What’s hot: Amazing electric power, spectacular styling, supercar cred and fuel economy of just 2.1 l/100km
What’s not: The $299,000 price tag, electric-only range of 37km, dynamics not as good as M3 or M4.
X-FACTOR: Plug-in technology and head-turning futuristic looks... in fact, it is the future on wheels.
Vehicle style: Low-slung eco supercar
Price: $299,000 - a bit extra if you want blue seat belts or anthracite roof lining (they’re the only options).
Engine/trans: 170kW/320Nm 3cyl 1.5 petrol engine, plus a 96kW/250Nm electric motor mated to a two-speed auto.
Combined output: 276kW and 570Nm.
Hybrids are deeply worthy, but also deeply dull. Driving one may bathe you in a green glow of goodness and moral superiority, but nothing about them lights a fire in the belly.
The BMW i8, however, is the car that could change all that.
It’s the future on wheels; driving it, you feel like you’ve stolen it from a motor-show stand and somehow been allowed on the road.
This new BMW - which is part of a whole new sub-brand for the Munich-based power haus - is new, and very, very different, from the ground up.
If it’s as good to drive as its figures, its prelaunch publicity and its Tron Revisited looks suggest, it could change the way we see hybrids.
Using battery power for "good" - extra grunt, rather than just fuel economy - sounds promising.
To pull that off it needs to be seriously, face-bendingly fast.
And while a 0-100km/h time of 4.4 seconds sounds merely satisfactory, its mid-range, roll-on acceleration suggests it could be something very special indeed.
By combining both ICE (internal combustion engine) and electric power for a serious, seamless shove, the i8 can go from 80km/h to 120km/h in just 2.6 secs - a BMW M4, which is no slouch, pulls the same sprint in 3.5 seconds.
As far as the looks go, there’s no doubt the i8 turns heads - one woman who drove past us appeared to turn into an owl, spinning her spine through 180 degrees to check us out.
The slick, sleek shape is all about aerodynamic functionality, while the visible carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP), which is not only on the roof but all the door sills and seals, is a racy look.
Sadly, while pure carbon fibre has a familiarly sexy grain to it, CFRP looks a lot like a garden hose when viewed close up.
Overall though, the i8 is extremely cool, but it’s more nerdy sexy than supercar spectacular.
It’s eye-catching rather than trouser-tenting like a Ferrari or Lamborghini, but then it is a lot cheaper and, at a claimed 2.1 l/100km, a lot more economical too.
- Tron-style blades of blue lighting at night
- Optional blue seat belts
- Electronic dash display
- Head-up display
BMW has missed a bit of an opportunity with the i8’s interior. While the exterior is undeniably new and exciting, looking more like a concept car than something you can actually buy, the interior is mainly familiar BMW territory.
Considering the car is the halo of the new i-brand, it seems a shame it’s not more radically different inside.
The dash screen is all electronic, and the dials turn red when you enter Sport mode and provides different displays if you’re in Comfort or EcoPro.
But while it’s nicely done, the binnacle it sits in looks and feels a bit cheap, and overall the graphics and usability aren’t even as advanced as what Volkswagen is offering in its sub-$40,000 new Passat.
This is important because the headrests, for example, get a real workout from the car’s neck-snapping acceleration.
The seating positing is good, however, and overall it feels classy enough (just a bit disappointingly 'non-different').
There is also virtually no oddment storage - no bins in the doors for example - and the back seats would have small children complaining about the lack of leg room; they’re really only for storing your coat, or some baggage.
You’ll need the space, too, because Doc Marten makes bigger boots than this car offers.
Yves Saint Laurent has designed special, carbon-fibre and leather luggage for the i8, and you might need it, because you won’t get many standard bags in here.
ABS, Dynamic Stability Control, Cornering Brake Control, Dynamic Brake Control, Brake Assist, Brake Standby, Brake Drying function, Fading Compensation, Active Differential Brake, E-Traction, City Braking, Driving Assistant, Acoustic protection for pedestrians (it makes a noise up to 30km/h, and you can choose which one), eight airbags.
ON THE ROAD
- Three-cylinder twin turbo 1.5-litre internal combustion engine with 170kW and 320Nm plus electric motor with 96kW and 250Nm for a combined output of 276kW and 570Nm.
- Two-speed automatic transmission
- 0 to 100km/h 4.4 seconds
The headline act of the incredible i8 comes in Sport mode when you paste the accelerator and it throws the horizon at your face, and the seat at your head and spine.
Even with high-tech sequential gearboxes, modern sports cars accelerate in a slightly stop-start fashion, meaning there’s at least a split second between gear changes before the next thrust forward.
But while you feel the petrol engine doing this in the i8, underneath it the continuous shove from the electronic motor (which pours through the front wheels, effectively making this an AWD car) just never stops.
It’s a truly unique kind of linear experience, and it’s entirely addictive.
Cruising along at 80 or 100km/h, its hard to resist the urge to prod the pedal, again and again, to feel that savage surge of stop-less power.
It also feels seriously, supercar quick, doubling in speed from 100 to 200km/h in what feels like seconds.
The noise you get while all this is happening is also uniquely impressive. A 1.5-litre, three-cylinder engine just has no right to sound as rorty and sporty.
Both sounds, petrol and electric, are exaggerated versions of reality though.
The noise you hear in the cab is a synthesised, amplified version of the actual barks and whines coming from the two motors, played to you through the car’s speakers.
We can report that it sounds pretty good from outside as well, so it can’t all be fake.
In EV mode of course, which is the default setting when you turn the i8 on, it makes no sound at all.
This must have been a hell of a challenge for the engineers in charge of Noise, Vibration and Harshness, because without the background burble of an engine a car needs to be super quiet, particularly in a premium vehicle like this.
Sure enough, the i8 can be incredibly quiet, with a lack of wind noise around the mirrors, and lack of any noise, that’s truly impressive.
All that flashy looking aero in the car’s design really does its job, obviously, as this Tron-tastic thing cuts through the air like an eagle.
Of course the electric mode will only get you 37km, if you’re lucky and weather conditions are ideal.
And you can override it either by simply putting your foot down, or flicking the gear lever into Sport mode, which turns the instruments a racy red, sharpens the throttle response enormously, firms up the dampers and muscles up the steering.
Looked at from this positive point of view where the electric motor isn’t there to save your emissions so much as make your supercar both cooler and faster, a hybrid starts to make a lot of sense.
The i8 also steers very well, in a genuinely M-like BMW fashion, but only up to a point.
We’d wager the M4 has slightly more feel to it and, while the i8 will carve up long sweepers and hold its line through a bend beautifully - with no flex in its carbon-fibre body shell at all - it does get a bit untidy through sharp changes of direction.
BMW claims it has almost maintained its perfect 50-50 weight balance for the i8 (it’s close to 49-51), but the front end can feel heavy and will push slightly when thrown hard at a corner. We also experienced a surprising amount of tyre squeal for something so performance focused.
Perhaps, as BMW has been saying for years - at least until it came up with X cars, and the front-wheel-drive Series Active Tourer - the job of getting power to the ground and doing the steering is too much for any front wheels.
Particularly with this much power.
But it certainly feels faster, and more special, than both. Best of all, the i8 makes the future look good.
The next M4 will have this tech, as will the next 911, quite probably, and cars with two motors, it turns out, really are better than one.
HOW IT COMPARES
BMW believes the i8 has no competitors, and in terms of comparing it directly in tech terms with something else, they may have a point.
At this stage, the fully sporty plug-in supercar market is one they’ve pretty much got sewn up.
You could bring Tesla’s Model S into the argument, but because it’s a full EV you miss out on the i8’s great noises, and you have to take range-anxiety into account, which will never be an issue for the BMW.
The fact is, people who are looking at cars in the $300K bracket want bang for their buck, and not just speed and fury but looks and impact.
For the foreseeable future, the i8 is going to be the most neck-snapping and truly special car on the road.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
Yes, you could argue that its slight handling failings should have cost it another half star (and that its boot is a joke), but the fact is that while the tyres squealed and the front-end pushed wide now and then, it never felt scary or out of control.
And that, really, is the BMW i8’s only real failing as a supercar - it’s not quite scary enough.
Genuine supercars intimidate, at least until you get used to the ridiculous things they can do. But the i8 just isn’t that kind of scary.
It is, however, impossible not to be impressed by the experience of driving the i8.
It is properly fast, it has gull-wing doors which make it feel like an event every time you attempt to gracefully slide in or climb out, and it combines two kinds of technology into one very effective whole.
The fact the BMW has managed to harness all this technology, bring a carbon-fibre car to market and make the roads a slightly more futuristic and aesthetically pleasing place, with both this and the i3, is an impressive feat.
The i8 truly is a visionary car, and very nearly worth the $299,000 a few lucky punters will part with to own one.