“Whoa, what the f—?!”
We’d just parked and opened the butterfly-style doors to the 2015 BMW i8 in Venice Beach, California, when, right on cue, an amazed bystander basically summed up the entire day’s drive. For a split second, I thought BMW had installed the world’s most profane door chime. The timing was so surreal, my co-driver and I simply cracked up laughing in the car.
Without using the exact same language, let me tell you, that R-rated comment was spot-on. The BMW i8 is bristling with technology; the car’s plug-in hybrid powertrain and all-wheel-drive system make it one of the most cutting-edge vehicles anywhere, at any price.
It’s also absolutely, stunningly gorgeous. Whether the doors are raised or lowered, or if the i8 is parked, or whooshing down the road, BMW deserves enormous credit for making this sports coupe look like a dream machine. Nothing on it is superfluous, all the vents and wings have a function. That’s why the i8 has a wind-cheating 0.26 coefficient of drag, which helps improve economy and efficiency.
Large wheels and tires are great for grip, but much less so for aerodynamics. That’s why BMW added a pair of air intakes, located beneath the headlights, to create an “air curtain” around the front wheels. Look closely – or drop to the ground – and you’ll spot the ram air intakes for the mid-mounted, turbocharged 3-cylinder, located in the side sills, directly in front of each rear wheel.
If there’s a bad angle to the i8, I never found it during a sun-drenched day of driving and photographing the car along the California coastline. From the posh confines of Rodeo Drive, to the controlled anarchy of Venice Beach, the i8 is a four-wheeled celebrity everywhere it goes.
The doorman at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel graciously parted tour buses out of the way and said to take all the time needed for a curb-side photo op.
A young woman in Venice Beach smiled and said the car was “awesome,” before asking if we’d be sticking around for “weed fest.” People took out their mobile phones and tablets for photos. Stopped at a red light, one fellow rolled alongside on his bicycle and said “you own the coolest car in the world, man!”
It’s pretty cool to drive too, though the experience is totally different from the sounds and sensations you get in other sports cars and supercars. The main reason, of course, is the i8’s ultra-efficient combination of a small, gas-powered engine coupled to an electric motor.
The 231-horsepower turbocharged 1.5-liter 3-cylinder is mounted behind the cockpit and, according to BMW, it’s basically half of the company’s current turbocharged 3.0-liter 6-cylinder engine. The engine is coupled to a 6-speed automatic, which also serves duty in the latest Mini Cooper, and an 11-horsepower belt-driven starter motor generator. This helps charge the lithium-ion batteries, which are located in the center of the car, where you’d normally find a transmission tunnel. The starter motor generator also provides a more seamless stop/start function, and works to minimize turbo lag.
At the front wheels, and sealed from view (unless you’re an authorized BMW mechanic), is the 129-horsepower electric motor and 2-speed transmission. This transmission operates in first gear at low speeds in electric-only eMode. At all other times, it switches to the higher of the two available gears.
In electric-only eMode, the i8 has a range of 22 miles and can reach speeds up to 75 mph, at which point the turbo 3-cylinder kicks in. That also signals the point when the car transitions from front, to rear, or all-wheel-drive. The i8 judges your speed and traction, and determines how best to transfer power to theappropriate wheels.
Working together, the gas-electric powertrain provides 360-horsepower and 420 lb.-ft. of torque. That hustles the i8 from 0 to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds, and onward to an electronically-limited top speed of 155 mph.
The predominant driving trait is understeer, the i8 pushed wide when stepping beyond its grip level on serpentine mountain roads. You might be able to coax some tail-happy oversteer out of the i8, but that limit is best explored on a track, not on the edge of a canyon.
I found that different conditions worked best for each of the i8’s driving modes. I used electric-only eMode to cruise, silently, along LA’s city streets. Comfort mode, the car’s default setting, was best for long highway stretches, and was used liberally on the Pacific Coast Highway, while rolling through Malibu and along Santa Monica’s coastline.
For more excitement, flip the gearlever to the left for Sport mode. This cranks up the power and tightens the steering, and it was the perfect choice for the high-altitude hairpins that made up a long stretch of the test drive. It also affected the exhaust note, or so I thought. BMW pipes pre-recorded engine noise into the cabin, to give the impression of a louder motor. I didn’t notice until filming the car zipping past, in near silence, at a corner where the i8 had previously sounded (from behind the wheel) like a much wilder ride.
You can play around with the buttons and controls, or just leave the i8 in Comfort mode. Only the miserly EcoPro mode, which trims ancillary energy waste during EV driving, went totally ignored – even BMW reps said it’s primarily geared towards squeezing every ounce of eMode range. Thanks, but no thanks. The i8 is too much fun.
The ride and handling is extremely polished and very predictable, it rides a fine line between luxury coupe and sports car. This is thanks, in large part, to a rigorous weight saving regime. Weighing only 3285 lbs., the core of the i8 is a carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) passenger cell – much like the structures used in the world of Formula One racing. BMW then bolts on the engine, suspension components, electric motor and battery pack.
The fenders and bumpers are thermoplastics, the hood and door skins are aluminum, and the roof is crafted out of recycled CFRP that’s leftover from the chassis construction process. All this lightweight engineering gives the i8 an excellent 49/51 front/rear weight balance, along with the lowest center of gravity of any BMW in production.
You’ll eventually need to charge the battery pack, with either a 220 or 110 volt outlet. Charge times take anywhere from 1.5 to 3 hours, and no quick-charge capability has been included. That seemed a strange oversight on BMW’s part. However, during a full day’s drive the i8 maintained a large chunk of its battery power, thanks to regenerative braking and the gas engine serving as a generator in Sport mode.
After all this high-tech wizardry, the cabin seems downright dull. It’s not, but there is a lot of BMW DNA found in the dials and switches – and that’s not a bad thing. The front leather seats are comfortable and, believe it or not, those butterfly doors are as functional as they are pretty. The rear seats are a joke, however, and luggage space, what there is of it, is officially defined by a tiny cubby located aft of the engine compartment. Toss the bags on the backseat or, if you’re feeling decadent, check the option box for the set of i8-specific Louis Vuitton luggage. That’ll set you back an extra $20-grand, more or less. A soft duffel bag is probably a saner travel proposition.
BMW says the i8 has no direct rivals and, while I hate to admit it, they’ve stumped me when it comes to finding a car that competes head-on. The Tesla Model S is close; it’s lovely to look at, fun to drive, and has an eco-friendly electric motor. Except it’s a sedan, not a slinky sport coupe.
The Porsche 911, Audi R8, Nissan GT-R, and even BMW’s own M6 coupe are priced within shouting distance of the i8’s $136,625 base price. Options are limited to minor cosmetic trim items, along with a choice of four exterior colors: blue, silver, grey and black.
Strangely enough, green didn’t make the cut in this revolutionary, eco-minded and cutting-edge exotic car.