Driven: BMW i8

By Bradley Iger

June 05, 2014

When we stepped out onto the front drive of Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica to get a closer look at the car we'd be tooling around the backroads of Malibu in the following day, the realization that the i8 - as an actual production vehicle bound for showrooms in the very near future - finally dawned upon us. In contrast with the typical catalog of vehicles one sees on the road, even in this part of Southern California, it seems almost implausible. But there it is, a hybrid spaceship of a sports car that any mere mortal can raise the door of, hop in and drive - provided they've got the coin for admission, of course.
What is the idea behind the BMW i8?
As the flagship of BMW's new "i" brand, the i8 serves as a showcase of BMW's most advanced hybrid technology, used here to create what BMW touts as the "most progressive sports car" available today.
Powered by a three cylinder, 1.5-liter turbocharged gasoline engine which sends power to the rear wheels via a conventional six-speed automatic gearbox and a 96-kW, two speed electric motor which drives the front wheels, the i8 offers a total output of 357 horsepower and 420lb-ft of torque.
By way of 5.2-kWh battery mounted along the center of the i8's aluminum chassis, the i8 also capable of 22 miles of gasoline-free driving, at speeds of up to 75 miles per hour. When working in tandem with the conventional motor, the i8 also returns an eyebrow-raising 94mpg. Charging time on a 220V J1722 charger should take about an hour and a half at 16 amps.
Beyond its performance and efficiency metrics, BMW purports that the i8 is a window into the future. That is, much the way the Mercedes Benz S-Class is commonly considered to be a way to showcase the luxury features one might find in an everyday vehicle half a decade from now, BMW sees the i8 as a preview of how they expect hybrid technology will be applied to mass production vehicles with sporting aspirations a few years down the road.
Who might want a car like that?
There's no doubt that the i8 looks and feels cutting edge. Beyond its striking visual presentation, which is genuinely awe-inspiring when one considers that this car, in this exact specification, will hit showrooms this summer, the i8 offers a sense of occasion to the driving experience which will certainly appeal to the tech set. From its A-pillar mounted swing arm doors to the futuristic chimes of its instrumentation, the i8 will appeal to the enthusiast who longs for a modern interpretation of Doc Brown's DMC Delorean as well.
BMW also openly admits it's watching companies like Tesla closely, and it wouldn't be a stretch to consider some of the i8's potential buyers as Tesla-cross shoppers. The i8 offers an interesting alternative to both the Tesla Roadster and the Model S, providing a distinct advantage over both of them in terms of range anxiety by way of its dual drivetrain layout, which means that once the battery is depleted, you aren't dead in the water. While this isn't a massive issue with the Model S as long as you've planned your trip accordingly, as we illustrated in our recent article, the added flexibility due to the presence of a conventional gasoline-driven motor will undoubtedly appeal to many potential EV buyers, though with a price tag exceeding $135,000, the i8's potential customer base is a relatively small one.  
How does the i8 perform?
We must admit that when we, as sports car enthusiasts, heard the terms "three cylinder" and "hybrid" used to describe the powertrain of the i8, performance expectations were fairly low. But in terms of straight line prowess, the i8 far exceeded our expectations. BMW claims a 0-60 time of 4.2 seconds, and we have no reason to doubt that - it may even be a tenth or two faster. It's legitimately surprising how authoritively the i8 pulls when asked to do so. We also noticed - and later confirmed with BMW engineers - that even when the car is placed into Sport mode, which brings the conventional gasoline engine into center stage, the electric motor up front is still pulling the front wheels as well. One of the most interesting aspects of this design is that it eliminates the free-fall of torque during the shifts of the conventional six-speed, as the front wheels continue to pull the car forward even when the rear wheels are busy finding another cog.
However, this design cuts both ways, as more than once we noticed a split second of hesitation as the computers frantically decided where to call for power from when we suddenly chose to push the throttle pedal into the floorboard. But once the math has been sorted, the i8 pulls with the kind of gusto that would shame many muscle cars, and does so with an exotic bark that we never would have expected from a three cylinder motor. Many will chalk up this melodious tone to BMW's penchant for piping faux engine noises into the cabin via the stereo system, as they do in the current M5, but we can attest to the fact that plenty of that sound is coming out of the tailpipes and into the ears of those outside the car, as we noted while watching another i8 spiritedly take off from a green light on Wilshire Blvd.
But performance is not measured simply by sound and thrust, and if we had to call out a weak point in the i8's bag of tricks, it would be the handling. While one might expect weight to be the core issue here, but at 3285 pounds, the i8 is actually a relative lightweight by modern sports car standards. Steering is also fairly direct and reasonably weighted, though still a far cry from what you'd get from something in BMW's M division, and did require more mid-corner corrections that we would have hoped. The suspension also does an admirable job of keeping the car flat through tight bends while also remaining forgiving over rough road surfaces and bumps, even in its sportiest setting. Truth be told, it's really the tires that let the car down. Standard fitment to the i8 consists of 195/50R20 tires up front and 215/45R20 tires in the rear, and while our tester wore the optional Bridgestone Potenza S001 tires, which measure 215/45R20 up front and 245/40R20 rear, when pushed on the demanding curves of Mulholland Highway, the i8 exhibited understeer at limits that we would not consider to be a match the performance of its drivetrain.
The i8 fared better around town. When set to Comfort mode, the computers are left to determine which motor should do what, the suspension dampening softens up, the shift schedules and regenerative braking become more relaxed, and the cabin quiets down. This is where the i8 excels - this is where the i8 feels futuristic. At this pace you can appreciate the well appointed cockpit, the wealth of efficiency data on offer in the i8's two large displays, and the juxtaposition of a sports car layout with the i8's now almost silent running gear. It is in this mode that the car most genuinely delivers on the promises made by it's outward appearance, and ultimately, this setting is where the i8 will spend the majority of its time.
How is the design?
During his opening remarks to the press at our event, Alexander Bilgeri, BMW's VP of Corporate Communications, closed by saying "You didn't think we would build this, and we built it." That might be a bold assertion, but to look at the car, it's difficult to wrap your head around the idea that this isn't a concept car. It simply does not look like anything else on the road, and the i8 attracts more attention than any other modern vehicle that we've experienced. Ferrari owners will stop and gawk at it, and Tesla owners will merge over from the other side of the freeway to take pictures of it. The entire presentation is further bolstered by the i8's supercar-style, A-pillar mounted doors (which BMW still doesn't have a cool name for - get on that guys), and its minimalistic cabin layout. There's also a wealth of subtleties, like the electric blue accent lines which compliment the electric blue seat belts, and the roofline that morphs into the rear spoiler - a design feature which, like the rest of the car's exterior design, is said to be functional in terms of helping the i8 achieve its remarkable drag coefficient of 0.26. And it's engineering like that which helps elevate the i8 beyond mere parlor tricks and into a realm in which the car holds some legitimate cachet as a futuristic vehicle in terms of both form and function.
Final Thoughts?
BMW's description of the i8 as a "progressive sports car" is an apt one. However, those expecting a full blooded M vehicle experience might find that the i8 can't live up to those expectations. For the price of admission, most sports car enthusiasts will likely discover a better match through conventional means, but those who champion cutting edge technology and unconventional design above all will have a tough time finding a sports coupe which can best the i8.

2014 BMW i8
Price: $135,700 (base),
Engine(s): Turbocharged 1.5-liter I3, 96kW electric motor
Output: 357hp, 420lb-ft
0-60mph: 4.2 seconds
Curb weight: 3285 pounds
Fuel economy: 22 miles full electric range, 94mpg combined
On sale: Late summer 2014