The BMW i8 is the most exciting BMW we’ve driven in the last decade. Not just because it’s futuristic and polarizing. But more because it’s what the future of automobile will look like. BMW calls it a “progressive hybrid sportscar”, but we found a better name – “Electrified Supercar.”
Many of us associate the ultimate supercar with large displacement and powerful engines, or with that exotic growl coming out of the exhaust pipes, but the future is changing and even performance-focused automakers, like Ferrari and Porsche, are embracing the hybridization of conventional supercars. And while we’re all dying to see another M1 or M8, the future of sportscars is more electrified than ever and the technology that goes into a hybrid today is far more interesting and polarizing than any supercars of the past. Small gasoline engines, several electric motors, intelligent battery packs and the most lightweight chassis possible is what car engineers take the most pride in today.
BMW’s gasoline-battery hybrid sports car, priced at around $136,000, is the the budget-minded alternative to those out-of-reach exotics. BMW i Chief Designer Benoit Jacob says the i8 challenges the way we look at the automobile, specifically performance cars. It proves that performance cars don’t need big engines nor do they need to be inefficient. It’s why Jacob and his team decided to make a sports plug-in hybrid and not a luxury sedan.
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The i8 sits on a long wheelbase and it has short overhangs – a typical BMW design feature
We first drove the BMW i8 in early 2014 when BMW handed out the keys to the “Electrified Supercar” for a stylish drive in the beautiful Southern California. And ever since we’ve been craving for more time behind the wheel of BMW’s top dog. So when BMW handed out the keys to a Sophisto Grey i8, we knew we had to make the most of it. A week later and the i8 has already won an accolade – the most driven test car we’ve ever laid our hands on. Partly because we loved how it drives, but certainly also because of how it stroke our ego and made us feel with all that attention around us. From bystanders, to car lovers to Chicago tourists and even police officers, everyone was eager to learn more about the beauty of this i8 and what drives its wheels. It was for the first time we got pulled over by police enforcement without breaking the law, an interesting experience nonetheless. Fellow drivers all wanted to know the same thing: What is it? Is it electric? How many horsepower?
Sex Appeal On Four Wheels
Hybrids change the design of cars as it is, as packaging the batteries and electric motors challenge the constraints of a traditional automobile. The i8 sits on a long wheelbase and it has short overhangs – a typical BMW design feature. The front appears extremely low and wide, and the super hybrid went through an extensive aerodynamic optimization. At the same time, the flat, but prominent double kidney grill makes this vehicle’s origins clear. A V-shaped ‘black belt’ starts on the bonnet and dynamically wraps around the bodyshell to the rear.
Viewed from the side, the exaggerated wedge shape, the long drawn-out lines and the flat silhouette underscore the dynamics and looks of a supercar. From the front to the rear, the car has a very dynamic, three-dimensional appearance. Surfaces and lines overlap and interlock, a method known as ‘layering’. This joins all the surfaces harmoniously and allows compact and unbelievably agile look. Its monolithic appearance lends the BMW i8 its extraordinarily powerful stature.
The special sports car aspect of the BMW i8 is unmistakable after just a glance at the spectacular scissor doors. The prominent scissor doors swing upwards when opened.
In the cabin, the BMW i8 design is both avant-garde and elegant. The doors open upward at the A-pillars, and a difficult ingress requires a butt-rest onto the rocker panel, a plop into the seat, and a swing of the legs. Getting out, you have to work your way up out of the seat onto the sill and pivot. Even at 6″2 tall it only took a few tries to master getting in and out of the car.
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The i8 has technology no other car under a million dollars has, it’s made mostly from carbon-fiber, it’s all-wheel drive and it’s mid-engined.
BMW’s layering design principle is most obvious in the i8 than any other BMW. The talented designers in Munich managed to create a synergy between functionality and clear form. All elements are light and dynamically positioned. The equipment lines ‘Carpo’ and ‘Neso’ employ the particularly light leather ‘Spheric’. This material, used for the first time in a series-production vehicle, is over 20 percent lighter than regular leather. Lightweight construction (3,455 lbs) is implemented visually; for example, the visible carbon elements in the door sill highlight its low weight.
The TFT instrument cluster is pleasing to the eye, and changes color depending on the driving mode. BMW’s floating iDrive screen is centrally positioned and follows the driver-oriented philosophy. The i8 is technically a 2+2 sports car, but the back seats are only habitable by people less than five feet tall.
Hybrid Architecture – A Masterpiece
The i8 has technology no other car under a million dollars has, it’s made mostly from carbon-fiber, it’s all-wheel drive and it’s mid-engined. BMW i8 uses a plug-in hybrid system consisting of a turbocharged three-cylinder BMW TwinPower Turbo petrol engine and BMW eDrive technology in the form of an electric drive system. The 1.5-liter combustion engine develops 170 kW/231 hp and drives the rear wheels of the BMW i8, while the 96 kW/131 hp electric drive sends its power to the front wheels. If you charge it, it can go 22 miles (35 kilometers) on battery power before the conventional engine kicks in. The top speed is limited to 75 mph (120 km/h). Range can vary greatly depending on driving style, and air conditioning uses up the battery much faster. We managed to squeeze around 10 miles of electric range with the A/C set at 74 degrees and the fan on the lowest setting. Pre-conditionining the battery will certainly increase this range.
Over typical commuting distances, the EPA says the average American will get the equivalent of 76 mpg. Total range for the BMW i8 is an estimated 310 miles combined with a full charge and a full tank of gas.
Owning an i3 makes us somewhat of an expert, so the charging process comes with no surprises – about 3.5 hours using a 110-volt household outlet, or about 1.5 hours using a 240-volt fast charger.
Unapologetic, Outrageous Driving Dynamics
BMW never intended for the i8 to be a track car. It can be, but that’s not why the billions of R&D dollars were put to work. It’s a capable track car – if needed – but mostly it’s a stylish, sporty and extravagant ride that does well in all the settings, being city or countryside. So driving the i8 on public roads is about the closest you can get to feeling like Bruce Wayne without literally being Batman. The dark grey, blackish-looking paint job enforces that feeling even more. The i8 sits extremely close to the ground and it has BMW’s perfect 50:50 weight distribution. The i8 hugs every road with a firm, grippy, planted feel – despite the super narrow 20-inch wheels which are designed more for efficiency than grip.
The stiff carbon-fiber frame gives the i8 that confidence that often only track-ready cars have.
Steering and handling are equally crisp, with light, nicely weighted input at the wheel that delivers immediate turn-in and a sharp chassis response. The intelligent all-wheel-drive system continuously adjusts the torque ratio between the front and rear wheels for maximum traction, making driving in the rain a breeze. The i8’s adaptive suspension system is compliant enough to take Chicago, where the numerous potholes make driving look more like a slalom on your autocross course.
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The i8 sounds pretty sweet when it’s pushing hard, considering it uses a three-cylinder turbo engine, and that’s good enough for us.
The acceleration is also different than anything else you’ve experienced before. In electric mode, it’s silent, fast and unlike any other BMW you’ve driven before. Only the i3 and its lightweight construction can match it. But if you’re not a fan of linear and fast-of-the-start acceleration, luckily BMW designed a Sport Mode with the drivetrain changing from all-electric to an electric-assisted gasoline powerplant. The i8 now spins the rear-wheels – like a true BMW – while the electric turbos work to reduce the turbo lag. The 420 lb-ft of torque is more than enough to throw you back in the seat while putting a smile on your face.
BMW uses the Active Sound tricks to make you believe the i8 growls like a supercar, but honestly, we didn’t care. The i8 sounds pretty sweet when it’s pushing hard, considering it uses a three-cylinder turbo engine, and that’s good enough for us.
Despite being included in the standard package, the Eco Pro and Comfort mode are likely to not see much use. eDrive and Sport Mode are what the i8 is all about. Unless you’re trying to be uber efficient. It’s worth mentioning that Sport and Comfort mode both partially recharge the batteries automatically while you drive.
In Sport mode, BMW claims a 0-60 run in 4.2 seconds, which feels about right; even eDrive feels just as fast.
This Is Just The Beginning
It is very rare for a first generation product to be as polished as the i8 is. BMW seem to have gotten it right from the start and the i8 leaves very little to desire. It makes you wonder what a successor can deliver, which is both exciting and intriguing. We can say with confidence that BMW i8 was born and became an instant phenomenon. The automotive world is fortunate BMW were able to do such things, as now the constraints on making such an automobile have already been developed and conquered, paving the way for brilliant efficient performance cars in the future.
Although it’s not exactly cheap, the BMW i8 is a viable alternative to sports cars like the Porsche 911 and Audi R8 while delivering what we believe is the perfect package – exotic looks, performance, high-tech and luxury.