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Tesla Model 3 and BMW i3 long term review

My name is Gina Purcell and in September 2019 I replaced my 2004 Audi S4 V8 Avant Auto with a nine-month-old Approved Used BMW i3S with 1100 miles on the clock. My other half is Alan, and the day before we picked up my i3S from BMW Sytner Tamworth we were at Tesla’s Heathrow centre to pick up his brand new Tesla Model 3 Performance. Alan’s been using a 2002 Porsche Boxster S as his daily commuter since 2005, and with nearly 190,000 miles, it’s earned its retirement. The Tesla is Alan’s new commuter, as the i3S is my daily runabout and at the time of writing this I’m about two months and 1000 miles into the EV experience and he’s racked up 2500 miles in the same period.

And the BMW?

Sadly, there wasn’t enough in the kitty for two Tesla Model 3 Performance cars, so I’ve gone for something completely different. I’ve admired the quirky i3 as I’m as fascinated by clever engineering as I am by performance, and I think of the i3 as something McLaren might come up with as an eco-minded baby brother to accompany any of their range of carbon fibre constructed supercars. Think of Aston Martin and the role their re-badged Toyota IQ, aka the Cygnet, played to the rest of their range to lower their corporate emissions level.

That there’s a lightweight EV available to buy with an aluminium chassis mated to a carbon fibre reinforced plastic safety cage and roof, all clad in plastic body panels, with an interior that’s a riot of ecologically-based goodness and textural overload, just simply amazes me. It is rear engined and rear wheel drive, too, just like my old Porsche 911SC! The little i3S is also nearly as fast as my old 911 point-to-point in Sport Mode, which I wasn’t expecting.

What are they like from a drivers’ perspective?

Tesla Model 3 Performance:

We both assumed EV driving wouldn’t be all that different from driving the automatic Audi, but we were wrong. The instant torque of an EV means that you are always in the right gear for any given situation. Neither of us miss gearboxes and shifting, and EV driving is made for quick and safe overtaking.

The Model 3 reminds me of a nimbler version of my departed Audi S4, being a four-wheel-drive car with a long wheelbase and weighing in at over 1800kg. The Tesla feels as if it is part of the very surface it rides on, so tenaciously does it ooze a sense of grip without any discernible body roll, and this sensation is prevalent at any speed. Alan says the ride is actually better than his modified and expertly set up Porsche Boxster, which is itself a paragon of ride and handling quality. The steering feel has an alertness and sensitivity that matches the chassis’ willingness to turn. Unlike the Audi, it has that go-cart ability to feel quick-witted in its responses to inputs like a car half its weight and this is, I believe, as a result of the low centre of gravity and ideal weight distribution of its EV chassis.

Motoring journalists who know what they’re on about rave about the Model 3’s direct steering and darty feel. We can only concur; the handling is precise and sublime, the ride is amazing given the sports saloon suspension and the slingshot smoothness of the electro-magnetic powertrain is a force of nature… literally!

Interacting with the touch screen very quickly becomes second nature, and although it’s not exactly subtle in size, hanging off the dashboard, it is not at all distracting and I love having the satnav image supersized. In night mode the screen is similarly non-distracting, and all the information is actually clearer to see. I think a screen of this size and in this position in a car is as massive an innovation as the centre driving seat was in the McLaren F1. It’s also fun to enjoy the same 0-60mph time as that iconic hypercar, though driving it within the bounds of social acceptability is an exercise in superhuman restraint.

When letting the car do the driving, Alan has found that Tesla Autopilot can be a bit frisky on the motorway in the same way that Robert Llewellyn discovered on his first Fully Charged drive of the Model 3. Big lorries in the slow lane spook the Tesla! However, he’s managed to get the car to do three quarters of his commute on Autopilot, a route consisting of a mix of A and B class roads, which is quite an impressive feat. It’s weird to know that his car is talking to the Mothership in California and adding its experience to the mass of AI knowledge that feeds back to the whole Tesla fleet!

BMW i3S:

Though basically similar, the i3S is a light lemon sorbet after the stellar, five Michelin star, taster menu of the Model 3. For a start it’s 500kg lighter and rear-wheel drive, which translates to a little bit more feedback through the steering wheel and an even more nimble and nippy chassis, aided also by the i3’s shorter wheelbase. The first time I hustled it along quickly around a bend I felt as though the chassis was turning beneath me, followed by my body mass, as if myself and the car were scribing different radius arcs! Think of that 1970s toy, the Weeble, where the lighter top moves around more than the heavy bottom. I put this down once more to that extremely low, Weeble-like centre of gravity and the high seating position of the i3S, but once I gelled with the car’s handling I didn’t notice it any further.

With its short wheelbase and 20 inch wheels, the primary ride quality has been described as choppy and bumpy, but as someone who’s been driving short wheelbase, air-cooled Porsche 911s for nearly 30 years, it feels like home. The most significantly different thing about driving EVs is the one pedal driving, and it’s something both the Tesla and i3S are brilliant at with their strong regenerative braking. Some people say the regenerative braking is too powerful in the i3S, but I think it’s perfectly judged. It took a few miles to learn when to start feathering off the throttle or when to completely lift off, but now it feels as if I’ve been doing it all my life. Whereas I was all about wringing out the revs of my 3.0-litre flat-six Porsche 911, nowadays I’m all about getting that regen indicator to swing into charge. How times are changing!

What use do we put our EVs to?

Tesla Model 3 Performance:

Alan’s Model 3 is his daily commuter, but it was pressed immediately from new to a near-200 mile round trip so we could collect the i3S. The Tesla has also done a similar length journey to visit relatives, plus another 200-miler to drop my old Porsche off for some specialist work, together with two months’ worth of commuting. All this has been as faultless as you’d expect.

BMW i3S:

Being a mini SUV, my i3S has to carry the accoutrements of both my hobbies of playing drums and flying radio control model aircraft, as well as the weekly food shop and garden centre visits, roles which it carries out with aplomb. About a month before we ordered the Tesla, we were invited to a driving day organised by our new electricity provider, Octopus Energy. They had a Jaguar I-PACE, Nissan LEAF and BMW i3 to sample; sadly there wasn’t a Tesla to try, but the i3 interested me. It had one hurdle to jump – could it carry the longest case full of bits for my drum kit, which at four feet long is quite a bulky item. It passed the test. I can’t believe just how much carrying capacity the i3 has; it’s like one of those outdoor jackets that after a few wears you discover new pockets you didn’t know were there! The flat load floor with the rear seats folded down helps a lot, too, as do those rear suicide doors, which are a little slice of genius!

What was the buying experience like?

Tesla Model 3 Performance:

The Model 3 purchase was excruciating! When the online order was placed on June 8 (‘Order complete… Haha yes’, said the happy hedgehog – order a Tesla and see for yourself) the website said delivery would be July. Of course, that didn’t happen due to supply issues from America combined with a bulging order book and a seemingly random assignment of cars to owners, resulting in day one reservation holders not getting their cars before the ‘Johnny-come-latelies’  like us.

Trying to get hold of Tesla on the phone was a waste of time and it quickly transpired that their delivery system was an overloaded, understaffed omnishambles, to be polite. Ourselves, and many others, suddenly developed a deep interest in the shipping company websites, trying to second-guess if our cars were on the next boat, and where that boat was via GPS tracking. Prospective owners were even hacking the programming code of their online Tesla Accounts to see if they had been assigned a VIN. We got swept up in the madness, too. Anyway, after all the silliness, the car arrived in the UK when we were in the middle of a two week holiday. Once we had a delivery date things couldn’t have gone smoother, and we picked up the Model 3 from Tesla’s Heathrow hub the day after we got back. 

In Tesla’s defence, all the chaos came from them simply trying to clear their huge backlog of initial UK orders and I understand things are getting better with deliveries and waiting times are coming down. They’re a relatively small, new, niche car company that are overwhelmed with orders, busting a gut to serve up some of the best cars in the world, and deserve to be cut some slack. 

BMW i3S:

In contrast, buying the BMW was a cinch. We saw the car on BMW’s Approved Used listings, phoned up and bought it. The first owner paid over £41,000 for it (£38,000 after the Government grant) but it was on sale for £26,000. Yes, my car just got caught in the ‘Luxury Tax’ trap and I will have to pay £320 per year for the car’s first five years, but I don’t mind – I didn’t pay £12,000 for the privilege of driving the first 1100 miles.

Where do we charge up and what does it cost?

Before we bought the cars we did the groundwork of choosing an energy provider that had a good overnight tariff. All our research led to Octopus Energy for the provision and to Myenergi for one of their Zappi 2 7.5kW chargers. In the future, we’ll have some building work done to our house and add solar PV panels, and the Zappi will be able to divert solar power to car charging if we want. Being on a cheap rate tariff also means having a smart electricity meter installed, which is no bad thing. Buying and installing the Zappi would have cost £1000, but the UK Government grant halved this cost. A word of warning, though: if you have any charger installed under the grant and you fail to plug in after a few months, you may have to repay the £500 grant back! Try and get the charger fitted just before your car arrives.

Tesla Model 3 Performance:

So far all charging has been done at home and if we wish to venture farther away we’ll have the satisfaction of knowing there’s nowhere we can’t go because of the ever-evolving and expanding Tesla Supercharger network, and the Model 3 can use any CCS public charger. As we get into late Autumn and lower ambient temperatures, both cars’ ranges have been slightly clipped. Alan plugs his Model 3 in when he gets home from work and sets a charge limit of 80 per cent, so every morning he has an indicated range of 245 miles to cover a 60 mile round trip. As to costs, when commuting in his Porsche Boxster S he was spending £200 plus per month on petrol, but now that cost is about £25 in electricity.

BMW i3S:

The i3S is a homebody with its 94Ah pack providing about 140 miles of range in optimal conditions and it’s unlikely I’ll need to register with any third party charging providers… but never say never! In cooler temperatures the projected range is just over 100 miles in Eco Pro mode. When I was running the V8 Audi I was filling up roughly twice per month at £85 per tank. In two months I’ve spent about £30 in electricity as my charging is done in daytime. As with the Tesla, the i3 gets charged to 80 per cent and seldom, if ever, gets discharged to below 30 per cent.

And what about insurance?

Alan’s Model 3 insurance is £250 annually and my BMW i3S is £246. The Model 3 is exceptional in this comparison as, with an imminent OTA software update coming, its power will be increased by 5% to nearly 500bhp versus the fixed 184bhp of the i3S. The BMW is a tricky and expensive repair in a heavy accident, so the insurance is loaded accordingly.

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