The looks and performance of a supercar with the fuel economy of a family shopping wagon. The BMW i8 sounded like the stuff of dreams when BMW hatched this outrageous plan. It still does.
It was a gamechanger for the German manufacturer on so many levels. This petrol-electric hybrid supercar is just so radically different to anything BMW, or anybody else, has done in recent times. For that reason alone, it deserves to be an epic success.
Truthfully, BMW never intended to sell many of this highly-specialised sportscar. It will shift massive amounts of the i3 and i5, but this is the halo car. It’s a technical tour de force and a machine that neatly sidesteps every single issue with an electric supercar.
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It returns 134.5mpg, allegedly, it’s faster than most cars on the road and it’s a visually stunning feast of a car that stops traffic wherever it goes.
This, right here, is a modern day icon. It might be a halfway house while we perfect complete zero emissions technology, but it could also be the blueprint for the next generation of sportscars.
BMW i8 history
The German marque has flirted with out and out sportscars with the likes of the Z8, but hasn’t produced anything truly memorable in the sector since the M1 in the late 1970s. So when it unveiled the Vision EfficientDynamics Concept in 2009, nobody thought it was anything other than a show special.
The design was simply mesmerizing, though, and BMW continued to work on the concept and displayed a plug-in hybrid concept at the 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show. The groundswell of public opinion convinced the notoriously conservative German manufacturer and in 2014, it hit the road.
We’re so glad it did.
BMW i8 design
Well, just look at it. BMW was pushing the limits so much with the tech that it could have opted to play safe with the design, but that didn’t happen.
It could easily be an Italian design and the Germans have gone nuts with the wings, flips and details that combine to create one of the most visually arresting cars in any class. Every channel is there to reduce wind resistance, but they look the part as well.
It’s instantly different, from the low slung nose and aggressive LEDs to the back end that looks like it has swallowed a Porsche 911 whole.
There’s a Tron-style look about the low-drag BMW i8 and the gullwing doors are just the icing on the cake. That’s because the real magic happens under the skin.
The i8 combines a carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) crash structure that BMW created just for the electric ‘i’ line. The main cell and doors are made from this low-cost approach to lightweight carbon-fiber. The crash structures and sub-frames, meanwhile, are aluminum.
That means that even with the added weight of the Lithium-Ion batteries, the i8 weighs in at just 3440lb. There are lighter cars out there, but none of them come with this level of battery-powered tech.
BMW i8 performance
There are other petrol-electric hybrids, but the BMW i8 performance package might be the cleverest combination we have seen. The 1.5-liter, turbocharged three-cylinder engine from the Mini Cooper puts out 228bhp and 236lb/ft of torque. That works in harmony with the 96kW ‘hybrid synchronous’ electric motor.
Essentially that gives the car 357bhp to play with, as well as an epic 420/lb ft of torque. So even though it is all mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox, it is seriously fast.
The BMW i8 0-60mph time of 4.4s is more than enough for most of us and the BMW i8 top speed is electronically limited to 155mph.
The in-gear performance has also wowed the motoring press. With that intoxicating blend of electric power and an engine, the BMW i8 performance benefits from ‘in fill’, which means one of the motors will pick up the slack and there really isn’t a gap in the torque curve.
Keep it in full electric mode, we’ll get to that in a moment, and the BMW i8 speed is still impressive thanks to the electric equivalent of 129bhp and 184lb/ft of torque driving the front wheels.
BMW i8 economy
The headline figures make for impressive reading and, perhaps perversely for a car that looks like this, it’s fuel sipping nature is arguably the USP. Not many people have come close to that hypnotic 134.5mpg claim in the real world, but there’s no doubting the fact that the BMW i8 economy is, frankly, amazing.
Of course the fuel economy figure is technically achievable, as long as you keep the cylinders from firing wherever you can. With its eco warrior credentials and BMW’s well-known love of adjustable engine mapping in its M cars, it’s no surprise that the i8 comes with a choice of driving programs. Opt for Sport and it will combine all the electric and petrol-powered, turbocharged horses to give you instant torque off the line.
Drop it into Eco Pro mode and it will hang on to pure electric power up to 75mph, for up to 22 miles. That does wonders for the BMW i8 mpg figures.
In Comfort mode you’ll take the edge off the sporting performance as the i8 runs on electric power alone up to 45mph. Then, as the three-cylinder turbo kicks into life, it feeds power to the wheels and to a high output electric motor, which then steals some of the juice and feeds the 7.1kWh lithium battery under the floor.
Drive it like you stole it in Sport mode and you can still get the BMW i8 down to 40mpg, but that takes the same kind of commitment that would reduce a Porsche 911 or Audi R8 to single digits. That combination of electric and petrol power counts everywhere and the i8 seems to simply top up the zero emissions thrust with the traditional engine when it’s required.
Obviously there’s no BMW i8 range anxiety to consider. You can just stop and fill up the petrol tank. For official reasons the BMW i8 range is 330 miles, with 76 miles coming courtesy of zero emissions, but you have a choice of a plug or a gas station to rectify the situation.
BMW i8 interior
The BMW i8 interior actually isn’t as brave as the junior i3, but then BMW clearly opted for a premium and familiar finish. If it wasn’t for the TFT screen and brave flashes of blue lighting that signify this is something different, it would feel like the inside of a high-end 5 Series.
That TFT screen allows the driver to flick through a variety of instruments that includes battery info. It’s nothing like the high-end tablet you get in a Tesla, but it does feel more like a traditional car. If you like it or not, that’s a purely subjective thing.
You get a 2+2 layout, so small children or shopping will fit in the back. The BMW i8 boot space is also relatively huge for the class, thanks to the small engine and packaging advantages.
There’s one more big thing in the BMW: engine noise. It’s artificial, it’s piped in through the stereo and it is, frankly, a little ridiculous. It isn’t just the i8 that gets this treatment, BMW has opted for this Autotune for cars with its entire M line-up after downsizing to smaller, turbocharged engines in the name of efficiency. It’s something we hope they quietly drop.
Road noise is an issue with electric cars, but this doesn’t work.
BMW i8 price
Of course there’s a chink in the armour, nothing is perfect and the sticker price could make you wince. The BMW i8 price is $140,700, there’s no way to dress that up. It’s expensive, then, but this is new technology. That always comes with a premium.
BMW i8 lease prices start at $1539 a month, which might be easier for some to swallow as a business expense. It’s a cutting edge supercar, though. While fuel savings can hardly be the reason to buy one, it should be much cheaper to run than an equivalent Porsche 911 Turbo, Audi R8 or Aston Martin.
BMW i8 rivals
It’s an interesting one. Try finding direct BMW i8 rivals and you will come up with the likes of the Porsche Panamera hybrid and not much else. The Porsche simply doesn’t feel as brave as BMW’s offering, even though it’s technically brilliant.
So you either go full electric with the Tesla Model S P85D, or you go back to the Stone Age and take a traditional supercar that needs a gas station every 200 miles.
BMW i8 conclusion
The BMW i8 performance is stunning and the car is a brave step towards the future from an old-school manufacturer. It could merely be a halfway house and an introduction to the philosophy that BMW will adopt for its full electric sportscars in the years to come. It is also an insurance policy in case batteries don’t get smaller, lighter and better, as we all expect them to.
In short, it is a moment of inspiration and BMW is rightly proud of a car that can take the fight to almost anything on the road and do it while waving a green flag loud and proud. There’s a Spyder on the way, too, so you can have all of this with the roof off.
If this is the future, we think we’re going to be just fine.