Tesla vs BMW (When Vision meets Greed)

The future is accelerating towards us – silently – as the age of the internal combustion engine comes to a close. That’s after 130 years of mobilising, democratising, suffocating and poisoning society (rearrange those to suit your personal priorities). And it looks as though, of the available technologies, battery storage electric vehicles (EVs) are going to win the day. I don’t want to get into a VHS/Betamax argument – in fact, I do, but I’ll be posting that separately – other than to note that the most viable alternative, the hydrogen fuel cell, is in the process of missing the boat.

Quite when the inflection point arrives, where the adoption of electric vehicles becomes exponential remains to be seen: as someone from the tech industry who is entirely used to S-shaped adoption curves, all I can say here is that it’s going to be a damn sight sooner than the politicians of (for instance) France and the UK seem to think: their respective pronouncements of banning new internal combustion engine (ICE) registrations after 2040 is about as cynical as it gets – kicking the issue into the long grass whilst giving the illusion of progress – the only positive effect of these announcements is to condition people to expect change at some point. And of course, whether the UK will exist as a law-making entity by 2040 is a moot point.

This isn’t just future-gazing though, it’s personal: we’re trying to decide how to play our car usage over the gap until an EV that meets our needs comes along – our dilemma being whether we hang on to our now six-year-old car until we can go straight to an EV or downsize as an interim measure?

Serial BMW X5s have served us faithfully and well over the years, carrying us through flood, storm, snow and potholes without complaint. But they are big cars, especially for two people, the occasional carriage of aged Ps and the occasional sick sheep. We average about 33mpg (Imperial) from ours, which isn’t bad for a two-tonne house brick, but it would be nice to do a bit better. So we’ve been looking around.

Now I don’t like car buying. To be exact, when the time comes around, I spend entirely too much time fiddling with online configurators, creating my ideal spec, wincing at the price, then dialling it back to reality. Then I go and negotiate with dealers on every possible parameter, not because I particularly want to spend the time doing so, but because I’m Scottish, and am therefore under a cultural obligation to screw the last penny out of any deal.

And, for the last twenty-one years, I’ve bought BMW. That’s not blind loyalty, it’s borne of the fact that their cars are usually excellent to drive and whose dinosaur-burning engines are almost invariably a generation ahead of anyone else’s. I’ll also cite, post-facto, the example that the German authorities used a BMW (an X5 apparently) as the baseline reference for a ‘standards-compliant’ car when they were busy picking VAG apart as Dieselgate emerged.

I’ve been known to have the wrong BMW – such as when we moved to Scotland and I was running one of their overpowered rear-wheel-drive station wagons: a couple of winters of being towed home through the snow by obliging neighbours put paid to that habit, and we’re now several years into our second 4×4. This would have been a major surprise to my former self as, when I lived in Surrey and worked in London, I hated the bloody things, or rather SUVs in general. They occupied entirely too much road, were usually badly driven and clogged up cities with their bulk, emissions and attitude. Here in the Highlands, it’s a different story: owning an SUV means that one vehicle can do the whole job, rain or shine, summer and winter.

There’s an unexpected social element too: when you live in an area of single track roads and where pretty much everyone has a tallish SUV or pickup, much of the day can pleasantly be passed sitting window-to-window, gossiping with your neighbours as you pass in and out of the glen, petulant hooting by trapped tourists notwithstanding.

This time, rather than looking for long-term transport, we’re looking to cover that gap until electric cars (EVs) hit our sweet spot: moving to an EV at some point is both inevitable and desirable, but there haven’t been any EVs which meet our needs for range, performance, utility and price: we’ve tried the Tesla models S and X but they’re just too damned big for our roads (and the latter too expensive by some margin) and the smaller EVs (i3, Leaf, Volt, Golf etc) are just too small, range-limited and inappropriate for our needs. 

But there is hope on the horizon: in terms of size, the Tesla Model 3 could be ideal, if it offered 4×4 capability and long range (which weren’t immediately apparent at the original announcement). Then there’s the Jaguar I-Pace, which, on the surface at least, ticks  every box for us. The downside of course is that neither the I-Pace nor the Model 3 will be available in the UK before early-mid 2019. I’d actually put a note down on a Model 3, only to cancel it when I wasn’t sure about that range/drive issue but, with our drive being resurfaced, our need for ground clearance has marginally reduced, bringing it back in as a possible contender. The hinted Tesla Model Y would probably be our perfect utility car, but that’s even further off.

So, downsize or wait? Two things have helped us make our minds up here: firstly, the gob-smacking angst of interacting with car dealers and, secondly, the Musk factor.

The first of these I have to assume to be deliberate policy by BMW, as I’ve had variations on the same response from every single one of the half dozen or so franchised dealers I’ve approached. BMW is pushing their financial deals on new cars very hard at the moment, using low interest rates and large discounts on their cars if you go with credit rather than cash. Which is fine, and worth considering – it all comes down to the numbers. Used cars have a similar pattern but with rather lower incentives on offer. So, every single time, and after benchmarking prices with online brokers, I asked the dealers to come up with their best offer. And, every single time, they’ve come back with only a headline monthly cost, with no attempt to actually provide information on the real costs. Then, when I go back and ask for full details, they just go silent. That’s probably because reverse-engineering their quotes reveals that they’re basing everything on the fiction of list price, despite my already having given them the ‘best price’ figure I’ve had. So BMW’s business model appears to be to rely on  customers who are both incapable of counting to twenty without taking their socks off and who are unaware of the existence of this Internet thingy. Which doesn’t strike me as a recipe for long-term success.

So I’ve wasted rather too much time on these buffoons, which has however serendipitously taken us past the handover event for the Tesla Model 3. Which is where the Musk factor kicks back in. I watched the event and, as a Brit, found it pretty cringeworthy: we don’t do that whoopin’-n-hollerin’ stuff and I really don’t see the point of watching random people running to their new cars. Whatever. What I did like was Elon’s candour about the difficulties of ramping production: it may be slightly disingenuous, but it does play well. There was though a little useful information: that there is going to be a range extended option (nominal range 310 miles) and a 4×4 version. Combine those and I start getting really interested, even if I have to wait a couple of years. Which is trivially within the working life of our present car.

Decision made then: BMW has shot itself in the foot so badly that a viable EV has come into play, and that’s now what we’ll do, with some degree of relief.  My friend, Frank Boosman, has also made the point that the Model 3 upgrades seem remarkably good value compared to trying to configure a 3-series. Having been through just that process, I completely agree with him, and any erstwhile BMW owner will probably fall upon Tesla with cries of relief at having the pain of greed-priced options taken from them, let alone not having to deal with BMW sales dweebs. I’ve also just learned ‘fremdschämen’ from Frank, and will be forever grateful to him for that.

Ironically, BMW has made serious strides in their own EV programme: in their respective niches, the i3 and i8 are fine examples. Unfortunately – and here I suspect the classic internecine corporate mistake of trying to avoid cannibalising their own market – there’s nothing in the middle, between the urban utility of the i3 and the GT pretensions of the i8. This creates a hole in their offerings into which most of us would be looking. It appears that the next i-car won’t appear until 2021, which strikes me as gratuitously missing the boat, after a promising start. The Jaguar then may turn out to be the only viable alternative to the Model 3 for us, and time will tell there, as more details become available.

We’re also keeping our eye on the window of government incentives for EVs, a window that will naturally close as they become more accessible and therefore universal. Right now, there are impressive levels of capital write-down if running one as a company vehicle, zero vehicle excise duty and, in Scotland at least, interest free government loans of £35,000 for private buyers and up to £100,000 for company buyers. So as soon as the right vehicle hits the market, it makes complete sense to jump. But already, thanks to the attitude of BMW’s dealers and Elon’s vision, it now looks as though we’ve already bought our last internal combustion engine car – we just didn’t realise it at the time. Who’d have thought that, even a handful of years ago?

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