We drive: 2015 i12 BMW i8. This is not a supercar; it is a greener sports car in supercar clothing.
Welp, I rode in the original 323-horsepower plug-in electric diesel Vision Efficient Dynamics in October 2010, then drove the verification prototype of the now 357-bhp electric-gas i8 at the BMW proving grounds at Miramas in southern France in August 2013. Today, late April 2014, I can say I just drove the full-on production trim of the $135,700 i8 – codename i12 in the Bavarian dialect – in southern California over the “usual suspect” canyon roads along the Malibu coast. Very chic stuff, I know, but trust me – I wasn’t indulging in anything but this fascinating car and its team of experts.
In addressing a ton of questions to the various engineers and marketers present, it was clear that the chief challenge of the entire i8 experience has been – and will continue to be – the software and EPU recipe that communicates in a non-stop frenzy with the not usual four-wheel-drive chassis. With the front axle and its wheels being propelled by the front-bolted Bosch e-motor with 129 horses and 184 pound-feet of torque, while the rear axle and its rubber patches are governed by the B38 1.5-liter TwinPower Turbo three-cylinder good alone for 228 bhp and 236 lb-ft of torque maxing at 3,700 rpm, there is a boatload of front-rear coordination to be monitored. The i8 needs to be an ultimate driving machine in every aspect of its daily use.
The i8, first off, is not a mad-hatted supercar in spite of its supercar looks. Does this disappoint you or me? Kind of sort of, but then not really after I got to tear-ass over the coastal Santa Monica Mountains exploring every limit of this intensely unique BMW.
The feeling I was getting as I drove along in this new future-y Bimmer i-car was that of tearing over the same roads in a Porsche Cayman S without too many options attached to enhance it over stock. Obviously, the hug-this-planet usefulness under these heated conditions of the 7.1-kWh lithium-ion battery pack (usable 5.2 kWh), running the length of what would normally be just the driveshaft and transmission tunnel, and its large frontal e-motor is less huggy than it is simply boosting my forward progress and borderline scofflaw lifestyle. In this Sport calibration and using the steering wheel paddles, things are really sweet if you are not harboring expectations of the i8 rivaling an E46 M3 CSL.
BMW i8 drive opportunities for me have not yet included any shot at the standard width Bridgestone Potenza tireset, so I haven’t a clue how the 3,274-pound sports car might behave on hard (for lower rolling resistance) W-rated 195/50 fronts and 215/45 rears. I have always had the optional 215/45 front and 245/40 rear setup and this was the day where I would at least be able to explore all of that on really fun roads.
The placement of the main e-motor as balanced against the rear B38 is ideal for the 47:53 weight split, and the lithium-ion energy bank running the length of the car’s center section by my right thigh is another great inducer of dynamic neutrality. I played idly in eDrive and with Eco Pro selected sans paddle shifts, as well as to the sporting extreme of Sport (via chunking the six-speed auto tranny’s center lever to the left) and using the shift paddles with DTC/DSC as deactivated as the i8 allows.
The time over those hills and dales, however, was the great teller of tales. Trying to stay in either eDrive or Comfort mode once the hills start is a learned experience. I mean that drivers are going to have to spend time with their new drivetrain to figure out how best to work the throttle/amps and make transitions between EV and hybrid driving as smooth as possible. Because frequently right now, it is not the “seamless” transition that BMW i is touting. There are many times in these more up and down circumstances where the driveline is replicating a sort of slight shunt. Not alarming or completely unpleasant, just not what I would call “optimal” for what needs to be ultimate.
Around flatter streets and in cities with lower sports car-hammering expectations, the drivetrain is an all-star and the i8 gets you every ounce of attention that you might seek, even from a crowd as jaded as that in Santa Monica or Malibu. I managed to upstage both a Bugatti Veyron with flash yellow two-tone paint, as well as a freshly delivered Tornado Orange McLaren 650S spider. Not bad, Leipzig.
The 4.2-second claimed acceleration of the i8 up to 60 mph will hold true for certain. In Sport mode and ready to rumble, the 1.5-liter B38, with 24.7-psi maximum boost from the Conti turbocharger, is always on, even at stops where it would switch off in Comfort mode. At full boost – i.e. the B38, Bosch e-motor and 15-bhp secondary e-motor bolted to the ICE to help coordination (the “seamlessness”) between EV and hybrid mode-switching while on the fly – you get all the sound that BMW’s amplification scientists can muster from the three-cylinder. There is also a second amplifier arranged for the exhaust tone and it does sound pretty damned good to me and (apparently) to all passers-by.
Once I was comfortable with the possibilities of the boost-mode drivetrain, the ICE’s overrun 6,500-rpm rev-max, 5,800-rpm power peak, and the 20-inch skinny Bridgestones, that’s where I started feeling at ease in this alternative Porsche Cayman S, not to belabor the simile. It’s just that many are continuing to align the i8 with a Porsche 911 Carrera 4S and that feels like a stretch too far to me. And the Cayman S is my favorite Porsche so far, so what’s the harm?
You need to get used to the grindy baritone sound of the powertrain in this extreme mode of country road attack. I personally really like the sound a three-cylinder makes, so I like it a lot. The pumping-up of the sound, however, feels noticeably forced here. Again, not a heinous thing to really criticize, but if you’re a Bimmer fanatic you will debate it in your head.
Funnily, the experts here with me were very concerned about how we all felt about the state of the ride and handling of the i8. We all looked at one another and shrugged, agreeing that this was one of the strongest points of the entire equation. In town the ride is truly everyday comfy yet Euro-firm, then out on the squigglies and playing hard the Sport calibration of the dampers is terrific with ample feedback. This was particularly nice as it related to the steering feel. This could have gone all pear-shaped in a hurry with all of the electro intervention numbing up things. But the numbness is minimal in the complex of things. I did notice that in the four-wheel drive feel that there is the nearly requisite amount of push into hotter turns. To deal with this, I simply spent more time determining what the proper approach needs to be for this new-age car’s dynamics. Live with it and you’ll master it all pretty quickly.
While it is true that the lithium-ion capacity is slightly limited for any driving such as I was doing up in these hills, under appropriate driving circumstances the pack can be readily recharged via interstate “sailing”, off-throttle downhill grades, or out and out braking, in as little as ten minutes. A plugged-in full recharge takes between 1.5 hours with the added-cost wall box or up to 2.5 hours from a home outlet. In Sport, too, the e-motors are working directly off the recharge energy of the ICE, so it never feels anything like a three-cylinder working all alone. With this lowest of BMW yaw points and the LifeDrive’s carbon fiber and aluminum stiffness as well, the braking itself is dramatically effective.
U.S. deliveries start in certain areas by mid-June with every part of the country attended to by September. The base sticker gets you the i8 in Mega trim and you can go up from there into fancier Giga and Tera interior trims. Beyond this is a blackened-up and trick Pure Impulse treatment. Louis Vuitton also designed an available luggage set that incorporates carbon fiber, in keeping with the BMW i theme. Upwards of 65 percent of all i8 volume is destined for the United States, much of all that coming to….exactly where I was doing this test.
Engine: 1.5L 3cyl TPT + two e-motors
Power: 357 PS / 420 LB-FT
Transmission: 6-speed auto + 2-speed for e-motor
0-60 mph: 4.2 Seconds (est.)
Top Speed: 155 mph
Drivetrain: All-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 3,274 LBS (est.)
Cargo: 6.0 cu ft
MPG: TBD but estimated 60+ mpg from 10.5-gallon tank
Base Price: $135,700
[Photos: Richard Newton]