When stats for the 2019 BMW i8 coupe and its roadster counterpart came out last year, I was disappointed that BMW didn’t give this spaceship-like hybrid more power. This was its chance to finally make an all-powerful electrified halo supercar, I figured, and it missed the opportunity.
But now that I’ve finally driven it, I realize that I am a big, dumb idiot for believing so. The i8 is gorgeous and striking. It makes futuristic noises and the chassis is excellent. It doesn’t need more power. That’s not what it’s about.
In fact, performance almost takes a back seat to everything else you get to experience while driving it.
(Full disclosure: BMW wanted us to drive the 2019 i8 so badly that it let me borrow an orange one for the week with a full tank of gas.)
The i8, along with the boxy i3 (which is now electric-only) make up BMW’s electrified i division. It is the barely changed production version of the BMW Vision EfficientDynamics concept car from 2009 and a kind of visual successor to BMW’s last mid-engine car—the legendary M1.
I see a strangely high number of i8s driving around New York City and it never matters what color they are, they always stand out starkly against the sea of other shoe-shaped cars everyone else drives. The thing looks like some concept car that snuck its way into production somehow, when no one was looking one evening.
It rides on a carbon fiber monocoque, the weave of which you can see if you looked inside the door sills. That chassis dramatically cuts down on the car’s weight and also makes it extremely rigid. But it’s also probably very expensive to fix if that cage were ever to get damaged.
Uniquely, the i8 is also a mid-engined 2+2 coupe, the only one on the market other than the Lotus Evora. Those back seats are a bit of a joke, though. My head didn’t exactly scrape the ceiling, but I don’t think I could sit back there for an extended period of time. It’s good for kids or luggage because the trunk is minuscule.
The i8 is also a hybrid sports car, doing the wonderful job of reversing the hybrids-are-lame narrative that was perpetuated by the Toyota Prius and its ilk. Between the car’s axles sits a 1.5-liter, turbocharged, three-cylinder motor, which produces 231 horsepower and drives the rear wheels. An electric motor that uses a 11.7 kWh lithium-ion battery is good for 143 HP and drives the front wheels.
Combined, the total system power output is now 374 HP, up from the old i8's 357-HP figure.
It starts up in Comfort mode, where the battery drives the front wheels until you reach about 37 mph and then the gasoline engine kicks in. There’s Eco Pro mode, where things like the engine and the air conditioner/heater are adjusted for maximum efficiency and the car runs on the battery power only until about 37 mph. While in both of these modes, you can press the eDrive button, which will keep the car in battery-only mode until the battery is drained. BMW estimates the i8’s electric range to be 75 miles.
And then there’s Sport mode, which can be activated by bumping the shifter to the side. In Sport mode, the cool blue light of the dashboard is replaced by an angry orange glow and the gasoline engine will always remain on. The noise of the three-cylinder gets louder and throttle response sharpens up considerably.
The reliance on the electric motor is also reduced, but doesn’t appear to wean off completely, leading me to believe that there is no way to drive the i8 on gasoline only. This is the easiest way to charge the electric motor while driving, though.
Recharging the battery is done by the gasoline engine at times, and by regenerative braking. It can charge fully in about two hours off a 240 volt charger; that was not done for this test, and as it’s a hybrid, we suspect some i8 owners won’t need to charge up at all.
Around New York, the i8 handled tight, last-minute turns beautifully. Despite its electronically assisted steering system, it was responsive and well-weighted, even at low speeds. That’s been the chief complaint I’ve had about the other BMWs I’ve driven—that their steering sucks when the car isn’t moving very fast. The i8’s wasn’t like that at all.
Bumps and potholes didn’t go unnoticed, though; the suspension is hard and the stiff chassis transmits those road imperfections straight into your body. That was fine with me; it’s a sports car, not a luxury cruiser.
But being stuck in Manhattan traffic and relying solely on the car’s battery to move was a nice feeling. It was silent in the cabin and there were no vibrations from a running engine to pick up on.
Do this with the system set to Sport mode. It’s best that way, I promise.
Yes, the i8 doesn’t have the highest horsepower figure, but it does have a respectable amount of torque—420 lb-ft, to be exact, and you really feel it when you mash on the throttle from the lower revs. The sleek body surges forward and the sporty-sounding three-cylinder yells into the cabin.
I know about BMW’s habit of piping induction noise into the cabin via the speakers, but I’d never experienced it as egregiously as in the i8. The three-cylinder by itself sounds cool—raspy and throaty—but I could definitely tell the change in tonal quality when the speakers added their own tinny-sounding chorus.
But when you keep your foot on the throttle and let the engine spin into the higher revs, a new and more exciting noise enters the cabin: A high-pitched whirring, emanating from the motor, that’s similar to the sound a futuristic jet taking off. Suddenly, because I’m a child at heart, I was a pilot and the Palisades Parkway was my runway.
BMW says that the i8 will hit 60 from a standstill in 4.4 seconds, which is an extremely respectable time. Not supercar fast, but probably faster than most people realize. Its acceleration feels instant and incredibly linear. Not once did I find myself wishing for more power. It might not be the fastest car that BMW makes, but it’s quick, agile, light-footed and fun.
Part of that is because the power always feels like it’s on. If there’s any lag from the turbocharger, the electric motor more than fills in that gap. The result is a car that always feels like it’s eager and ready to go at the lightest touch of the throttle.
The i8 is by no means a small vehicle, but once you get it going, it wraps closely around you and you are acutely aware of what it can do and where you can put it.
If you’re someone who likes hanging out below the radar, then I’m not sure this is the car for you. The i8 is about as subtle as an on-fire freight train. Every single time we took it out, it would draw gawks and cell phone photos. It was like a public attraction, the kind that people aren’t shy about coming up to and taking pictures with without even feeling the need to ask.
And whenever you pull up anywhere, climbing out of it basically becomes a free show for other people. Sliding your ass over those wide sills and down into the bucket seat will take some getting used to. There’s a twist involved during ingress and egress, because you also need to avoid hitting your head on the bottom of the butterfly doors.
It’s also incredibly hard to see out of. You sit low, the windows are small and the C-pillar is massive. I guess that’s the trade-off for a show-stopping design.
Whenever I used to think about the i8, it was always with a tinge of regret that it didn’t have 400 HP or more. But besides a psychologically satisfying round number, what does 400 HP actually translate to? If you had told me that the i8 had 400 HP when it actually didn’t, then I’d come back from the drive none the wiser.
My point is that performance doesn’t matter as much here. There’s too much other cool shit going on—the cool doors, the cool carbon fiber tub, the cool noises, the cool design—for you to care much about the i8 beating the next M-AMG-RS-Quattro-F-Whatever in a quarter-mile drag race on YouTube.
You feel like you’re driving something special, which is another part of the i8's immaterial charm. It almost doesn’t matter that it uses hybrid technology or can be plugged into a wall socket. It looks special and it feels special, thus heightening the driving experience as a whole, even if you’re driving around in mundane places.
MSRP for the i8 is $147,500, but my loaner came out to $152,195. That’s a lot of money no matter which way you look at it. For a little less, you could have an Audi R8 and for a little more, an Acura NSX. The latter is probably the current leader in hybrid performance machines that aren’t million-dollar hypercars.
The i8 wound up on our list of worst-selling cars in America for 2017. BMW only managed to move 488 of them. In that post, I (a pre-i8 driving person) thought it was because the car was too expensive and not competitive enough for its class. While that may be true, I also think that the i8 is for someone who doesn’t care about the competition. They buy the i8 because it’s quirky and weird-looking and that’s what makes them happy.
Those really aren’t qualities you can pull from reading a spec-sheet.