No Losers Here: the VW eGolf vs. the BMW i3

VW eGolf & BMW i3

Although the Volkswagen eGolf is currently sold only in limited markets – it should be available nationally once the updated 2017 eGolfs are released – my wife and I recently purchased a CPO 2015 eGolf SEL from Stone Mountain Volkswagen in Georgia. We’ve also had a BMW i3 BEV since late 2014, which provides fodder for this comparison.

Stone Mountain Volkswagen has been buying eGolfs at auction, so if you’re interested and are in the Southeast, give them a call and ask for Jean. (I get no compensation, just a happy customer.) When we picked up our eGolf, they also had a CPO 2016 SE model on the lot, but we picked the 2015 for a couple of reasons (this is a quasi-“EV buyer’s guide”):

  1. Heat pump (SEL) vs. resistive heating (SE). The latter significantly reduces range in the winter. This is particularly important for people that live in colder climes than Georgia.
    2. 7.2 kW charger + DCFC (SEL) vs 3 kW charger and no DCFC (SE). I wavered on whether to get DCFC when I ordered my i3, as the infrastructure at the time consisted of one CCS unit in Metro Atlanta. But boy, am I glad I did spec it; I’ve used it frequently for road trips and quick top-offs when out and about. I wouldn’t buy any EV without DCFC capabilities.
    3. LED headlights (SEL) vs halogens (SE). LEDs are probably slightly more energy efficient, but they’re cool. Yes, I’m a sucker.

The eGolf is a really good car. I’m very impressed by the level of fit and finish, and the ride is a nice blend of sporty and refined. In many ways, it reminds me of an E90 BMW 3 series. VW also got some of the details really right:

  • The LED headlights are fantastic. Much brighter and more even beam distribution on low than the i3. And high beams are no comparison – the i3 has weak yellowish halogen high beams; the eGolf turns night into day.
  • Heated windscreen. Why every EV doesn’t have this, I don’t know. While we don’t have constant need for defrosting in Georgia, this is way more energy efficient than using a traditional forced-air defroster.
  • A small thing, but the “Car” screen on the infotainment will show efficiency and miles driven since last charge. I typically reset my trip odo and efficiency on the i3 after a charge so I have this information handy; it’s nice not to have to do this on the VW.
  • VW packaged the battery to not intrude on the passenger or luggage volume of the car. This is really impressive for a car that is also available with a traditional internal combustion engine (ICE), and adds significantly to the usability of the vehicle.
  • We’re regularly getting a meaningfully greater range out of the VW than the BMW – typically, around 10% more. I’ll be interested to see if this holds up as the batteries age, as the BMW has comprehensive thermal management (heating + cooling of the pack) while the VW relies on passive thermal management.

Particularly compared to the i3, the eGolf is more of a traditional car. It’s not nearly as big an adjustment going from a traditional ICE-mobile to the eGolf. This is probably a good thing for new EV drivers. However, the i3 is a much more impressive effort; it’s clear that BMW engineers really started with a clean sheet of paper when figuring out how an EV should drive. Here’s what the i3 does right:

One-pedal driving
While the eGolf has four selectable regen modes, we’ve found them to be more of a party trick than a useful feature; both my wife and I will typically stick the eGolf in “B” (the highest regen mode) and leave it there. However, the eGolf decelerates more slowly under full regen than the i3, and unless the stop is slightly uphill, I need to tap the brake to bring the car fully to a stop.

The i3, on the other hand, has much stronger regen and can bring the car to a stop with more alacrity. Additionally, BMW blended brakes into the accelerator so that when fully charged, you get the same regen feeling when you let off, even though the battery can’t accept actual regen. VW, like other EVs, just reduces the regen, which means that the car behaves differently depending on SOC.

Creep
Similarly, the BMW doesn’t have any “creep” when you’re not on the brake. VW has a weird hybrid solution where there’s no “creep” when you first come to a stop, but if you tap the pedal, it’ll creep even if you brake the car to a stop again. This is annoying in stop-and-go when you only want to move forward slightly and don’t want to keep your foot on the brake. It also makes low-speed driving a bit less smooth – the VW creep behavior gives it somewhat of a surge. I prefer a car to be consistent in its responses, in any case.

Charger lock behavior
BMW hasn’t gotten this entirely right (the best solution would allow the user to select from “always locked”, “unlock at a certain SOC”, or “always unlocked”), but it’s way better than the VW. Rumor has it that VW couldn’t meet the standard for charger current cutoff when the J-plug button is pressed; as a result, the EVSE plug is always locked to the car…except for a 10 second window when you unlock it. If you miss the 10-second window, it re-locks and you have to fumble around with your keys to hit unlock again. Shame.

Turning circle
The i3 has a significantly tighter turning circle. The i3 started life as BMW’s “Mega city car”, and its turning circle certainly hews to that mission statement; it can almost turn around in its own footprint. Blame the FWD roots of the eGolf for limiting steering lock.

RWD
The good news on the eGolf is that I don’t perceive any torque steer or other FWD misbehavior from the eGolf. However, it seems that by removing the ICE power train and sticking a heavy battery farther back in the chassis, it has a more pronounced rearward weight bias than a standard Golf. Couple that with low rolling resistance tires and a lot of electric torque, and you have the recipe for easy wheelspin, particularly when launching from a stop. In the i3, you can just floor it and it goes.

SOC Display
BMW added a state of charge (SOC) display after the i3 was released (good on them to listen to their customers!), but I find I use it regularly, particularly when I’m nearing the end of a charge. The VW uses a fuel tank-style gauge, and while you can guesstimate SOC based on the hash marks, there’s no way to see the exact SOC.

While the eGolf is impressively lightweight for having a 700 pound battery onboard, the BMW is several hundred pounds lighter and is much more willing to accelerate and change direction. In that respect, it feels much like a BMW E30 3 series. (Indeed, by weight and horsepower, the i3 is right on top of a late-80s 325i.) Now, to be clear, the eGolf never feels slow. But the i3 will just keep pulling hard in a way the eGolf doesn’t.

Bottom line, both of these cars are impressive EVs. I’d have no problem recommending either to anyone, something I can’t say about most other EVs outside of those made by a certain Mr. Musk.

2 comments

  1. Peter Harrison says:

    Thank you for taking the time to write such an informative review of both vehicles. I keep looking at lower priced Tesla CPOs, but your description of the BMW i3 one pedal operation reminds me of how I loved that when I drove one. Maybe I should reconsider a used i3!

    • Alexandra says:

      Peter, my i3 is due to arrive this month and I can’t wait! I live in London, UK so an EV car suits my driving needs perfectly. I currently drive an Audi A3 1.4 TFSI which is the perfect city car, both in size and fuel efficiency but I’ve wanted to go electric for a while now. I considered the new hybrid A3 but in all honesty, my car just isn’t that interesting to drive, especially when accelerating in traffic conditions. The i3, however, is really fun to drive and the turning radius is apparently comparable to that of a London Black Cab (very impressive!). All the things you love about a BMW are packed into this car and it feels as if you’re driving a 3 series. I got every option available as well as the range extender version so if you haven’t test driven the i3 yet, definitely do!! Good luck with your search! Great review of both cars, by the way!

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