A hybrid that thinks it can out-muscle a Porsche 911?! Do not adjust your screens, as this is the BMW i8, probably the most exciting car on sale right now – and that includes the hybrid supercars. Why? Because this one is relatively attainable, oh, and it’s bloody good fun to drive too.
Model tested: BMW i8
Base Price: $136,625
Engine: 1.5-liter three-cylinder turbocharged mated to synchronous electric motor with plug-in lithium ion battery pack
Transmission: four-wheel drive, six-speed automatic for rear wheels, two-speed on electric motor on front wheels
Body style: two-door coupé
Rivals: Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Electric Drive, Porsche 911, Tesla Model S
Combined economy: 134.5mpg
Top speed: 155mph
0-62mph: 4.4 seconds
In the Metal:
Carbon re-enforced plastics, not metal to be precise, as the BMW i8’s body, like the structure underneath, is extensively constructed of the lightweight, strong material. Visually it’s stunning, a riot of complex surface treatments, that are both functional and beautiful in equal measure. BMW’s faithfulness to the original concept car’s lines is very impressive indeed. Contrasting body colours highlight its form, the sharp creases, scalloped sills and floating teardrop roofline not only creating one of the most traffic-stopping designs we’ve driven since the first Audi TT hit the roads, but it’s also wind-tunnel honed for maximum efficiency.
The interior echoes that exterior future BMW look with a twist. The layered, driver-focused dashboard creates a real cockpit feel, the deep central transmission tunnel – housing the i8’s lithium-ion batteries – and bare carbon fibre jams around the door shamelessly reveal the i8’s lightweight construction. As if needed, more theatre is involved in getting into the i8 by winged doors, hinged on the A-pillar and opening up and away from you. Instrumentation is courtesy of a pair of screens, displaying – not always particularly clearly – the usual information mixed with the state of the various hybrid systems and power flow. A 2+2, the rear seats are best considered as additional luggage space, particularly as the tiny and poorly accessed boot offers little useful space – and it gets hot thanks to the proximity of the engine.
The BMW i8 might boast economy and emissions figures that monster even the cleanest, most efficient city cars, but it also delivers the numbers when it comes to performance. The benchmark 62mph arrives in just 4.4 seconds from rest; it’ll reach 155mph; and so the combination of its 231hp three-cylinder, turbocharged 1.5-liter gas powered engine and 131hp electric motor give it proper sports car performance. It’ll run on electricity alone for up to 22 miles, at well above the US speed limit. It’s quick in electric-only mode too, and all but silent – save for a slight, unobtrusive background electrical sound from the motor.
The various drive modes – electric-only, EcoPro hybrid, Comfort hybrid and Sports hybrid – couldn’t be easier to select. Electric-only is achieved by simply pressing a single button, while a toggle switch delivers EcoPro and Comfort, and finally Sport is achieved simply by knocking the automatic transmission selector over to the S position. Switching between these changes the drivetrain characteristics, Comfort being the default, start-up mode, it utilising the plug-in hybrid’s battery element as much as possible for efficiency, the engine only cutting in when you ask for more than the electric motor can provide on its own.
Nothing really surprising among the growing hybrid offerings out there then, save for the dominance of the electric mode around town. The biggest shock comes when selecting Sport. No three-cylinder turbocharged 1.5-litre engine should sound like the i8’s in Sport mode, its deep timbre more muscular big capacity six than blown, small capacity triple. Its 231hp drives the rear wheels, the fronts getting drive from the 131hp electric motor. In Sport mode the brake energy regeneration effect increases, helping allow the drivetrain to always have a power reserve for the battery.
When both motors are working the electric one changes to its second gear, while an additional electric motor, which regenerates on overrun and operates as a starter, also pushes as much as 125Nm of torque into the engine’s crankshaft. That’s done to allow both the front and rear engines work in unison, the additional motor torque filling in the area where the combustion engine would otherwise provide tardy (relatively) response due to its turbocharged nature.
The result is impressive; that the i8 feels largely like a conventionally powered sports car in Sport mode is an achievement. The steering offers fine weighting and its response is immediate. It’s quick, lock is good and feel is decent at lower speeds, though loses a layer of information as the speed rises. Weight distribution is 53% rear, 47% front, while the mass is contained low in the i8’s structure, to the benefit of agility.
The suspension, an adaptive system that firms up in Sports mode, remains supple even in its most focused setting, the i8’s body control over awkward cambers, dips and crests genuinely impressive. You feel its solidity and the stiffness of the carbon structure, yet there’s little harshness through the suspension, the i8 riding with real sophistication. If there’s a shortcoming it’s the i8’s tendency to understeer at higher speeds. At moderate pace it feels neutral, though ask more and the nose begins to push wide. That’s exacerbated by the lack of feel from the brake pedal, which often requires more push than initially anticipated, resulting in too high corner entry speeds.
Work around this, adapt your driving style for earlier braking, utilise some of that regenerative engine braking by downshifting on entry and enjoy the hybrid’s instantaneous and elastic response in the middle of and when exiting a bend. The quick-shifting paddle-shifted auto signals Sports mode downshifts with a flaring throttle blip. It’s best enjoyed with the stability and traction control systems switched off, not as a means to obtain power oversteer, but to remove the killjoy effect of the often too-eager-to-nanny electronic systems. Do so and the i8’s rear axle becomes more mobile, not wildly, but enough to change the car’s attitude under power should you want to.
Reach the end of an enjoyable, traffic-free stretch of road and enter a town and the i8’s dual nature really shows. Choose one of the other drive modes, leave the transmission to shift for itself and the i8 quietly fulfils the role of an efficient and comfortable cruiser.
What you get for your Money:
You’re buying the future, pure and simple. If the i8 demonstrates anything, it’s that hybrid technology has reached a point where it’s genuinely a no-compromises choice. Indeed, it adds a layer to the overall driving experience, allowing a duality of purpose that’s just not possible otherwise – even among the i8’s most accomplished and acclaimed rivals. Yes, we’re talking about the Porsche 911.
Standard equipment is comprehensive, but BMW will also be offering a new laser headlamp system in the i8 later in the year. It’ll also be available with optional carbon fibre wheels, replacing the standard alloys and dropping a whopping 3kg of mass from each rim – to the benefit of unsprung weight. No prices have yet been confirmed, but don’t expect these options to be cheap.
To combine such diametrically opposed elements as performance and economy in one car is an inconceivably tough job, but the BMW i8 underlines that enjoyable, highly competitive sports car performance really can be mated with incredible economy and low emissions. That it looks absolutely sensational is only a bonus. Some will focus too heavily on its very slight shortcomings as a sports car, but that’s to do a huge disservice to what the i8 represents, and what BMW has achieved with it. A genuine landmark car. No question.
Author: Kyle Fortune