Car reviews - BMW - i8 - Coupe
Revolutionary engineering, electrifying performance, city-car frugality, devilish looks
Room for improvement
Obstructive A-pillars, low roof for tall drivers, priced on the high side
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10 Feb 2015
Price and equipment
LET'S get one thing straight: The BMW i8 is not a supercar. It has never been marketed as a supercar, it doesn't have the power of a supercar and it doesn't carry the price of a supercar either. The BMW i8 is a mid-engined sportscar.
If one ever mistakenly compared BMW's first hyper-hybrid to a supercar it would almost certainly be due to one of its most extraordinary and likeable features – the way it looks.
Major global car-makers have wheeled out clay models of concept cars at international motor shows that don't turn heads like the i8. In our time driving weird and wonderful machines nothing, nothing has ever attracted more attention than the i8.
We lost count of the number of times we were approached, flagged down and questioned about the bizarre vehicle. “No it's not a concept, yes you can order one tomorrow, and yes it really is a BMW,” we said.
If you are the kind of car-lover that puts a premium on unique, jaw-dropping and arresting aesthetics then the BMW i8 is almost worth its asking price just for the way it looks.
But it does so much more than look good and its radical engineering keeps the promises that its bodywork makes. More about that later.
With an asking price of $299,000 before on-road costs, the i8 may sound a little on the pricey side, that is until you start looking at what comes as part of the deal.
Standard kit includes LED headlights, a head-up display, keyless entry and start, a premium Harman Kardon sound system with digital radio, 20GB hard disk, Bluetooth phone connection and BMW’s ConnectedDrive service that integrates a paired smartphone’s internet connectivity with several car-based functions.
In the absence of an obvious direct rival – Audi's plug-in R8 e-tron has only just been announced and is not yet a lock for Australia – more unorthodox comparisons are required.
Potential i8 buyers could also look at Porsche's 911 GT3 from $293,600, a Lotus Evora that starts at $180,600 or really any high-end circa-$300k sportscar.
Popping the fantastic upward opening doors and peering inside the i8’s interior was exciting every time. Its plush but lean white leather seats, electric blue seatbelts and snug proportions are both inviting and pretty, while the abundant use of bare carbon-fibre looks more like space travel technology than something for lowly terrestrial trips.
Climbing aboard over the wide carbon-fibre sills required a special knack to maintain ones dignity but once the correct method bad been determined, getting in and out was easy and felt like squeezing into a prototype racer.
While the i8 is unlike any other car on the road, its interior is distinctly BMW with many of the features found in the rest of the German car-maker’s range, from the familiar drive selector, logically arranged but minimal switch-gear and all of the quality you would expect from a BMW.
There are one or two excellent differences, however, starting with the all-digital instruments which change and morph according to driving style and requested driver information. Both tachometer and speedometer turn from cool blue to hot red when Sport mode is selected.
At night an eerie blue but beautiful strip of light flows around the cabin creating a serene and modern ambient light that we thought was confined to Tron, while a similar transformation happens on the outside. One passer by said he could tell it was an i8 from a significant distance and in the dark.
In the middle of the BMW is its clever drivetrain and its nose houses the radiators leaving just one very small boot at the back, but the i8 is technically a four-seater and we found the rear seat space useful for regular day to day loads and ferrying short people for short distances.
For the ultimate in practicality and style, the good people at Louis Vuitton will sell you a four piece carbon-fibre luggage set that fits snugly into each of the i8's various cubbies and slots.
Where many sportscars fail with storage space, the i8 would not cause a problem under a majority of situations.
We liked the balance of recognisable BMW features such as the wide 8.8-inch screen with logical but extensive functions, but also the many styling and technology touches that set this car apart from anything else in the propeller badge stable.
Engine and transmission
As if the i8 wasn’t radical enough with carbon-fibre construction, butterfly doors and outrageous styling, its plug-in hybrid drivetrain is the hidden unique feature.
Sitting midship is a 1.5-litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine with 170kW and 320Nm – the most power per litre produced by any BMW road-car engine before it.
Under normal circumstances power is sent in true BMW fashion to the rear wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission, but if things should get a little slippery, the front wheels have a 96kW electric motor driving through a two-speed gearbox to keep things in line.
Thanks to its 5.1kWh lithium-ion battery, the i8 can travel up to 35km under silent, emissions-free power but for those times when you really need to be somewhere, the various powertrain elements get together and produce a healthy 266kW and chunky 570Nm of torque.
Combined with a 1485kg kerb weight, that output is good enough for zero to 100km acceleration in 4.4 seconds and a top speed of 250km/h. For any car those are impressive credentials but when driven more sensibly the i8 can return an almost unbelievable fuel economy of 2.1 litres per 100km.
Unlike many hybrids that focus on fuel economy above all other attributes including driving enjoyment, the BMW’s drivetrain is designed for fun — a feature clear from the way the i8 sounds.
Its highly-strung three-pot sits behind the occupant’s heads delivering its strange but likeable sound directly to the cabin as well as a little piped in through the sound system for a good measure, but that sound is simply an amplification — not a synthesis.
Getting the boot stuck into the i8 sounds not unlike the venerable Porsche flat-six but has the added aural treats of a noticeable turbo whistle and even a nice futuristic whine from the electric drive element.
The combination of nuts and bolts mechanical noises with modern and smooth hybrid soundtrack creates a unique experience that encourages the driver to push the i8 at every opportunity.
The sound is clearly easy to appreciate from the outside with the i8 turning as many heads because of its vocal exhaust as it did with its looks.
Power delivery from the electric drive is instant, mimicking the behaviour of a big supercharged V8 at low rpm but after a little turbo lag, the strong petrol engine joins the party and adds more grunt for sustained, addictive acceleration.
Acceleration feels faster than the quoted 4.4-second zero to 100km/h dash and when on overrun the regenerative braking is aggressive, actually illuminating the brake lights. The strong deceleration without touching the brake pedal took some getting used to but works well to eliminate the spongy pedal feel often associated with re-gen.
With BMW’s switchable drive mode set to Comfort, the i8 is effortless to pilot, regardless of traffic or environmental conditions. Its behaviour is no different to any high-quality automatic, finding the right gear for all occasions and delivering smooth, almost unnoticeable changes.
Under normal conditions the petrol engine cuts in only when extra power is required and remains dormant when moving slowly in traffic or pulling away gently, but flicking the gear selector lever over to manual mode engages Sport mode — our favourite.
In the most aggressive mode, the engine is kept running at all times and gear shifts are lightening quick for the most sportscar-like driving experience. In fact — if it wasn’t for the gorgeous linear acceleration it would be hard to tell any hybrid tech was present.
Some have criticised the i8 for being too refined and not having enough mongrel in it, and while it is certainly an extremely refined powertrain, the BMW has a unique character and charisma all of its own.
Ride and handling
With a super-stiff carbon-fibre and aluminium structure, four-wheel steering and drive, a sub 460mm centre of gravity and a near 50:50 weight distribution you would expect the BMW i8 to fare pretty well on the twisty bits. And you would be quite right.
Piloting the ultra-modern sportscar is like kneading putty and its combination of wonderful engineering and ergonomically brilliant driving position make any blast through bends an effortless treat.
Turn-in is lightening quick but when it feels like the limits of adhesion have been found with a heavy hand, the rear wheels help out by adding some steering and actually tighten the cornering ability.
No matter what, the BMW rides perfectly flat even in tricky camber sections with a majority of its battery weight kept low down in the chassis adding to a feeling of infallibility.
When the road surface does yield some traction in wet or polished surfaces the i8 will begin to show signs of understeer, but that undesirable trait is dealt with by the clever power management system pulling the nose back into line.
While it may sound strange, the BMW's road manner when driven hard is not unlike the vastly different Subaru WRX STI. Both cars have a likable mechanical feel to the all-paw traction, a stubbornness to body-roll and light but communicative steering.
As you would expect, the ride is firm at the best of times but not offensively so. Even when the road surface deteriorates, bumps and vibrations are ironed out better than many stiffly sprung sportscars.
Its thick and steeply-raked A-pillars do often obscure the view out, as does the limited rearward view and we found the driver's seat wouldn't adjust quite low enough for taller drivers, further exacerbating the visibility problems.
But you could forgive the i8 for a lot more when you point your toe and hit a favourite road.
Pushing the i8 hard is a true pleasure, rewarding and encouraging enthusiastic drivers with confident and accomplished grip, handling and feel.
Safety and servicing
Even before you consider the i8's more commonplace equipment such as six airbags, Dynamic Stability Control and a reversing camera, its single-piece ultra-strong carbon-fibre passenger cell provides a good place to be during a crash.
As a high-value low-volume car none of the major safety authorities have crash-tested the i8.
BMW Service Inclusive covers scheduled servicing costs for one-off payment for up to five years or 80,000km.
Unlike some other brands, BMW guarantees the i8's battery against degradation with an eight year warranty or 100,000km.
Even after driving the fabulous i8 it is still hard to believe BMW actually went ahead with such an ambitious, but wildly unique package.
But we are glad they did, because by combining no-compromise technology with typical German build quality and outlandish styling, BMW has created a car that performs and looks like a fantasy.
With town-car economy, concept-car looks, true sportscar manners and typical build quality, BMW's i8 is fool-proof, frugal fun in a unique package that proves just how much can be achieved with hybrid technology.
Porsche 911 GT3 ($293,600 before on-road costs)The Porsche's engine is in the back, it has the same two-plus-two seating layout and it gets to 100km/h a full second quicker than the BMW, but you'll spend a lot longer standing at the bowser and no one will look at you in the Porsche if a BMW i8 is nearby.
Subaru WRX STI ($49,990 before on-road costs)Yes the Scooby is leagues behind the BMW in ticket price and tech but both vehicle’s handling and road manner are surprisingly similar. The Subaru gives you five seats and a big boot but uses a significant 10.4 litres of fuel per 100km.
McLaren 12C ($398,000 before on-road costs)With a lack of anything quite like the BMW in its price bracket you have to step up to the mid-engined carbon-fibre McLaren and into supercar territory to get close. The 12C will get to 100km/h from standstill in 3.3 seconds and uses about 12 litres of fuel per 100km, but the more expensive 650S is about to supersede it.
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