BMW i8: First drive in a neoteric supercar

Typically the first thing everybody wants to know about a supercar is how much it has cost its owner. That’s because the price of a Lamborghini, for example, is generally more impressive, scandalous or frightening than any other of its extraordinary statistics.

Money is also something that we can all relate to – ninety-five percent of the public couldn’t give a damn about the Porsche 911 Turbo’s astonishing 487 pound-foot of torque at 1,950 rpm, but they can quickly work out how long it will take them to save up $151,000.

The BMW i8 is different from any other performance car in most respects, but perhaps the most important contrast is the way it’s perceived a wider audience.

Yes, people want to know how much it will take to put the carbon fiber coupé on their drives, but initially they’re more interested in what exactly it is, how it works, how fast it goes, and how a company that builds the 1 Series hatchback is capable of even conceiving a machine that looks so magnificent.

In short, it’s not hard to see that the BMW i8 is cut from a new and exciting cloth. How the Munich giant has gone about tailoring the car, a process that has set it back a good part of the $2 billion investment made in the incipient ‘i’ sub-brand, was something we discovered during a day with the car in London.

Very special cloth

The i8 is a balancing act between performance and efficiency. That’s a bit of a cliché now, but BMW has gone a tad further than building a supercar than can do 30 mpg on the highway.

Innovative raw materials such as carbon fiber that’s just seven microns thick and an outer skin made entirely of thermoplastic (you can easily flex the bodywork by hand) have curtailed weight, while the plug-in hybrid powertrain has been calibrated to deliver muscular performance or sensational efficiency at a flex of the driver’s ankle. The i8 is the first supercar to offer that choice (forget the Porsche 918 Spyder et al. – they have monstrous engines).

bmw-i8-review-3

The result is that the BMW weighs the same as a Ferrari 458 Italia despite its 7.1 kWh lithium-ion battery pack and returns 135 mpg on the European test cycle. That battery, which is warranted for 8 years or 100,000 miles, can either be charged from the mains via a Mennekes port behind the front wheel or on the move through a mixture of regenerative braking and (admittedly, inefficiently) siphoning off power from the engine.

In Sport mode this mobile recharging is faster than when in other drivetrain settings, and ensures that there’s always enough power from both sources for maximum acceleration. Floor it in the i8 at any time and you’ll get the full beans.

With protruding buttresses floating off the rear haunches and one of the most feral snouts in the automotive world, inset with penetrative LED/laser headlights, the i8 is extraordinary to look at. Benoit Jacob, who leads the BMW i design team, will tell that the five years spent evolving the i8’s styling was time well spent. We’re inclined to agree, although the i8’s tail certainly isn’t as neat as its nose.

It’s also extraordinarily difficult to climb into with any grace, thanks to the high and wide sills. That air of sophistication you cultivate on approach – key in hand – evaporates when you clamber through the theatrical dihedral door openings headfirst. (Tip: lead with your left foot then your bottom, à la Tesla Roadster).

Once inside you’ll be comfortable but perhaps also a little underwhelmed. Aside from the visible carbon fiber reinforced plastic that forms the i8’s passenger cell, it’s typically BMW, with high quality plastics and the bulk of utilitarian switchgear sunk into the vast transmission tunnel.

BMW-i8-review-12

This wouldn’t be a problem but for the fact that typical BMWs cost less than half what the i8 does. Some buyers will want a more unique identity from their supercar, which is something the McLaren 650S, for one, does much better.

It is a focused cabin, however. The two graphic-rich digital displays are crystal clear and the controls angle towards the driver. It is a certainty that everybody who drives the BMW i8 will momentarily imagine himself or herself piloting some kind of spacecraft. It’s that kind of car, with a letterbox vista and a high, convex dashboard.

One more thing: BMW came in for sustained criticism after it pumped synthesised engine noise into the cabin of the latest M5. Inside the i8 it sounds like similar trickery is afoot.

So, is it fast?

Yes, very, but without the bells and whistles. The i8 can generate power from two sources. Both the 228 hp three-cylinder gasoline engine and a 131 hp electric motor sat on the front axle are far quieter at maximum attack than any conventional rivals with similar performance, but their physical effect on the driver is profound.

Together they develop 357 hp and give the rakish i8 a 0-60 mph time of 4.4 seconds. If that seems slow compared to the current raft of supercars that’s because it is – by a second-or-so. The initial explosion of torque from the electric motor and subsequent, lesser detonations every time the six-speed transmission engages a new gear, however, mean acceleration feels unremittingly urgent all the way up into fourth gear and beyond 100 mph.

bmw-i8-review-2

Glass-smooth upshifts from the automatic transmission (the motor has two speeds, too) are accompanied by a raucous snort in Sport mode, while the free-revving mid-mounted engine, a detuned version of which features in the latest MINI, is unexpectedly sonorous all the way to the 6,000 rpm red line.

BMW has been able to turbocharge the mid-mounted 1.5-liter engine with impunity (think 2.0-bar) because the electric motor dumps no less than 184 lb ft of torque into the void created while it spools up. It’s a match made in heaven, giving the i8 point-and-squirt performance capable of leaving competitors dead in the water at least for a moment or two.

The i8 also corners hard and flat, largely thanks to its electric motor-enabled all-wheel drive and the stiff carbon fiber monocoque chassis, respectively. Crouch down and you’ll notice that the tires are worryingly narrow (but tremendously aerodynamic) by supercar standards. Don’t be alarmed: un-sticking the i8 isn’t something that can happen unintentionally, at least not on dry tarmac.

The powertrain flutters in and out of pure electric mode as it sees fit in everyday traffic, but pressing the ‘eDrive’ switch beneath the Start-Stop button will prevent the engine from cutting in until battery charge is depleted. Twenty-two miles is the furthest you’ll ever get in zero-emissions mode, but the sprint to 60 mph is dispatched in a Volkswagen Golf GTI-beating six seconds.

While most i8s will operate most of the time in hybrid mode, pure electric driving in the supercar is an extraordinary experience, imparting a feeling of delicacy that – for better or for worse – is utterly absent in a Porsche 911. It’s in electric mode that the BMW feels most like the concept car, straight off the drawing board no less, that it looks like when skulking down the road.

BMW-i8-review-10

When battery charge is used up BMW says the i8 will still return around 40 mpg. That’s better than the new twin-turbo M3, but there’s huge variability. A stint of vigorous driving saw our car’s economy drop to below 20 mpg. Shock, horror!

A more typical driving style – mindful of fuel economy but by no means hypermiling – elicited a reading closer to 50 mpg, which is absurdly impressive for a car of this ilk. Of course, if you’re driving only 30 miles and use the car’s maximum electric range during that distance then your overall fuel economy would be astronomical.

Caveats are few, but one is more noticeable that the rest. Like every other plug-in hybrid car we’ve driven in congested cities, the BMW i8’s complex hardware occasionally hiccups in its decision to choose gasoline or electric power.

This only really happens under light throttle loads, but shows that even Munich’s best engineers (and the i project has reportedly filched the most impressive minds from the legendary M division) haven’t completely mastered the technology. The other plug-in hybrid bugbear – soppy brake-feel due to regenerative brakes – is almost entirely absent.

Should I buy one?

You could buy a Porsche 911 GT3 instead, or even an Audi R8 with a thunderous V10 engine. Each costs fractionally less than the BMW, but both are made to look like horse-drawn carriages next to the electrified i8.

Porsche’s plug-in hybrid 918 Spyder is a different matter, as is the pure electric R8 e-tron that Audi is quietly readying, but those cars occupy another fiscal league. If you want a profoundly radical supercar at a relatively affordable price it has to be the BMW.

Despite its highly impractical doors and poor luggage space, perhaps the most surprising thing about the i8 is how easy it is to drive. It doesn’t boast a large footprint and the steering is feather-light (and not as feel-some as rivals, for that matter). It was less tiring to put around London than the ActiveHybrid 7 I drove a couple of years ago.

BMW-i8-review-08

That kind of usability puts the BMW on a different level to similarly desirable cars. The thermoplastic panels are also difficult to damage and easy to replace if you do mess up at some point. Throw in 310 miles of autonomy and a comfortable cabin, and it’s not hard to see why BMW has a 10-month waiting list for its most innovative model.

Finally, returning to that decisive factor in the court of public opinion: what about the price? Inquisitive Londoner’s – and this should be the real story here – were almost unanimously shocked at our moderately optioned car’s price tag of £105,880.

At the time of writing that equates to just under $180,000 – some $45,000 more than what BMW USA is asking for. America, grab yourself a bargain.

Photography by Olgun Kordal