2014 BMW i8 plug-in hybrid: High performance but with a conscience – Los Angeles Times

Posted: Friday, May 02, 2014

The 2014 BMW i8 plug-in hybrid and the all-electric i3 are the first offerings from the automaker’s new i subbrand. Equal parts sex appeal and efficiency, the cars combine electrification with lightweight construction and eye-catching designs. We recently spent a day in the i8, a 357-horsepower, all-wheel-drive coupe with wing-like doors that open upward and a body that will excite anyone with a pulse.

This is no Leaf or Volt. The i8 sells for $136,000. But it’s not a Porsche 911 S or Audi R8 either — though those cost about the same. This car promises high performance, but limited by a conscience.

“If you want to improve your lap time on the track, buy another car,” said Henrik Wenders, i8 project manager, at the press launch last week in Santa Monica. “It’s an i, not an M [BMW’s performance arm].”

This means BMW refrained from programming the car as aggressively as it could have. The target audience for the i8 isn’t necessarily people considering the hard-driving Porsches and Audis.

“We tried to find the perfect balance between efficiency and dynamism,” Wenders said.

The search for that balance begins with the drivetrain. The i8 is powered by two sources.

Up front, a small electric motor powers the front wheels. Out back, nestled above the rear wheels that it powers, a turbocharged, 1.5-liter, three-cylinder engine is hooked up to a six-speed automatic transmission.

The electric motor is the same one that powers the i3 all-electric city car, while the gas engine is loosely based on the unit in the new Mini Cooper.

This pairing nets 357 total horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque. BMW says the duo move the i8 from zero to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds, on its way to a 75-mph top electric-only speed, and an electronically limited 155-mph true top speed.

How that power gets to the wheels depends on which of the three modes the i8 is in. The default setting is Comfort, which uses the electric motor at speeds up to 37 mph, before adding in the power from the gas engine.

EcoPro is more conservative and also limits how much power functions such as the AC will suck up. For pure electric driving, there’s the eDrive button, which gives you about 22 miles of range.

But the best way to play is with the i8 in its Sport setting. That’s also where the car does its most efficient recharging. Sport mode tightens up the steering and adaptive suspension, quickens the transmission shifts, makes the throttle more eager and lets the electric motor kick in earlier.

It also pipes the tidy engine’s divine whir into the cabin — in a way the company calls “augmented.” BMW prerecorded the i8’s best engine noises. When driven in Sport mode, the car plays this sonic mixture through its speaker systems.

Of course this is ridiculous and fake, and represents everything that’s wrong with the future of motoring. But it sounds so good that you feel dirty and cheap for loving it.

The rest of the driving experience, especially in Sport mode, is very real. With the 216-pound lithium-ion battery pack mounted low and longitudinally between the passengers, the i8 has a center of gravity similar to your average bathtub. Scooting around some canyons translates into very little body roll.

At speed, the i8 holds tightly to the road and feels relatively neutral in the corners. When the turns tighten up, the BMW feels lighter than you’d expect, given that it weighs about as much as a Toyota Camry.

But these slow apexes also tied up the i8, thanks largely to the narrow tires BMW put at the front of the car. Though they were the optional performance set, this rubber was too focused on being efficient and gave up its grip on the road too early.

Also, though the six-speed automatic transmission’s manual mode and paddle shifters inspire quick, throttle-blipping shifts from the little engine behind you, the car will automatically upshift around 6,500 rpm and deny you downshifts if the engine is revving too high.

Aggressive driving in the Malibu canyons left us wishing for that Sport+ mode that comes on many other BMWs, though admittedly, we drove it harder than most of its target buyers will. The steering felt one shade too light for the desired mid-corner confidence, and the throttle didn’t respond quickly enough for fast exits out of turns.


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