The best cellers

It’s a tough job split­ting th­ese high-end bat­tery-pow­ered su­per green ma­chines


AT first glance it seems a clas­sic David and Go­liath bat­tle: Sil­i­con Val­ley start-up ver­sus Ger­man au­to­mo­tive pow­er­house. One com­pany will sell roughly 40,000 cars this year, the other more than 2 mil­lion.

But noth­ing can be taken for granted in the brave new world of bat­tery-pow­ered sports cars. Tesla’s Model S may sell only in small num­bers but it is hailed as a break­through car, while BMW’s i8 hy­brid has met with a luke­warm re­sponse.

In the in­ter­na­tional en­gine of the year awards, Tesla won the gong for best green en­gine, the i8 hy­brid was run­ner-up. The Tesla’s two elec­tric mo­tors put out a com­bined 515kW of power and 967Nm of torque, dwarf­ing the BMW’s 266kw and 570Nm. So who’s David and who’s Go­liath?

You can feel the power dif­fer­ence when you hit the ac­cel­er­a­tors. The Tesla snaps your head back and pins your ears to the head­rest, while the BMW has you lean­ing for­ward urg­ing it on like a jockey go­ing for the whip.

If it’s any con­so­la­tion to BMW fans, the i8 sounds more like a sports car with its fake ex­haust note piped into the cabin. The Tesla is al­most silent, save for the ex­ple­tives of de­light from the driver and the faint elec­tric whirr of a mo­tor, which sounds like a dis­tant air­craft hit­ting re­verse thrust.

Tesla says the Model S is good for a 0-100km/h sprint in 3.3 sec­onds and BMW claims 4.4 secs for the i8. By the seat of the pants they are streets apart.

Af­ter years spent as the be­spec­ta­cled weak­lings in the au­to­mo­tive play­ground, elec­tric cars are now the bulging-mus­cled bully boys. As if to ram home the per­for­mance, the Tesla has an “in­sane” mode, ac­ti­vated by a swipe of the cen­tre screen menu, which makes it a cou­ple of tenths quicker. Pay for an up­grade and you get “lu­di­crous” mode, which shaves an­other 0.3 secs off the 0-100km/h sprint.

But EV’s weak­ness has al­ways been range anx­i­ety. Zero-emis­sion cars may be able to out­pace hy­brids but they can’t out­run them.

The Model S P85D goes a long way to putting those fears to bed with a claimed range of 491km. An op­tional up­grade pumps that up to 528km, which is get­ting close to the claimed com­bined range of the i8 at 600km. It’s also more than you’ll get be­tween fills with some V8s.

Drive it as if you stole it — or bor­rowed it — and you won’t get any­where near that.

Our brief drive, which ad­mit­tedly in­cluded sev­eral 0100km/h full-power bursts, with the ac­cel­er­a­tion set­ting on “In­sane”, saw the range set­tle at

about 240km/h. You can partly blame win­ter for that re­sult too, as the heater saps the bat­tery.

The i8 on the other hand looked more likely to get within cooee of its claim, de­spite some en­thu­si­as­tic driv­ing.

In this bat­tle, the BMW scores more points for look­ing the part. Side-by-side, it makes the Model S look anony­mous.

Passers-by hardly no­tice the Tesla, drawn as they are by the fu­tur­is­tic flanks of the i8. It looks ev­ery bit the su­per­car with its scis­sor doors, bon­net scoop and space-age sur­faces. In­side, it also shades the Tesla with its body hug­ging sports seats and bright blue am­bi­ent light­ing.

The Tesla’s mas­sive cen­tre screen looks like an over­sized iPad and works like one too, with pinch and swipe fea­tures and ex­cel­lent clar­ity. Its cabin feels lux­u­ri­ous enough but the bor­rowed Mercedes-Benz switchgear and plain de­tail­ing in the cabin de­tract from the over­all ef­fect.

3.3secs (claimed)

Its su­per­car-like per­for­mance isn’t matched by the cabin char­ac­ter or flair of a Lam­borgh­ini, Fer­rari or even Maserati. It’s more tour­ing car than sports car but that has its pluses — for ex­am­ple, enough room for adults to stretch out in com­fort, front and rear.

The Tesla is no match for the BMW through the bends. With a low cen­tre of grav­ity thanks to the bank of bat­ter­ies that make up its floor, the Tesla grips im­pres­sively through cor­ners and steers faith­fully.

How­ever, you can feel those two-plus tonnes — it doesn’t lean but it does re­sist tak­ing tight hair­pins at speed. The BMW on the other hand feels lithe and nim­ble through the bends, with sharp steer­ing and great grip and drive.

Each has im­pres­sive safety cre­den­tials. Tesla re­cently matched the i8 by adding auto emer­gency brak­ing, blind spot warn­ing and side col­li­sion warn­ing.

A soft­ware up­grade is avail­able on the lat­est model, al­low­ing cus­tomers to up­grade driver aids. They in­clude a new Au­topi­lot fea­ture to keep the car in its lane or, sim­ply by hit­ting the in­di­ca­tor, ex­e­cute lane changes.

As for pric­ing, the Tesla comes in at al­most $100,000 cheaper, cour­tesy of US Gov­ern­ment back­ing. That dis­crep­ancy also puts to bed an­other elec­tric car con­cern.

Small elec­tric hatch­backs are ex­or­bi­tantly priced against their petrol ri­vals but, in this rar­efied air, the Tesla comes across as a bar­gain.


The Tesla and i8 are fas­ci­nat­ing, ap­proach­ing en­vi­ron­men­tally re­spon­si­ble per­for­mance in very dif­fer­ent ways. Both have their mer­its — and the mind bog­gles at what they could achieve in part­ner­ship.

The Model S wins be­cause it de­liv­ers more for less: more grunt, fewer emis­sions and the prospect of im­prove­ment in the fu­ture through soft­ware up­grades.

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