It's been a long time coming, but BMW's vision of the future sports car has finally landed. Jonathan Crouch takes a look at the dizzying i8.
Ten Second Review
The BMW i8 is a hybrid supercar capable of delivering a 357bhp punch if provoked. Alternatively, it can glide noiselessly along on pure electric power. The 135mpg quoted fuel economy figure needs taking with a grain of salt but if you wanted a vision of the future of sports cars, you're looking at it right here.
It was getting to be a bit of a fixture at motor shows. We'd seen BMW's i8 concept car so many times that many were worried the future would have been and gone by the time it materialised in dealers. While we might have become used to its fluid shape, the hybrid technology that powers it is something that will take a long time to sink in. This really is a new thing; a paradigm shift in sports car development. Here's a car that makes existing petrol-powered coupes look about as cutting edge as a video cassette recorder. We'd hoped for a lot from the i8 and the hugely impressive i3 hatch had clued us in to the fact that however much we'd hoped for, BMW was set to under-promise and over-deliver. Here's proof that 1.5-litres of internal combustion and a battery pack deserves to be taken extremely seriously.
Let's cut to the chase with the performance numbers. That 1498cc three-cylinder mid-mounted engine drives the back wheels and a 96kW electric motor takes care of the fronts, endowing the 1485kg i8 with some serious pep. It'll fizz from zero to 62mph in just 4.4 seconds and keep going to an electronically limited 155mph, which makes it quicker than a V8-engined Audi R8 off the mark. As you might expect, the i8 has a number of tricks up its sleeve. In eDRive mode, it's a front-wheel drive electrically powered vehicle with a claimed range of 23 miles. This mode delivers a peak power output of 129bhp and a top speed of 75mph. Select Comfort mode and the i8 is a plug-in hybrid with a range of up to 310 miles. Choose Sport mode by slotting a small lever from 'D' to 'S' and the i8 goes feral, the petrol engine and motor double-teaming to really bring the excitement. In this mode you get a combined 357bhp and a massive 570Nm of torque. The damping will tighten, the power assistance for the steering will taper off and the software will juggle the torque split for maximum entertainment. There'll be some artificial noise piped into the cabin but it should sound good. The six-speed 'automatic transmission has been chosen over the ZF eight-speeder to save weight but it's a good unit. The calibration of the braking between regenerative and mechanical is something many manufacturers should benchmark. The i8's centre of gravity is admirably low, but the 215/45 R20 front tyres have been chosen as much for their green credentials as anything else and will be the first thing to lapse into gentle understeer if you manhandle the car. Wider tyres are optionally available as long as you don't mind a small economy trade off. Keen drivers should certainly tick that box.
Design and Build
The i8 looks like no other car. It's sleek, clean in its detailing and features beetle-wing upwards opening doors. I can't think of another rival in its price bracket that offers quite so much visual drama. Given that you could easily blow £100k on a Porsche 911 Carrera, the BMW moves the game on. Suddenly Audi's R8, a car that once looked so bold, looks a bit under-baked. The rear end is particularly unusual, with no visible exhausts and what looks to be the tail of a Porsche 911 being enveloped by the i8's plastic bodywork. Once you see it, you won't be able to forget that one. The i8 keeps its weight so low thanks to a body that's a mix of carbon fibre and aluminium. The chassis is aluminium and the upper 'Life' passenger cell is carbon but BMW hasn't gone all race-tech and stripped-out. There are small rear seats and even if you hid the badges, the smooth sweep of the dashboard and the excellent ergonomics clearly bear Munich's mark. The dash is an LED virtual screen with another display popping up from the dash roll top. It's very nicely executed but surprisingly, not as adventurous as the humbler i3 hatch. Practicalities include a 42-litre fuel tank, a 12.3 metres turning circle and a rather puny 154-litre boot.
Market and Model
BMW quotes a list price of around £100,000 for the i8 and whether or not that strikes you as a bargain very much depends on what you want the car to do. If you want it to rip up mountain switchbacks like a 911 GT3, you're going to be a bit disappointed. The i8 isn't that sort of hooligan. If, on the other hand, you appreciate the technology, its straight line urge and the amazing feeling of rolling along in pure electric mode, then the futuristic styling and sheer presence of the i8 makes it seem a veritable bargain. As much as I love taking a car by the scruff of the neck and detest the typical supercar poseur, I find myself warming to the i8. There's a cerebral quality to it that's missing from so many thud and blunder supercars. What are you really going to compare it with? Only Tesla's Model S really gets close and that's more of a luxury saloon.
Cost of Ownership
The running costs of the BMW i8 are going to be tough to gauge. The quoted fuel economy figure of 135mpg is clearly a nonsense, but it's not BMW's fault, instead being due to a shortcoming of the NEDC test which doesn't really cater for hybrid vehicles at all well. And how do you measure the economy in any case? After all, this is a vehicle you can plug in to a wall socket and charge to 80 per cent capacity in less than two hours. If you had a ten mile journey to work each day, you'd never put any fuel into it. According to the NEDC test, that would make the i8 capable of an infinite number of miles per gallon. The 49g/km emissions figure also means that you won't have to worry about buying road tax or, if you're lucky enough to get one on the firm, the benefit in kind taxation will be pleasantly low. Residual values are similarly tough to calculate. That's largely because this technology moves quickly. The i8 might be a jaw-dropping feat of engineering today, but in three or five years time, the game may have moved on. Working in its favour is that many owners of supercars just don't care. They want the latest and greatest and for many, the i8 is going to represent just that.
The BMW i8 is an utterly fascinating vehicle. There's no doubt that this technology affords us a vision of the future. It already makes many of its more conventional rivals look positively quaint. Where the i8 is even more special is in the way that it normalises this brain-bending complexity. It's beautifully-finished and comes with a warranty just like any other BMW product. It doesn't impose itself on you. Yes, it's fearsomely fast in a straight line but the i8 is no B-road brawler. That model may well come and it will probably come from BMW, but here's something that's a bit more refined and looks set to change the way we think about this sort of car. You might not have ever believed that a car with a 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine could command a six-figure price tag. The i8 does that yet still seems a bargain. It's an incredible achievement.