digital Trends is pretty much a perfect fit for my many tech interests. However, motorcycles are my passion! Follow me on Twitter: @BillRobersonDT

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