The BMW i8, now in its fourth year, is a unique plug-in hybrid coupe with a stunning design, advanced structure and technical wizardry. The engine has just three cylinders. The body with its bird-wing doors is plastic reinforced with carbon fiber. The chassis is aluminum, designed to absorb crash energy.
There is a two-part powertrain; the front wheels are driven by an electric motor whose energy comes from a liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery pack with a capacity of about 5 kilowatt-hours; it’s relatively small, and located in the tunnel between the seats. The rear wheels are driven by a turbocharged three-cylinder engine that’s approximately mid-mounted.
For short drives, the i8 is quiet, calm, smooth, an electric car that can keep up with traffic. On longer trips it’s a seamless hybrid that delivers good fuel efficiency. On winding roads, it behaves like a sports car.
The BMW i8 features the world’s first laser headlights, an option over the standard LEDs. They are amazing, making night as close to day as we’ve ever seen.
The BMW i8 can run on just battery power up to 75 miles per hour (but not for very far), or with both battery and engine for more speed. A vehicle with such propulsion is called a through-the-road hybrid; the drive is coordinated via software but not mechanically connected.
The 1.5-liter engine is also used, in another version, in the Mini. It makes a healthy 228 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, and is mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission. The front motor is rated at 96 kilowatts (131 hp) and 184 pound-feet of torque, mated to a 2-speed automatic.
The i8’s all-electric range is EPA-rated at just 15 miles, among the lowest for plug-in hybrids, although there is a Max E-Mode setting that gives up to 22 miles. There’s also a high-performance Sport mode, for those times when you don’t give a rip about range. In that mode it’s louder and quite faster, and in fact feels like a sports car. Between those extremes, there’s Comfort (the default mode) and EcoPro, which combines modes to give the maximum efficiency with performance compromises.
In Comfort mode, which runs as close to a basic hybrid as it gets, the BMW i8 is EPA-rated at 28 miles per gallon. As an electric vehicle, it’s rated at 76 MPGe. MPGe, or miles per gallon equivalent, measures the distance a car can travel on the amount of energy contained in one gallon of gasoline.
Neither the NHTSA nor IIHS have or will crash-test the i8 because of its low sales volume, but BMW says it has done thousands of simulated tests and dozens of actual crash tests, to ensure that occupants are safe. There are six airbags, including front, side, and curtain.
For 2017, BMW i8 offers the addition of a vivid color, Protonic Red, to provide a more outgoing choice to the existing white, gray and black. Otherwise, it’s unchanged for 2017.
The BMW i8 is offered in three trim levels: Mega World, Giga World, and Tera World.
The i8 has a low fastback profile with short overhangs and wing doors that swing up from the windshield pillars. It’s radical while still being coherent, distinctive, and fresh. The drag coefficient is a very low 0.26. There’s a BMW twin-kidney grille and oversize 20-inch wheels. At the rear are startling wing-like fins that flow from the roof rail, forming an open tunnel on each side that’s not only futuristic but unique. There’s a groove in the bodywork where the waistline narrows and runs back to the fairly tall tail, with slab panels behind the rear wheel arches.
In every color there’s a lot of piano black, while the bright blue trim with some colors is distinctive and successful. Guaranteed, the i8 attracts a crowd. BMW uses the expression electrifying eye candy in its marketing, and it isn’t just hype.
The blue exterior accents are contagious, spreading to bright-blue seatbelts in the LED-lit cabin. The leather upholstery in our test car was a blend of ivory and black, with matte-silver trim on the layered dash, whose soft-touch plastics gave a premium feel, which is of course to be expected in a car with such a breathtaking price.
The dash layout is functional and predictable, modern but not so avant-garde as the exterior. There are original touches, for example the open cowl over the floating instrument pod behind the steering wheel, but the i8 is mostly recognizable BMW, especially the switches.
The highly contoured front seats are low but comfortable, separated by the tall tunnel for the battery pack. However we only got a few hours of seat time, so we can’t say how the seats will feel after a full day behind the wheel. The rear seats are useless for actual people, but fine for backpacks. The i8 is a two-seater, no matter what they say. There are small luggage compartments front and rear, but don’t be thinking you can carry suitcases.
The stylish gull-wing doors will take some getting used to, climbing in and out. The door sill is at least eight inches higher than the seat, and the driver must also squirm around the steering wheel. If you’re a woman wearing a skirt, modesty will be an effort. Also, the doors have no pockets for storage, otherwise you’d be dumping things on your head.
It’s not as quiet inside as you would expect from a $140,000 electric car. Even in all-electric mode, there’s a whine from the electronics at higher speeds, to go with the road noise from the low-rolling-resistance tires.
The engine, located behind the firewall behind the seats, sends less noise into the cabin than most cars with front engines, but the little triple has an uneven gurgle at idle that sounds a bit like an outboard engine. The cabin receives a sporty howl under acceleration, but it’s artificial, coming from a sound-generating chip that adds frequencies to the engine’s natural note, based on engine revs and road speed. And there’s an artificial honk that comes through the exhaust on upshifts.
With its gasoline-powered 228 horsepower at the rear wheels, and 131 electric horsepower at the front wheels, the i8 makes a potent combined 357 horsepower, and can accelerate to sixty miles per hour in an extremely quick 4.2 seconds. But, although it might be seen as a rival to the Audi R8 or Porsche 911, because of its size and price, it’s not really in that ballpark. And if it comes up against a McLaren or Lamborghini in a canyon-carving contest, the BMW will be blown into the weeds.
In Sport mode, the response is far more aggressive than any other mode. The instrument faces turn red and a tachometer replaces the power meter. At 75 mph, that 2-speed transmission driving the front wheels shifts into its high gear, to carry the car to its top speed of about 135 mph, no threat to that Porsche. Which is not to say it still isn’t capable and fun, driving it hard like we did on the Los Angeles Crest Highway, that legendary twisting canyon road.
There, in Sport mode, the ride was firm but compliant, the cornering controlled, with some bobbing and jiggling over the pavement irregularities in hard corners. The i8 offers pleasant neutral handling. The electric power steering is precise, and there’s satisfactory feedback through the steering wheel.
Sport mode, selected by pulling the shift lever to the left, uses engine overrun and regenerative braking to recharge the battery at a higher pace than the default Comfort mode. That allows the i8 to deliver sustained full power.
Back down in E-Mode, if you accelerate too hard, past a stiff pedal detent, the engine will engage, and you have to re-select E-Mode to shut it off. Regenerative braking is stronger in E-Mode, slowing the car to nearly a stop before braking is required.
Around town the i8 is a quiet, calm, smooth electric car that effortlessly keeps up with most traffic. On trips it’s a seamless hybrid that delivers good fuel efficiency. On twisty two-lanes it feels like a spirited sports car.
It’s incredibly complicated, electronically, to merge and combine all these demands. A driver who understands the car’s personalities can use them to balance his or her own desires for sportiness and energy efficiency.
The question is, literally: What do you want for $140,000? The i8 offers a lot of different things, but not the best of any one thing. Just maybe the most of overall combined technology. And maybe how it feels to have one in your driveway, if you can afford it. If that’s enough for you, it’s enough for us.
Sam Moses contributed to this report, with driving impressions by The Car Connection staff.