EVs in Contention for 10 Best Engines

Seven electrified powertrains are in the running for the 2015 Ward’s 10 Best Engines competition. In this Under the Hood installment, we look at the Fiat 500e, Kia Soul, VW e-Golf and BMW i3 EVs, as well as the extended-range i3.

November 26, 2014

5 Min Read
EVs in Contention for 10 Best Engines
Tom Murphy

The air this month is positively electric, literally.

Throughout November, WardsAuto editors have driven seven electrified powertrains as part of the 2015 Ward’s 10 Best Engines competition. That includes the hydrogen-powered Hyundai Tucson fuel-cell vehicle, Lexus NX 300h hybrid, Fiat 500e, Kia Soul EV and Volkswagen e-Golf, as well as all-electric and extended-range versions of the BMW i3.

Let’s focus now on the compact-class EVs and the range-extender, as they are closely aligned in terms of packaging, capability and overall performance. The staff has warmly received all of these EVs.

Acceleration in general is brisk enough to keep up with most traffic on Detroit freeways, and brake pedal feel has been nicely feathered to imitate that of a conventional vehicle, while still providing regenerative juice back to the battery, to help extend range.

On that front, the standout is the i3 EV or EREV, which has such aggressive brake regeneration that the car can be driven with only one pedal, no fooling. Cruise along at a steady speed, lift off the accelerator as a traffic light approaches and the i3 will stop all by itself.

Some drivers may not like it at first but soon will learn how to gradually lift off the accelerator to avoid abrupt stopping. Truly, the brake pedal only is necessary for emergencies.

As we evaluate the EVs, we find each one shines in a particular area: The 500e is the cheapest ($31,800). The Soul makes the most torque (210 lb.-ft. [285 Nm]) and delivers the longest battery-only range (93 miles [150 km]). Until the Soul came along, the 500e offered best-in-class range (87 miles [140 km]) among our tested vehicles.

The i3 is the most expensive ($41,350) but reasonably priced relative to other BMWs. And it makes the most power (170 hp), is the lightest (2,860 lbs. [1,297 kg]), sprints to 60 mph (97 km/h) the fastest (7 seconds or 7.8 seconds with range extender) and charges in the shortest time (three hours at 240V).

BMW i3 EREV v. Chevy Volt

We have had the Nissan Leaf and 500e on our list previously, as well as the Chevrolet Volt EREV. A new Volt is on the way but won’t be in our competition until next fall.

This year, the only EREV in the race is the i3. Even though the current ’14 Volt is not a nominee in this year’s competition, a comparison between the two is worthwhile.

Most interesting is that BMW and General Motors have opposing philosophies for EREVs. The Volt has a narrow window for all-electric operation – about 30 miles (48 km) – but 10 times the range with the 1.4L gasoline generator running.

That’s a great way to enable long-haul trips and mitigate range anxiety, which is very real. But driving the Volt mostly on gasoline turns it into a very expensive compact car.

The i3 uses a smaller 0.7L generator fueled by a tiny 1.9-gallon (7.0 L) gas tank that extends range about 70 miles (113 km). But BMW makes a compelling argument: The point of cars like this is to achieve zero emissions, so shouldn’t they spend more time in EV mode?

Fully charged, the automaker says the i3 can deliver up to 81 miles (130 km) before the generator is necessary.

Almost 700 lbs. (318 kg) lighter than the Volt thanks to a carbon-fiber structure and thermoplastic body panels, the i3 EREV requires less energy for propulsion. It has more battery storage for EV mode than the Volt, and it supports BMW’s fun-to-drive brand characteristics.

Relative to the Volt, the i3’s biggest drawback is price – it’s about $10k more expensive.

Too Cold for Comfort

For better or worse, all the electric vehicles arrived in November for testing at our offices in metro Detroit as unseasonably cold temperatures settled in, as well as snow.

Batteries are not terribly compatible with extreme cold, so capacity (and range, of course) can be depleted as much as 25%.

One editor planning to drive the battery-only i3 EV home for the night, upon seeing a full charge with a range of less than 60 miles (97 km), opted for a different vehicle because he didn’t want to fear being stranded.

Throughout our testing, several editors with lengthy commutes have been less inclined to drive EVs home for the same reason. Oddly enough, the cold weather also negatively impacted gasoline range of the i3 EREV, dropping it below 60 miles when full.

We’ve said it before: Electric vehicles aren’t for everyone. Clearly, they have limitations in northern climates, and they won’t work for long commutes.

But they make good sense in big cities (preferably warmer ones) where the charging infrastructure is growing and the driving distances are generally short. BMW’s global research finds the typical commute is 30 miles (48 km).

California is ideal for EVs as a second or third car, and the California Air Resources Board has welcomed them eagerly as part of a zero-emission strategy to improve air quality. HOV lane access is reason enough for some people to consider an EV.

Some of these vehicles are available only in California to help automakers comply with the state’s emission requirements.

The 500e was offered first in California and now is available in Oregon as well. The Soul EV is on sale now in California and will be offered in select eastern markets in April.

Launching now, the e-Golf will be available in California, Oregon, New York, Maryland, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., but other states are expected to be added.

The i3 is offered in most BMW showrooms across the U.S., not just the ZEV states.

It may be difficult to take EVs seriously when they comprise a microscopic 0.4% of the U.S. light-vehicle market through October, according to WardsAuto data.

But with each passing year, as fuel-economy requirements rachet up, EVs and EREVs will gain prominence.

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