The BMW i8 may be a machine, but it has more to do with the human psyche than it may appear. In order to understand this performance plug-in hybrid, we must first understand ourselves.
Despite its amazing potential, the human mind also shows a tremendous amount of resistance. To put it shortly, most of us enjoy living in the comfort zone. Well, to receive the i8’s message, we’ll have to step outside the coziness box.
It would be so facile to dismiss the i8. Questioning its (financial) efficiency compared to, say, the Chevy Volt is an example as good as any for such a path. Or you can dismiss the i8 by simply stating it isn’t sharp enough.
However, that would mean ignoring the fact that this isn’t actually a competitor for the Porsche 911, nor is it a product of the M division or the best PHEV
on the market. Instead, what we have here is an entire new way of living out your motoring life. Notice we avoided using the term “lifestyle”. That’s what a MINI Cooper S
BMW’s i8 promises to offer the best of both worlds and its on-paper specs assure us that it can deliver respectable performance, both as a sportscar and as a hybrid. Our mission then is to assess whether the i8 is an organic package or just another one of those “jack of all trades, master of none” examples.
We’ll take things a bit further and ask two questions here. We obviously we set out to find out whether someone who has a fetish for new-age propulsion would be happy with an i8. Moreover, we also asked that side of our office who would kill for a 911 to spiritually cleanse themselves, be honest and determine if they would invite an i8 into their life for more than just testing purposes.
Not since we reviewed the Lamborghini Aventador Roadster have we encountered a car with such a wow factor. When you can’t take photos of your test vehicle due to passers by doing their own impromptu shootings around the car, you know the visual drama has hit its target.
Perhaps the best example of just how determined the carmaker was to hone the i8 into an eye-catcher comes in the form of the... canyons sitting atop of the rear wings. These, however, are part of an aerodynamic scheme that brings the drag coefficient down to 0.26.
Then again, all the attention you get when driving a BMW i8 was intended to be part of the package. BMW itself beings describing the i8 by mentioning its styling cues.
Regardless, we can’t help but applaud the accuracy with which the production car replicates the appearance of the Vision Efficient Dynamics Concept BMW released back in 2009.
Open the butterfly doors and the exposed CFRP
(carbon fiber reinforced polymer), which is present on both the doors and the sills, offers the same eye-candy effect.
Nevertheless, you’d better pay attention to your movements at this point. I was going to document the routine of the i8 access but, throughout the time spent with the car, I noticed each person has his or her own patented method. Some throw their posterior inside first, while others step onto the floor mat before doing anything else. Just don’t try it in a skirt, or a kilt for that matter.
Once you’re inside, you’ll get a first impression that will only be confirmed over the hours of driving that follow - the seats are more comfortable compared to what a Porsche 911 has to offer.
The obvious question here is whether the cabin feels like it’s up to the 130 grand plus status of the car. The answer is positive, but we need to elaborate on that.
The i8 takes the BMW matrix to a whole new level. You’ll easily recognize many elements from other BMW models, but they’re assembled in a way you’ve never seen before. This is one bespoke puzzle that fits the car’s character.
Another advantage here is that you end up with the typical BMW ergonomics. Stuff like a custom iDrive system and intuitive positioning for most of the controls.
Just like the i3, thanks to the CFRP - aluminum construction, the i8 offers a bit more cabin space than what you’d expect when judging by the outside of the car. Up front, you get an air of roominess, one that relaxes you.
The i8 is noticeably larger than the Porsche 911 and, as a consequence, you can actually use the rear seats. If you’re not taller than 5 feet three (1.60 m), that is. So yes, the i8 remains a two-plus-two who can only accommodate a pair of children in the rear. Or your backpack.
Speaking of which, don’t go pick up one of your colleagues from the airport in an i8. This is what we did and even though the boot offers 5.3 cubic feet (150 liters), a part of the luggage had to ride in the back. Then again, a Porsche 911 would offer even less space for your stuff, since it comes with 4.8 cubic feet (136 liters).
The boot is easy to operate though, thanks to the combination between the swooping rear window / luggage compartment cover. Moreover, the leather that covers the engine hidden underneath pleases your senses. As you settle into the driver’s seat, you notice the massive center tunnel. No, there’s no driveshaft in this BMW, but that’s where the i8 keeps its 7.1 kWh lithium-ion battery pack. As a result, the center of gravity sits low, while the weight distribution is balanced, at 50:50.
The materials are nature-loving too, just like the car. For instance, the leather on the seats, which is tanned using olive leaf extracts, feels nice to the touch. We’re not sure about the castor oil though. There’s nothing wrong with the interior plastics based on it, but we used to hate this during our childhood. For the record, the key fob is made of this.
In terms of refinement, the cabin is premium, despite being below what Porsche offers.
As with any upmarket German automaker, speccing up a BMW can be a very costly affair. Nonetheless, the i8 follows a different path. Given the hefty starting price of the car, the standard equipment is generous. In the US, you get to choose between three equipment lines, as well as a Pure Impulse package.
While the trims mostly handle materials used inside the cabin, you’ll want to add that clean-sounding pack. For one thing, it brings an extended fuel tank and intelligent LED headlights.
As for the European markets, these get individual options, some of which are grouped in packages.
When it comes to the visibility, the i8 offers plenty of this up front and on the sides, which is great when you’re driving the BMW around the city. In fact, the i8 feels at home between urban borders. If you’re up for it, you can easily use this car around town all day long.
The electric torque, which comes from an electric motor serving the axle in front of us, offers just the kind of low-end pulling you need for swift urban traffic maneuvers.
The entire car, from the powertrain to the suspension and the steering is relaxed enough to cope with the demands of a buzzing metropolis.
Err... no, it’s not an i3 though. First of all, measuring 76.5 inches (1,943 mm) in width, the i8 is the kind of car you wouldn’t want to navigate narrow streets in. A group of construction workers who had parked their cement truck too close to an intersection can testify that negotiating tight urban twists in an i8 requires quite some work.
BMW claims you can do 22 miles (35.5 km) on electric power alone. We played with this driving mode and got about 18 miles (29 km), which is close enough.
If you don’t hit the kickdown point, the machine doesn’t bring the combustion engine behind you to life. And you’ll be there, zipping through the city like a plotting special agent that cares for the environment while handling his dangerous state security affairs. You’ll have to wear a mask though since all eyes are on you when you hit the boulevard in an i8. You can have a set of cameras that give you a bird’s eye view feature, which will come in handy when parking. Don’t rely on the rear visibility though. The massive pillars bring the kind of supercar view limitations.
Then there’s the rear window. You’ll be familiar with the material used for the transparent panel separating the passenger cell from the engine compartment. At least if you’ve played with a smartphone. In its bid to reduce weight, BMW has used Gorilla Glass for this. Alas, it distorts the view a little.
But we’ve got more important things to do than look at people taking photos of the i8 from behind the car. Such as talking fuel efficiency.
In BMW’s books, the i8 can sip between 2.1 and 8 liters of gas per 100 km (29.4-112 MPG). The first value is offered for that ideal first 100 km (62 miles) when your battery is full, while the latter is an official worst case scenario applied when you use the car for long journeys, where there’s little braking and plenty of acceleration to do.
In the real world, the i8 asked for between 6.7 and 10.5 liters per 100 km (35.1 and 22.4 MPG) when we drove it inside the city. While the first value was achieved by driving normally in average urban traffic, for the second one we depleted the battery.
Well, we didn’t actually go down to zero electric range. That’s because once the meter on the dash goes down to 1 mile, the 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine at the back automatically kicks in. One of the benefits here is that you never end up having to rely on the internal combustion engine’s RWD alone. There will also be a bit of added traction at the front, if you want to.
For the sake of comparison, we’ll mention that, even during this extreme test, the i8 sipped about 40 percent less fuel than an equivalent 911. And remember, the Porsche is the most efficient in its class.
Out on the highway, we got between 6L/100 KM (39.2 MPG), achieved at 62 MPH (100 KM/H) and 7.6L/100 KM (31 MPG) at 85 MPH (140 KM/H).
Electric range anxiety? There’s no such thing in the i8. In most driving situations, you only end up draining the battery only if you plan to. Especially in the “Sport” driving mode, where the regenerative braking is more aggressive. While this is not the BMW i3, where you can easily drive without touching the brakes most of the time, you easily work the car so that the charge level climbs to about 70 percent pretty quickly.
Then there’s the recharging assistance offered by the i8’s second electric motor. Placed at the back of the car and tasked with starting the combustion engine, the small motor also acts as a generator.
All in all, the i8 offers decent autonomy, with the 11.1-gallon (41-liter) fuel tank also deserving a bit of credit here.
As for the times when you plug your i8 in, a full charge can be achieved in about three hours using a standard European outlet, while you can hit an 80 percent charge in under two hours suing BMW’s bespoke charging station. In the US, a complete charge takes about four hours, with the time dropping to three hours if you install the aforementioned hardware. However, given the relatively short time and the car’s ability to recharge its battery on the move, we'd skip that optional extra.
The i8 also offers a feature that preserves battery charge. You can use this if you want to drive around in “Comfort” mode. The car doesn’t feel at its best though. First of all, it obviously sips more fuel than it would normally do. Then there’s the sound - you’ll be hearing that three-cylinder mill at the back working for this all the time.
Speaking of which, we’ve reached that point where we must discuss the aural side of the i8. At the middle of the car, we find a 1,499 cc three-cylinder mill that heavily relies on a twin-scroll turbocharger. We mean “heavily”, as in this is not exactly the same 1.5 unit you’ll find on the MINI Cooper.
The little engine has been pumped up all the way to 231 HP
and 320 lb-ft (236 Nm) of torque. We’ll get to the pulling and usability details in a moment, since we want to discuss its vocal abilities first.