When car geeks encounter a rare automobile, they say they’ve seen a unicorn. The BMW i8, however, is a different animal. With its otherworldly design, wing-like doors and cutting-edge technology, we’d say this plug-in hybrid is a Pegasus, with bits of Tron and the Terminator thrown in for good measure.
The BMW i8 is like nothing else on the road, inside or out. It catches the attention of everyone it passes, with its low, wide stance, heavily sculpted lines and contrasting color schemes. Beneath its skin of aluminum, carbon fiber and thermoplastic is a lightweight passenger compartment made of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP), bolted to an aluminum shell that houses the i8’s plug-in hybrid architecture.
Powering the BMW i8 is a unique hybrid system. In front, there’s a 129-horsepower electric motor, the same used in BMW’s i3 electric car. Power is sent through the front wheels via a two-stage automatic transmission. In back, there’s a 1.5-liter, three-cylinder gasoline turbocharged engine powering the rear wheels that makes 228 hp and 236 lb.-ft. of torque, mated to a 6-speed automatic. A second, 11-hp electric motor in the rear helps acceleration off the line, with instant torque that compensates for the gas engine’s turbo lag. These work together for a total output of 357 horsepower and a hearty 420 pound-feet of torque. A long, 7.1-kWh lithium-ion battery pack runs down the center of the car, in the space where a drive shaft would normally be.
The BMW i8 can dash from 0-60 mph in just 4.2 seconds, which might not sound like much compared to newer gasoline-sucking speed machines, but it’s quite impressive considering the hybrid powertrain. That’s just one-tenth of a second shy of BMW’s estimated 0-60 mph time for the newest M3 and M4 sports cars, and considerably quicker than the all-electric Tesla Model S, with its 0-60 mph time of 5.4 seconds.
But the BMW i8 is not a track car. Rather, it’s a versatile sports car that excels as a daily commuter or a weekend canyon carver. Three drive modes produce three distinct driving characteristics: Eco Pro maximizes efficiency and energy recovery; Comfort mode favors electric power at lower speeds and uses the gasoline engine at higher speeds and revs; Sport mode is for maximum power and performance with an electric e-Boost function, more athletic steering and quicker shifts.
In electric mode, the BMW i8 can go up to 22 miles without using the gas engine, at speeds of up to 75 mph. Though, as with all electrified cars, range can vary greatly depending on driving style, and air conditioning uses up the battery much faster: We got 9.2 miles of electric range with the A/C set at 73 degrees and the fan on the lowest setting. Total range for the BMW i8 is an estimated 310 miles combined with a full charge and a full tank of gas. Charging time is about 3.5 hours using a 110-volt household outlet, or about 1.5 hours using a 240-volt fast charger. Fuel economy for the 2014 BMW i8 is an estimated 94 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe), whatever that means.
Though it’s technically a body-on-frame design (like trucks and old-school SUVs), there’s no disconnected feeling on the road. On the contrary, the i8’s stiff carbon fiber frame, low center of gravity and 50/50 weight distribution give it amazing road manners. The i8 hugs every curve with a firm, planted feel. And although the narrow tires are designed for efficiency and wrapped around giant 20-inch wheels, we found plenty of grip and very little noise. BMW’s so-called Intelligent all-wheel-drive system continuously adjusts the torque ratio between the front and rear wheels for maximum traction, whether around a tight corner or driving in the rain.
In the cabin, the BMW i8 design is both avant-garde and elegant. Silky-soft leather, tanned with olive leaf extract instead of more commonly used toxic chemicals, sweeps across the expansive dash. The TFT instrument cluster is pleasing to the eye, and changes color depending on the driving mode. The center stack comes with BMW’s widescreen display, along with the iDrive interface. The i8 is technically a 2+2 sports car, but the back seats are only habitable by people less than five feet tall.
The BMW i8 might be short on practicality, as cargo space and storage compartments are small and cramped, but this isn’t a road-trip car, unless your butler follows behind in an X5 with your wheeled suitcases. For quick weekend getaways, there’s always the matching, compact Louis Vuitton luggage made specifically for the i8’s trunk, which will set you back more than $20,000 and is made from carbon fiber.
With its starting price of $135,700, there are many amazing cars that rival the BMW i8 for the money. These include the all-new Maserati Gran Turismo MC, the classic Maserati Quattroporte, the gorgeous Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG roadster, the uber-luxe Mercedes-Benz S-Class S63 AMG and the track-ready Porsche 911 GT-3. But the BMW i8 has no true competitors. While it may not be as fast or as powerful, it is indeed a different animal with its electrified powertrain, broad range of driving capabilities and breathtakingly cool looks.
Designers say the BMW i8 was modeled after a raindrop, the most aerodynamic shape in nature. The i8's lines aren't nearly as elegant as those of a raindrop, but every curve, angle and cutout is there for a reason: to help channel air around the car for maximum speed and efficiency.
The stance of the BMW i8 is low and wide. Styling cues are unique to the BMW i lineup. The front end features a slightly different take on the signature BMW twin kidney front grille. Taut headlamp housings are framed in u-shaped LED lights, with LED headlights inside (European-spec cars get laser headlights, but they are not legal in the U.S.). Also notable is the absence of the Hofmeister kink, a trademark curve in the side rear windows of traditional BMWs.
Air is managed through and around the car via deep grooves in the front bumper, a large, imposing hood scoop, giant fender flares, aggressive side skirts and a deeply cut groove that flows up around the rear fender and into the heavily sculpted back end, making the tail lamps appear from the rear view as if they're floating.
The hood and door skins are made of lightweight aluminum, and the roof is carbon fiber. Bumpers are flexible thermoplastic, which not only weigh less than traditional plastic bumpers, but also pop back into shape more easily. The lightweight materials and wind-tunnel minded design combine to give the BMW i8 a drag coefficient of 0.26, which isn't the slipperiest on the road (the Tesla Model S achieves Cd 0.24), but is near the top of the list.
The list of colors is short and sweet: Ionic Silver, Crystal White Pearl, Protonic Blue and Sophisto Gray (which in some light looks almost black). Silver and white paint colors are trimmed in BMW's signature i Blue around the front grille, side skirts and rear bumper. Protonic Blue cars are trimmed in contrasting Frozen Gray Metallic, and Sophisto Gray cars can be trimmed in blue or gray (we think the latter is the most elegant). Show-worthy 20-inch wheels come in a choice of two designs.
The cockpit of the BMW i8 is sleek, modern and delightful to the eye. Contrasting colors and swooping lines echo the exterior design language. With its wide door sills and low-slung seats, the i8 is a challenge to get into gracefully, but this becomes a satisfying feat with practice (hint: rear-end first is best).
Controls are laid out simply and intuitively. A digital thin-film transistor (TFT) instrument cluster sits in front of the driver, with a speedometer and tachometer that changes color depending on driving mode: Blue for Eco Plus, Gray for Comfort, and a not-quite-angry orangey red for Sport. BMW's wide-screen color display sits atop the center air vent. The center stack contains only a simple row of presets and the climate control panel beneath. The gear shift, drive mode buttons and iDrive interface sit cleanly on the center console.
The seats, dash, and door trim in our test car came wrapped in upgraded leather tanned with olive leaf extract; BMW claims this is an eco-friendly, nontoxic alternative to the usual leather tanning process. The finish was unbelievably silky, described as unborn elephant by a fellow journalist. Sporty seats with plenty of bolstering were comfortable and supportive, and cradled us nicely whether blasting down the freeway or whisking around winding roads.
Like all BMWs, the i8 can be paired with a compatible smartphone and can be equipped with BMW ConnectedDrive services and apps, which allow users to access Facebook, internet radio streaming, places of interest and productivity features like message dictation, which allows drivers to listen to and send emails using voice activation.
In a car where just about everything else is automated, it seems curious at first that one has to schlep the i8's doors open and closed manually. We're told BMW chose not to install automatic closers, because the motor and other necessary parts would add too much weight. We understand the rationale, but the odd angle of the door hinge makes it awkward to close from the inside, leaving us to believe that the only elegant solution is to have a personal valet standing by at all times.
The BMW i8 is a 2+2 configuration, which means it technically has a backseat. Though, the two rear bucket seats are very small and cramped, and wouldn't be suitable for anyone more than five feet tall. On the plus side, they do come with LATCH child seat tethers, so one could technically argue the BMW i8 is a family car.
Though in some ways it would make an epic road car, storage space is not the i8's strong suit. A small cutout beneath the A/C controls will hold a pack of chewing gum. Two small, hinged compartments inside the center armrest can each hold a mobile phone. A single cupholder is located on the passenger side of the center console, and two side-by-side cupholders sit behind the center storage compartment, but aren't easy to access from the front seat, especially while driving. Side doors don't have pockets, since the opening angle of the wing doors would cause objects to go flying.
Trunk space measures a measly 4.7 cubic feet, not large enough for a medium-size wheeled suitcase. But for short trips, there's always the matching, compact Louis Vuitton luggage made specifically for the i8's trunk, which will set you back more than $20,000 and is made from carbon fiber.
Don't confuse the i8 with one of BMW's M performance car. While it's plenty fast, BMW stresses the i8 isn't for the track, but for a wide range of driving conditions from the daily commute to twisting backroads. Different drive modes produce three very distinct driving characteristics: Eco Pro maximizes efficiency and energy recovery; Comfort mode automatically transitions between electric and gasoline motors, depending on the driving situation; Sport mode is for maximum power and performance, with an electric e-Boost function, more athletic steering and quicker shifts.
In electric driving mode, the i8 uses only the front-mounted electric motor, with the two-speed transmission in low gear. All-electric range is estimated at a maximum of 22 miles, at speeds of up to 75 mph. Though, as with all electrified cars, range can vary greatly depending on driving style, and using the air conditioning will also kill the battery faster. We got 9.2 miles of electric range with the A/C set at 73 degrees and the fan on the lowest setting, and perhaps a lead foot.
When more power is needed, the driver can also override electric mode by pressing harder on the accelerator until it kicks down, which will bring in the gas engine to help. Though we could feel the transition during kickdown, it wasn't in any way disruptive or uncomfortable.
In any mode, acceleration off the line is swift and seamless. Comfort mode is the default on startup, and we found the transitions between gas and electric unobtrusive. Steering is somewhat light in Comfort, which is unusual for contemporary sports cars, which often seem to favor a heavier feel. Though it was fine for driving around town and maneuvering through tight spots, like the grocery store parking lot, where we got more than a few envious looks.
Clicking over to Sport mode on the shift lever tightens up steering and will provide maximum power with the gas engine running continuously, plus help from the electric motor/generator which provides instant torque to compensate for any turbo lag. Despite the i8's potential for efficiency, this mode is by far the most fun, and we'd just prefer to leave it in Sport all day.
According to BMW, the i8 can accelerate from 0-60 mph in just 4.2 seconds, which is just one-tenth of a second shy of BMW's estimated 0-60 mph time for the newest M3 and M4 sports cars. Though there are much faster cars out there for the price, we found the i8's silky powerband will make you feel like you're flying in no time.
Brakes are designed to recover as much energy as possible, depending on driving mode and speed. Around town, the brakes do feel a tad grabby, as is characteristic of all hybrid cars, but it's not particularly bothersome. With moderate to hard braking, we found the system a little more invasive, but learned to smooth out the ride by modulating our pedal style. To maximize safety and performance, energy recovery functions are disabled at speeds over 90 mph so the brakes don't overheat.
Though it's technically a body-on-frame design (like trucks and old-school SUVs), there's no disconnected feeling on the road. On the contrary, the i8's stiff carbon fiber frame, low center of gravity and 50/50 weight distribution give it amazing road manners. The i8 hugs every curve with a firm, planted feel. And although the narrow tires are designed for efficiency and wrapped around giant 20-inch wheels, we found plenty of grip and very little noise. BMW's so-called Intelligent all-wheel-drive system continuously adjusts the torque ratio between the front and rear wheels for maximum traction, whether around a tight corner or driving in the rain.
If we had a complaint, it would be the large blind spot created by the wide A-pillar, which partially blocked our view when looking through the corners on winding roads. The sharply sloping roofline also makes for somewhat limited visibility in the rear corners, though visibility is fine out the front and back windows.
Perhaps one of the most seductive characteristics of the BMW i8 is its deliciously throaty exhaust note, especially in Sport mode. Engineers carefully designed the i8's sound using recordings from the actual gasoline engine, and amplified it through the cabin to make the driver feel like the hero (or heroine) in an action movie.
Beautiful, efficient and tech-savvy, the BMW i8 offers the best of both worlds for those who desire both an eco-friendly commuter and a capable canyon carver.
NewCarTestDrive.com senior correspondent Laura Burstein filed this report after driving the BMW i8 in Los Angeles.