For BMW, a Tesla makes a 'nice snowplow'

NEW ORLEANS -- Quick now: If your automaker were launching a stylish, premium electric vehicle -- or a plug-in hybrid -- chock-full of new tech, who would your main competition be?

Might it be the only EV maker of note to survive that segment's shakeout? You know, the company that attracts headlines about twice a week.

Tesla, in other words?

Ludwig Willisch, CEO of BMW of North America, pooh-poohs the notion that the company's new i series is particularly aimed at Tesla. BMW is launching the i3 compact EV and will follow with the i8 plug-in hybrid performance car this summer.

"It's a different concept," he said while speaking to the J.D. Power International Automotive Roundtable today. "Our idea from the get-go was to build a megacity vehicle for the i3 and to offset the additional weight that comes from the batteries by the lightweight construction of the car."

He adds that the major EV maker -- he doesn't name Tesla -- "has been a nice snowplow for us" in raising public awareness of electric drive.

But listen a little longer and it's pretty clear that Tesla is on BMW's radar.

Willisch, for instance, grants that BMW's Future Retail initiative rolling out this year is at least influenced by Tesla's showrooms. BMW wants an open, airy retail setting with lots of video screens and no cubicles -- "a high tech automotive gallery," in his words.

And he can't help but mention that the Tesla Model S doesn't match the i series vehicles as, well, a driving machine: "With me being a much greater enthusiast than a race driver, I have to say the Tesla Model S is very heavy on the braking. Our car feels just like a normal car. That's a big difference when it comes to driving."

You can reach Dave Guilford at



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