BMW's New Electric Car Just Became a Major Problem

On Monday, BMW announced that the U.S. base price for its all-electric i3 will be $41,350, not including any federal or state incentives. For GeneralMotors' Chevy Volt, and possibly TeslaMotor's Model S, BMW's move spells major trouble. Here's why.

The BMW i-Concepts i3. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Motohide Miwa.

Bad news, GM
With a starting MSRP of $39,145 in 2012, the Volt was the best-selling EV, and it's not hard to see why. Really more of an electric hybrid than a straight EV, the Volt combines a 9.3-gallon fuel tank with a lithium-ion battery. This combination allows the Volt can go an estimated 38 miles on pure battery before switching to regular fuel, which extends the range to an estimated 380 miles. Because of this combination, the Volt cuts down on range anxiety, which is still a huge deterrent to getting consumers into EVs.

Now, compare the above to BMW's all-electric i3: According to BMW, the i3 has a pure-electric range of 80-100 miles, thanks to its lithium-ion battery, and has an optional range extender that lengthens that initial range by 80 miles. Plus, thanks to BMW's eDrive technology, a driver can extend the initial range up to 124 miles by putting the vehicle in one of the "EcoPro" modes.

Right away you can see the problem. Not only does BMW's i3 go farther on pure battery power, but with the purchase of the optional range extender, range anxiety goes way down. More pointedly, the base MSRP for the BMW is only $2,000 more than the Volt. I don't know about you, but if I had to decide between spending $39,000 for a Volt, or $2,000 more for a BMW, I'm going with the BMW, hands down.

Tesla, this is bad for you, too
Right now, Tesla is the crème-de-la-crème of EVs. But it's competing against all-electric EVs like Nissan Motors' Leaf, and Ford's Focus Electric. To put it simply, Tesla's Model S can drive circles around these cars. Yes, it's more expensive, but the technology, range, and precision of the Model S makes anything else seem almost silly in comparison. BMW, however, is a luxury brand with renowned German engineering, and its new i3, and the future i8 model, presents a new challenge for Tesla.

Consider this: The i3, designed from the ground up as an EV, has received praise from some of the industry's harshest EV critics. As BBC's "Top Gear" drivers put it:

At first sampling, then, this is a compelling electric car. It's not the first on the market, but BMW has put some original thinking into almost every part of its design and engineering. It drives sweetly, is distinctively designed, and has the reassuring range-extender option if you are anxious about running flat.

These are the same critics that gave Tesla's Roadster a less than glowing report -- in fact, Tesla sued the show for "libel and malicious falsehood" because of the review.

What to watch for
The i3 isn't set to hit showrooms until the second quarter of 2014, and right now it's too soon to predict exactly how this will affect GM and Tesla's sales. However, given BMW's reputation, the i3's reviews, and the just released base price, this is something investors would do well to monitor.

Electric cars are gaining in popularity, but they're still a niche market. Ford, however, has its hand in EVs and is starting to make its presence known in China. China is already the world's largest auto market -- and it's set to grow even bigger in coming years. A recent Motley Fool report, "2 Automakers to Buy for a Surging Chinese Market", names Ford and one other global giant, poised to reap big gains that could drive big rewards for investors. You can read this report right now for free -- just click here for instant access.

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Fool contributor Katie Spence has no position in any stocks mentioned. Follow her on Twitter @TMFKSpence. The Motley Fool recommends Ford and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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