The i8 is BMW's best combination of ecology and flat-out fun. It's a hybrid electric sports car that maximizes both. Imagine a really, really fast, very good-looking Toyota Prius. No, don't think of it that way. Let's say that, short of hypercars like the Porsche 918, McLaren P1 or Ferrari La Ferrari, this is the world's fastest hybrid. Which would make it the world's fourth-fastest hybrid. But it's also a fourth of the price.
BMW calls it “an axle hybrid,” meaning the front and rear axles are driven independently -- sometimes at the same time and sometimes alternating. It's complicated, but if you really want to figure it out, a screen perched atop the dash details which engine/motor is doing what at any given time. It might drive you nuts. Better to just step on the gas, er, throttle and enjoy. Here are some details:
The rear axle is spun by a 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder gasoline engine powering the rear wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission. An electric starter-generator is also part of the rear axel's drivetrain, helping to smooth out the transition between the gasoline engine's starts and stops. The front axle gets a big, meaty electric motor the size of a fire hydrant making 129 effective horsepower and up to 369 lb-ft of torque. Both are computer controlled. Various algorithms mix and match the powerplants as needed. Generally speaking, that means that in the city at speeds lower than 40 mph the car is powered by electricity alone driving the front wheels. Above 40 mph or when you floor the throttle, the rear gasoline engine kicks in. At regular freeway speeds the car is powered by the rear gasoline engine, until you floor it and then the front electric motor also kicks in. There is no mechanical connection between the front and rear axles. Total system output for both powerplants is 357 hp and 420 lb-ft. With an 11-gallon fuel tank for gas and a 5 kWh battery, the car has a range of 22 miles when it runs on pure electric and 310 miles combined.
It's also a production car that looks just like its concept. The concept debuted at Frankfurt in 2009 and the production car you see here has stuck remarkably close to the swoopy, winged look of the show car. Like that concept, and like the i8's i3 sibling, the production car is rolling in high technology. The main passenger cell is made from carbon fiber with aluminum extrusions protruding front and rear to cradle the engine in back and the motor in front. The whole car weighs 3,275 pounds.
What's It Like To Drive?
Those who have always wished that swoopy show cars could just be built as they are should be careful what they wish for. A concept car, not unlike a booth model at a car show, just has to look good. You don't have to live with her (or him). If you did, you'd notice a few flaws that you were too smitten to notice earlier. The doors don't open far enough up to be out of the way and let you get in and easily. You could, conceivably, crack your noggin every time you tried to get in your beautiful car. Getting in is easier than a Group C car, for sure, but still takes more articulation on the part of the getter-inner than most sports cars. With the big wing door opened up, you lean your upper torso back while simultaneously oozing your inside foot into the footwell. Then lower your kiester onto the high, wide carbon fiber sill and slide it across into the seat. Finally, bring the remaining leg inside and reach way up and close the door. Once inside, the seats aren't particularly comfortable but you get used to them after a while. We never did find an adjustment that we felt was really right. There's a big four-color screen above the dash controlled by a single knob on the center console. Yes, it'll drive you nuts unless you've mastered it from other BMWs. If you have, you'll like the pretty colors on this one. Visibility at first seems limited by a low, concept-car roof, but once under way this isn't a problem so don't be put off by that when you're sitting in the dealer showroom.
Start the car with the push of a button, pull the shifter back and you're off. Around town it's nearly silent as it starts off in all-electric mode. Torque is fine for stop-and-go slogging between traffic lights. No one will know you're there, at least not from the sound. The sight of the i8 draws cellphone cameras aplenty. Everyone smiles and waves. Kids chase the car down the street. Dogs bark approvingly. Birds drop from the sky, chirping the whole way down and pointing with one wing. It's a beautiful thing.
Out on mountain roads it really comes alive. Knock the shifter to the left and you get sport mode, which quickens the steering and the throttle response, stiffens the dampers, sets regen in the brakes to max and even increases the engine sound. Pull the left paddle shifter back a couple times and have at it. While the steering is very light around town, it has more weight at speed. When the three-cylinder gas engine kicks in it does so very smoothly, so much so that you wouldn't notice it if it weren't for the somewhat raspy sound it makes at low revs. BMW engineers say they amplified specific, “pleasing” frequencies of that sound and broadcast it through the car's audio system. While it was less pleasing at low revs, at higher rpms it makes the 1.5-liter three sound like a racing V16.
The car corners exceptionally well, with almost no perceptible roll, like a new 911, but from a seemingly lower seating position. Steering at speed on twisty roads is immediate and precise, much more so than you may be used to unless you drive a Ferrari or Porsche every day. You keep expecting some lag or roll somewhere in the system but it's not in the steering or chassis. Several times it felt like there was an odd delay when we power it out of corners, as if the computer is deciding which and how much of the engine and motor to use. The delay is a bit disconcerting, especially since this is such a great car, sportscarwise, in every other regard. Once it chooses, though, you're off. At the handling limit we could detect a small amount of understeer but it wasn't enough to intrude on your canyon-carving fun. We'd also have liked the throttle and brakes to be smoother and more linear in their progression. As it is, they are a little touchy at the top of travel, something we never got fully comfortable with in a long day's drive over great roads.
Do I Want It?
Yes, you do. While almost no one on Earth can afford a 918/P1/La Ferrari, a much greater number of eco-conscious sports-car lovers can afford one of these. Maybe Tesla intenders who want more sport and less practicality. BMW figures global annual production will be fewer than 10,000, though they weren't very specific. EPA mileage figures will be out next month, but BMW expects EPA Combined should come in “in the 70- or 80-mpg range.” That ain't bad for something this supercar-like.
2014 BMW i8 specs
On Sale: Late summer
Drivetrain: Rear 1.5-liter turbocharged gasoline inline-three with auxiliary electric starter/generator, 228 bhp and 236 lb-ft of torque, six-speed automatic transmission. Front electric motor, 129 hp, 369 lb-ft, two-speed automatic transmission; Total system output 357 hp, 420 lb-ft torque.
Range: 22 miles on electricity, 310 miles on everything
Curb Weight: 3,275 pounds
0-60: 4.2 seconds (mfg)
Fuel Efficiency: 70-80 mpg Combined (mfg est)
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