Last week came the latest report confirming what many of us already suspected; a BMW i5 plug-in sedan is in the works. Rather than be a pure electric car like the Tesla Model S though, the report says the i5 will actually be a plug-in hybrid. Because of this, some of you don’t think it’s a “real” Tesla competitor, and the fanboys on the forums certainly don’t think so either.
But any $80,000+ sedan with a plug is going to be a Model S rival, and to think otherwise is just silly.
First let’s make it clear that there are an small but growing number of electric car fans who are swearing off fossil fuels forever. As vocal as these proponents of EVs may be though, the fact remains that pure electric car sales remain a tiny slice of the new car market. Even if you include all plug-in hybrids, these sales barely make up 3% of the American new car market. Plug-in car sales represented less than 5% of BMW’s U.S. sales in 2014, and no other luxury automaker (besides Tesla) has invested so heavily into electrification technology.
BMW has learned two things from its first two plug-in cars, the i3 and the i8. First, people are definitely into this technology, with backorders for the i8 stretching for months, while i3 owners tend to prefer having the gas generator on-board, encouraging them to use their EVs beyond the city limits. While some i3 buyers opted to go electric-only, many feel the $3,850 for the range-extender option is well worth it, with about twice as many monthly REx vs. BEV sales.
Now imagine you’re a BMW executive and you see sales reports showing that people really, really like the idea of combining gas engines and electric motors. Then you look at what your established competitors are doing, and they’re all following the same path; plug-in hybrids. Of course you can’t ignore the Tesla Model S either, as it is selling reasonably well in the U.S. and Europe. However, it’s public struggles in China are exposing the reality that range anxiety has not been erased, despite Musk’s assurances to the contrary.
BMW is not Tesla, but it can’t ignore the electric automaker either. It doesn’t have to build an all-electric competitor to the Model S. It just has to build a car that’s as compelling, as cool, and as powerful, because at the end of the day, that’s what really matters to anybody dropping six-figures on a car. If the rumors of the BMW i5 packing 640 horsepower, an 80-mile electric driving range, and a $100,000 price tag are true, how can you say with a straight face that it isn’t a Model S P85D competitor? It absolutely, positively is, in the only meaningful way that matters; the BMW i5 will be competing for the same buyers as the Tesla Model S.
Think about it in the simplest terms possible; both the Model S and BMW i5 will will be four-door, luxury sedans with plugs and lots of performance. If the i5 comes with a 80-mile electric driving range, it’ll do 90% of its daily driving on electricity alone. If we just boil it all down to basics, the i5 and Model S seem a lot like direct competitors, don’t they?
Now I’ll grant you, you can buy a Model S for as little as $75,000 (before tax credits), but ticking just a couple of options brings it over $80,000, and you’re just a few clicks shy of $100,000 again…at which point you might as well just buy the P85D for $105,000. And right there, you have the rumored MSRP of the BMW i5.
Saying the i5 and Tesla Model S aren’t rivals would be like saying a Boss 429 Mustang wasn’t a rival for a Dodge Challenger with the 426 HEMI. Sure, one drivetrain is obviously superior to the other (dat HEMI yo), even if the technology isn’t all that different, and this may piss some people off, but a plug-in hybrid is really just an EV-lite. It’s for people who aren’t willing to gamble tens of thousands of dollars on technology that’s still in its infancy. I don’t fault anyone who doesn’t want to gamble that kind of serious money just yet.
More than that though, it’s about the driving experience. The reason the Model S is doing so well is because it delivers an awesome driving experience. BMW definitely knows how to make a car feel and perform like an athlete, and those who can afford it won’t be dissuaded by a range-extender.
Consider this; BMW sold more than ten times as many vehicles, just in America, as Tesla sold across the world in 2014, and total worldwide plug-in car sales topped out at 118,000 units. Many automakers really are coming around to this technology, but it’s going to take time and more innovations. BMW can’t just make an electric car to compete directly with the Model S; they have to take their own path to full electrification.
They’ll get there, and probably ahead of most of the competition, but it’ll take a few more stepping stone vehicles like the i5 to get there.