The BMW i8 is the most significant and forward thinking car on the road today. This is BMW's vision of the future, and, for once, the future is no longer doom and gloom. The future is a positive, thrilling place. A place that we want to be. Don't be scared, gearheads, we're going to be ok.
(Full Disclosure: BMW loaned us the i8 for five days. Five days where we couldn't go anywhere without having someone's jaw drop with a look like the future just drove by them. And that's because it did.)
BMW's i division is a huge gamble by the automaker. A company that has always been known for making "The Ultimate Driving Machine" was making a move into what are called "personal mobility products."
Sounds sexy, right?
At first, a lot of people thought that this signaled the end of BMW as they knew it, but it seems now that this was a smart multi-billion dollar gamble to make BMW a leader in technologies like electric and hybrid cars, as well as the mass production of carbon fiber. The carbon fiber part is the big deal here. Lightweight construction using carbon fiber has been around in road cars since the Ferrari F40, but it has never really made its way down the pipeline to cars that everyone is buying.
Sure, Pagani makes works of art out of carbon fiber and all three new hybrid supercars from McLaren, Ferrari, and Porsche use carbon fiber, but the regular consumer has barely had a chance to touch the stuff other than as a trim piece.
The BMW i3 and i8 both make make extensive use of the material in their construction, and in doing so become the most affordable cars made of CF and the first mass produced models to use it as the main component in its construction.
The i3 and i8 are meant to represent the future of motoring as BMW sees it. And thankfully that doesn't mean soul sucking boredom. In the case of the i8, we have the 1.5 liter three cylinder from the Mini — which has been turboed to hell to make 228 horsepower and 236 pound feet of torque — sitting behind the driver. That charges the battery but also powers the rear wheels. Up front there is an electric motor producing 129 horsepower and 184 pound feet of torque.
Under normal conditions, the electric motor powers the i8. It can get up to 75 MPH under electricity alone and can go for about 20 miles on a full charge with no interaction from the engine.
But that's not all. The electric and gas can work together to change efficiency to performance. Put the i8 in sport mode or slam the pedal down, and you get pure torque from the electric motor and revvy turbo goodness from the engine. Like the McLaren P1, LaFerrari, and Porsche 918, the i8 uses its electric motor to increase performance.
But it looks crazier than any of those cars and it costs one tenth as much. ONE TENTH. BMW has cracked the code, because the i8 isn't just the deal of the century, it's a beacon of positivity as to what the future can hold for car fans. If you hate the i8, then you need to get a pill to fix your cynicism, because this car flat out rocks.
We're pretty fortunate to drive a lot of cool cars around here. Some of those cars attract a lot of attention from passersby or others on the road.
None of those cars have come close to the amount of attention that the i8 generated.
Within 30 minutes of getting it, I had dozens of people take cell phone pictures, gawk at it, give me a thumbs up, I was pulled over by one curious dude in a Camaro, and had two cops stop and take pictures and look. This was all in 30 minutes. I took it to a Porsche dealer, salesmen ran out, stopped me from pulling away, and took pictures of it and with it. One even said "this is way better than a Porsche." It was parked near the highway at the Porsche dealer, and it actually made traffic.
And it wasn't just people interested in cars. The i8 is physical proof that car worship is alive and well, but it is different than it was 20 years ago. Cars like the Lamborghini Countach could draw a crowd just because they looked so obviously different from everything else on the road.
Sure, an Aventador still attracts attention, but it's not close to the level of the i8. Kids look at this car and go apeshit, as if it's a Snack Pack in car form. Police see it and stop. They want to know what it is, they want rides. Everyone wants to know what it is, why it is, and how it is. You'll be followed, you'll make new friends, you'll be late to everything.
But that's ok. The i8 is an ambassador of a friendly and exciting future. I love every little detail, especially the swooping gap between the trunk and fender at the rear. Sure, it's polarizing, but what other car has that? And to raise awareness of the i brand, I think BMW has had a huge success.
Unlike the i3, the i8 feels distinctly like a car inside. There is no goofy gearshift, no recycled felt, and no reclaimed wood trim inside. Instead, you get your standard BMW gearshift, thin but cozy bucket seats, rear seats that make the Porsche 911 look roomy and family car-ish, and a straight forward driving position.
In a vehicle that is so futuristic outside, I actually appreciate having controls that I recognize in places that make sense in the cabin. Some of the materials do feel a little cheap, but that's because they are once again recycled and reclaimed materials that just look like plastics.
The instrument panel is a large LCD screen that gives you efficiency data in regular driving, but turns all orange and angry when you flip it into sport mode. It's a little confusing at first, but not too hard to get used to.
This is not the single greatest interior in the world, but everything falls easily to hand and works just as you'd expect. For me, that makes it the perfect familiar environment from which you can operate the future.
The i8 is a different acceleration experience from pretty much any car you have ever been in. In electric mode, it's silent and about as fast as a Chevy Volt, which is to say "not fast." Still, it's a perfectly acceptable speed in real world driving.
Then you mash your foot to the ground or put it in sport mode. The drivetrain changes from all-electric to electric-assist for the gas engine. What was a front drive econo-car has now become a rear drive supercar with electric turbos on the front wheels.
When you dip into the "e-boost" for the first time (that's BMW's ultra cool name for when the electric motor kick in to aid acceleration), you've entered a whole new world of acceleration amazement. The i8 weighs in at 3,455 pounds, which is light for a car with all this tech at this price. And with the instant torque of the electric motor, the i8 physically shoves you back in the seat. Literally. Hands come out of the dash and push you.
The i8 has just 357 horsepower and 420 pound feet of torque, which are tiny numbers in today's 900+ horsepower supercar game, but it doesn't make an argument for needing more power. The transitions from electric to gas to e-boost are seamless, only a futuristic whirr of the electric motor lets you know what's going on.
BMW has built a car that punches far above its weight class, but, furthermore, it's a legitimately fun experience to push the pedal and suss out what the car is actually thinking.
The i8 has regenerative braking at first, regular friction braking second. Pedal feel is pretty damn good for a car with regen, even though I did experience a slight deadspot in the pedal between regen and friction a few times, which was an off sensation.
But on the street, the i8 was never wanting for more stopping power. On track, I could see the pads cooking, but this is not a car for the track.
Since this is a predominantly carbon fiber car, the i8 is intensely rigid. This is not a relaxing ride, not that you expect a car with gullwing doors and a supercar shape to be a bastion of nirvana. Instead, this is a harsh ride, which I attribute to the weight of the batteries, the rigidity of the construction, and harder efficiency-focused tires.
You won't be uncomfortable in the i8, it's a great place to spend a lot of time, but don't expect it to coddle you. It's set up aggressively.
Yes, the i8's steering is electric, though a hydraulic setup would be the ultimate irony, wouldn't it? It's numb and a tad lifeless, but it is accurate. While you can't necessarily feel the road, you can place the i8 where you need it to be on the road.
It's also surprisingly fun, which I do attribute to the narrow, relatively hard tires that are on board. That brings the limits within reach at speeds that won't kill you. Under constant throttle, the i8 remains neutral and a lift doesn't really induce oversteer. For a fact, the i8 cannot drift, no matter how badly we wish it could.
The one place where I found a cornering peculiarity was during power down mid corner or at corner exit of a tight turn (this is very specific). Here's the scenario: You enter slow and wide, bring the nose to the apex, and that's where you slam the throttle because the corner opens up on exit. The i8 engages the front electric motor on power down to help boost you out of the corner.
But the motor also puts a ton of torque to the front wheels, which drags the front end off course and makes your exit a tad wider than you thought it'd be. But this is part of driving the future. In most cases, this is a car as you know it. But when it comes to certain cornering situations, we're going to need to try a new approach. Instead of hitting that traditional apex, make a later entry, turn sharper, and make more of a straightline exit.
It's about driving to what best suits the car, and the i8 needs a different approach sometimes.
BMW has equipped the i8 with just a six speed automatic. In a world of eight and nine speed transmissions, I found myself consistently trying to force the car to shift to a gear above sixth. Guess that's what I've been trained to do.
The six speed is quick to react to inputs and downshifts seamlessly. It also comes online without you noticing when the drive wheels are engaged and the engine is on. Otherwise, the electric motor is a two speed and is so seamless that I thought it was a single speed the whole time.
I don't know what to say here. Even driving the i8 is like playing with a toy. Just a toy for adults.
High score is replaced with either max efficiency or how much charge you can get out of it in sport mode. The nav system will work with the electric motor and gas engine to decide when is best to add charge to the batteries. It has one of those science fictiony top down cameras that I think works with a drone somehow.
I can't explain just how giddy the i8 makes you feel. It's honestly like seeing that you're driving a Hot Wheels everytime you get close to it. That alone earns it high marks.
Yes, the engine noise is synthesized. Yes, it's noticeable. And no, it's not bad at all. This sounds like a mini straight six, it's aggressive and guttural, I like it a lot. From the outside, it makes these pops and farts on shifts that are just the business.
On the other side, we have the electric mode, which is a gentle whirr that kind of makes me go crazy. It's the perfect soundtrack for a car that is a bridge to what comes next. And in e-boost, with that wind down that sounds like the turbo from the future, well, it's sublime. I'd just like it to be a little louder in electric mode, like a Formula E car. Then it would be perfect.
The Porsche 918 is a carbon fiber hybrid supercar. The base price of the Porsche 918 is $845,000. Yes, it has a race derived engine and super impressive tech, but the i8 is a carbon fiber hybrid supercar, and it costs $136,000.
That's a gigantic delta, and one that makes the i8 the deal of the century as far as I'm concerned.
When I had the i8, I had people asking why it costs so much more than a Volt or a Tesla when the range isn't better than either. While both those cars took risks on powertrains, neither have taken a risk in how we fundamentally build a car.
Mass producing lightweight carbon fiber for a road car is a huge deal. For decades, carbon fiber was supposed to be for people with millions of dollars who could afford the superest of supercars. But BMW is the first to bring carbon fiber to the people with the i3 and the i8. Yes, the i8's range is just 20 miles on electric, which isn't even close to the Volt, but the construction of the i8 is the next generation while the Volt feels old in comparison.
On performance and price, the i8 technically competes with cars like the Audi R8, Porsche 911, Mercedes-AMG GT, Corvette, and others of that ilk. But in the real world, this is like flying an F22 Raptor in 1945. Compared to everything else in its class, the i8 feels like the first generation of something new and exciting. The other cars feel like the last generation of something that has been around forever.
The best part is that the i8 is just a damn good car, a sign that we don't have to worry about robots taking over for us anytime soon.
Welcome to the future gearheads. I think you're going to like it here.
Engine: 1.5L Turbocharged I3 (rear), electric motor (front)
Power: Gas: 228 HP at 5,800 RPM/236 LB-FT, Electric: 129 HP/184 LB-FT, Combined: 357 HP/420 LB-FT
Transmission: Six speed automatic (gas) two speed automatic (electric)
0-60 Time: 4.2 seconds
Top Speed: 155 mph
Drivetrain: Rear-Wheel Drive (with front assist from electric motor)
Curb Weight: 3,455 Pounds
Seating: 4 people (more like two people and two contortionist toddlers)
MPG: 78 MPGe