Conspicuous Consumption for the Smug Environmentalist

My week driving the BMW i8, an insanely sexy electric car.

The Supersportscar BMW i8 Plug-in Hybrid
The BMW i8 Plug-In Hybrid at the 41th BMW Berlin Marathon on Sept. 28, 2014, in Berlin.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images for BMW

“Pure heroin” was how one friend described the BMW i8 after just a few seconds in the cockpit. He was right. The i8’s 420 foot-pounds of torque plunge its occupants deep into gray leather seats. Passing becomes reflexive. The acceleration and handling transform grown men and women into delirious, giggling, idiots—both in and out of the car.

“You are awesome! You are awesome!” said a twentysomething beefcake as he crossed in front of me at a red light. Soon after a paunchy baby boomer tapped on my window. “Dude, I just want to tell you I am literally getting a hard-on just looking at your car.” Honestly, I was surprised. Rich, poor, black, white, Democrat, Republican—it seemed the i8 might be the one thing that could unite Washington, D.C.

For one glorious week in March, the $137,000 plug-in electric car was mine, on loan from BMW. At various points in my life I have felt like a badass, but rarely with this much external reinforcement. Sure, once in a while a Lexus roared past or an Audi cut me off. But in general to drive the i8 is to be bathed in positive energy that makes road rage passé—the car is a gentleman in the city and a warrior on the curves.

There was, however, a curious exception to all of this techno-worship: drivers of the Tesla Model S. Others rolled down a window, snapped a photo, or simply asked what it was. I shared a few fist bumps with owners of the BMW i3 and even the Chevy Volt, two other electric cars. But the Tesla drivers studiously avoided eye contact. I encountered two or three dozen over the course of a week, but no Model S driver ever acknowledged my car’s existence—a gnawing insecurity was inescapable. Tesla Motors practically invented the concept of the eco-supercar—at least at a consumer level—and it has dominated the sector for three years. But next to BMW’s i8, Tesla bore the patina of age.

The i8 shows just how far the global auto industry has come in the past decade. In 2005, German auto companies were still touting the superiority of diesels to hybrids. Plug-in electric vehicles weren’t part of the game plan. But today BMW is all in on electrification. Much of that shift is the result of a very specific set of policy decisions by California.

In my book The Great Race: The Global Quest for the Car of the Future, I tell the story of California’s herculean struggle to remake the global auto sector. It all started with smog epidemics in the 1940s. Seemingly out of nowhere, California’s air quality declined abruptly. Smoggy days were called “gas attacks,” and locals assumed it was chemical warfare by the Japanese. Today, of course, we know that the real cause was cars. As Los Angeles and other parts of the state grappled with the scourge of air pollution in the 1950s–1970s, global automakers mostly shrugged. That is, until the 1970s, when California’s Air Resource Board forced them to dramatically reduce automotive emissions. In 1990 CARB decided that the only long-term solution was electric cars—zero-emission vehicles. If automakers wanted to sell cars in California, CARB told them they would have to either make and sell electric vehicles themselves or effectively pay other automakers to make and sell electric cars for them. Selling EVs was the ticket to entry for California’s lucrative auto market. The goal was for 2 percent of vehicles sold in California to be electric by 1998 and 10 percent by 2003. California called this program the ZEV rule.

For Detroit, the ZEV rule was a brutal regulatory cudgel. But California’s “technology forcing” policy pushed global automakers to innovate toward cleaner air. Lawsuits from automakers, false technology starts, and obstruction from the George W. Bush administration plagued California’s innovation program for a decade and a half. But by the mid-2000s a new generation of smaller, lighter, safer, and more powerful lithium-ion batteries changed the equation. Mitsubishi, Subaru, Nissan, and a newcomer called Tesla started to design a new generation of electric cars; the Bush administration exited stage right; and the revival of California’s ZEV rule (which had dramatically missed its original goals for EV sales) set the stage for a resurgence in EVs in the United States, Japan, and even China.

Of all the automakers, it was Tesla that succeeded in creating a truly unique and aspirational vehicle—arguably the best sports sedan ever built. For years, Tesla basked alone in this eco-supercar niche, becoming the vehicle of choice for rich environmentalists, technology buffs, and especially Silicon Valley. All this time, German manufacturers stayed out of the race for electrification.

But BMW’s i-series, which launched in Germany at the end of 2013, has obliterated any doubt as to whether Germany will be a contender in what I call the Great Race for electrification. Indeed, although Porsche sells plug-in versions of its Panamera and Cayenne SUV, the i8 is arguably the first real challenger to Tesla’s eco-chic Model S.

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Like Tesla, BMW’s first foray into electrics is aimed at rich environmentalists and performance buffs. (The i8’s manufacturer’s suggested retail price is $136,500 and the i3 is $42,200; the cheapest Model S is $75,000.) The nod to global environmental issues is primarily symbolic: Neither the Tesla Model S nor the BMW i8 is a solution to global warming or air pollution in Beijing. After tax, the BMW i8 costs almost 100 times the per capita gross domestic product of India and almost three times U.S. per capita GDP. It is conspicuous consumption at a gut-churning scale. But class warriors can take some solace in the fact that these cars are leveraging the outsize purchasing power of the 1 percent to pioneer a new generation of technologies that will spread into lower-cost vehicles over the coming years.

The Tesla and the i8 are both have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too mobiles, albeit in different ways. The Tesla is a hoot to drive, and its cargo space and seating are remarkably superior to its competition. Because of this, Tesla Model S was the Motor Trend 2013 car of the year and received Consumer Reports’ highest vehicle score ever. It boasts aluminum construction, an all-electric drivetrain, and a crisply apportioned interior that can seat five adults plus two children—in rear jumper seats. The Tesla not only has a generous trunk, but the absence of an engine under the hood allows for a “frunk” (front trunk) in the front of the car—good for a small suitcase or a few briefcases. Even with all of this space, its energy efficiency is vastly superior to the most miserly of hybrids, and it can travel 270 miles on a single battery charge. That mostly circumvents the issue of “range anxiety”—concern that an EV will run out of power—by providing the driver with more juice than any reasonable person will need on a daily basis. However, if someone from Washington, D.C., wants to drive to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, she will have to plan carefully around the availability of Tesla “supercharger” stations that the company has installed along major transit routes. The car will take an hour to charge at one of Tesla’s proprietary fueling stations so long as a charger is available. If you miss the supercharger, good luck: It takes days to charge a Tesla Model S on a normal outlet.

The i8 can do 15 miles all electric, but it also has three different gasoline-electric blended modes (eco-pro, comfort, and sport)—which allow an additional few hundred miles of range powered by the internal combustion engine at about 28 miles per gallon and quick gas station fill-ups. Practically speaking, the i8 seats two. It’s possible to cram a good sport into the backseat on the passenger’s side if the passenger pulls forward, and once I even fit someone behind the driver. But it’s really a two-seater … with no trunk. Clearly on cargo space and passenger utility, points go to Tesla—the i8 is impossibly inferior. By stuffing a battery, engine, and electric drive into a low-slung sports car, the i8 forfeits any of the extraordinary spaciousness that makes Tesla unique. Tesla is also capable of running off pure renewable energy—which from a crude analytical standpoint makes it the better car environmentally. But BMW wins on the ability to quickly and conveniently fill up with gasoline.

On power, performance, and driver experience, the algebra is complicated. In the i8, a 131-horsepower electric motor is mated with a 231-horsepower twin turbocharged three-cylinder engine—for approximately 360 horsepower combined. That’s a lot (a Honda Civic, for example, has only 143), but the peppiest version of the Model S, Tesla’s P85D, puts out a mind-blowing 691 horsepower. That gap is less impressive than is seems: The P85D weighs almost 5,000 pounds while the carbon-fiber i8 weighs about 3,500. Still, Tesla destroys the i8 on the metric of 0–60 mph. It makes the dash in about 3.2 seconds whereas the BMW takes about 4.2 seconds.

A BMW i8 plug-in hybrid sports car.
A BMW i8 plug-in hybrid sports car is displayed during the launch of the BMW i8 at BMW World on June 5, 2014, in Munich.

Photo by Joerg Koch/Getty Images

But in some ways the BMW is undeniably superior. The big difference is that Tesla’s S is a tank of a car—Tesla’s forthcoming SUV the Model X will not be much larger. Like Tesla’s S, the i8 has an extremely low center of gravity—the lowest of any production BMW. It also has stunning traction control, which means that it hugs the curves and doesn’t let go. So while the BMW is not small—it’s 5 inches wider than a Porsche 911—compared with the Tesla, it is lithe and nimble.

And then there’s the noise—oh, the noise. Both cars can run silent through the city, which makes them decidedly less obnoxious than your standard muscle car or Ferrari. Slam on the accelerator, and the Tesla will silently catapult you into the triple digits. But the i8’s internal combustion engine boasts a gorgeous baritone rumble. This audio-sensory element was something to which the i8’s designers were keenly attuned—so attuned that the i8’s throttle notes are synthetically enhanced by recorded sounds in the cockpit.

Inside, Tesla’s entire control panel operates off of what looks like the world’s largest iPad. The BMW has a more traditional, reassuring series of screens, knobs, and buttons. They are ergonomically aligned so that you can fumble through commands by touch alone—without your eyes leaving the road. A futuristic head-up display projects maps and playlists that only the driver can see onto the windshield. Overall, the aesthetics and handling of the BMW are more refined.

In many key categories, the Tesla outperforms: 0–60, passenger and cargo space, environmental bona fides, horsepower, and electric range. So why, then, did Tesla owners appear squeamish when I drove past? Maybe it was because the BMW’s base price is $137,000, and the Tesla P85D is about $105,000. Of course, that doesn’t mean the BMW is better—it might make BMW drivers suckers.

But they’re not suckers, because the i8 owner gets something else: heads turned, photos snapped, and more. The Tesla simply can’t compete on sex appeal. The i8 looks like the mutant son of a DeLorean, the Millennium Falcon, and a mako shark—in the best possible way. Flashbulbs glitter and cheers erupt when the i8’s scissor doors rise. Indeed, opening the doors—which hang like the tail of a scorpion above its low-slung silhouette—is almost as much fun as driving the car.

At the end of the day, these are two very different cars. “For rolling up to the club, I like the i8,” says Ben Tesfaye, who owns a Tesla P85D. (Tesfaye’s company U Street Parking also operates the largest EV charging facility in Washington, D.C.) “But I have two kids and their friends in the back, so I’ll keep my Tesla.” For Tesfaye, the i8 is simply not a practical option—Tesla is.

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Soon, the expanding field of electric cars will make this comparison seem simplistic and then obsolete. That’s because all around the world, more and more companies and countries are entering the Great Race for the electric car of the future—including Chinese automakers, upstarts like Tesla, traditional automotive giants, and tech titans like Apple. Companies, like Nextility, which focus on installing solar photovoltaics and water heaters are now ready to expand into EV charging stations. “The value proposition is … [making] your customers happier,” said Joyce Ferris, Nextility’s chief financial officer. And German automakers that resisted electric cars and even hybrids for years in favor of native diesel engineering are in, too.

“Electricity is going to be a larger part of transportation,” said Pulitzer Prize–winning oil expert Dan Yergin as I drove him through D.C. in the i8. A hundred years ago, Henry Ford’s ascendance over Thomas Edison’s early electric cars was a decisive turning point for petroleum—and gasoline especially. But today, electric cars are back. “To know that and electric vehicle could be a cool car … an aspirational car is a huge breakthrough it does change perceptions,” Yergin said.

And the i8 is a “breakthrough,” and not merely in terms of technology or consumer appeal. It’s a breakthrough for a specific set of innovation policies applied by California over the course of decades. It may be another two years or another decade before EVs have the price tag and infrastructure that allow them to compete with the internal combustion engines without policy incentives. But that day is coming soon—that’s ensured by California’s consistent pressure on global automakers. And with the emergence of the i8, the Tesla Model S is no longer a performance freak at the top of the electric field. No, BMW and Tesla, two world-class innovators, are slugging it out with high-quality products. BMW’s dopamine-mobile is a declaration of intent and a challenge to Tesla. And that competition is good for all of us because it moves us one step closer to a future where most, if not all, of our cars are fun, clean, … and electric. And at least some of them will drive themselves.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.