SANTA MONICA, California -- The road leads straight up toward the sky, and as we get deep, deep into the throttle pedal, the BMW i8 begins the climb with a surge of electric power. Reverberations from the engine behind us chime in, and as 6000 rpm approaches, the number of cylinders firing behind us seems to double. There’s a little pop of power from the exhaust as we flick the shift paddle and select a taller gear.
We bend the car into a fast, open right-hand corner on the canyon road as the blue sky unfolds through the windshield. The steering action is incredibly clean, and the BMW i8 scribes around the bend in a long, precisely geometric arc that thrills us through and through.
We feel that little tug of gravity from the cornering, and then the car rockets forward toward the next bend. With a glance to our driving companion, we say, “You know, this car is pretty good out here.”
The Shock Of The New
Whatever the 2014 BMW i8 might be, it is certainly not a typical electric vehicle (EV). It doesn’t look like an EV, sound like an EV or drive like an EV. Those who build it are not EV people, and those who will own it are not EV customers.
The i8 has an electric motor that powers the front wheels and a gasoline-fueled engine that powers the rear wheels, but every time you grab onto something familiar, it turns out to have unexpected consequences with unfamiliar values. Like when the BMW people describe the i8’s quickness on the road by saying (with some humor), “It goes from zero to 100 kilometers per hour in 4.4 seconds; this is around the same time James Bond needs to order a vodka martini, shaken, not stirred.”
The BMW i8 is neither shaped by soulless computers nor built entirely of carbon fiber, neither completely different nor utterly conventional. It is not all one thing or all another. Instead, the BMW i8 is familiar in what it does, yet occupies a place that is all about pure innovation -- the shock of the new.
Relax, It’s Just A Car
The BMW i8 is a familiar sort of exotic sports car, sleek but seductive, yet it’s been created to behave in a way that makes such a car possible in the twenty-first century.
It unplugs from the charger in your garage in the darkness of early morning and then motors through the neighborhood with the familiar whine of an EV without waking anyone. On the way to work, it mixes electric motivation with power from a turbocharged three-cylinder 1.5-liter engine, so you sail past the gas station without stopping.
When you leave work early on a Friday afternoon and take the long way home (as one does), the 131-hp electric motor supplements the power from the 231-hp engine to create 357 hp of pure performance for this 3285-pound two-plus-two exotic. You get lots of thrills, and there’s still enough juice in the batteries to return to your neighborhood on pure, hushed EV power. When you’re done, the car plugs into the 240-volt BMW i Charging Station (an extracost accessory) and is fully charged in 1.5 hours, so you can drive to Woodland Hills for Supercar Sunday.
It’s enough to make you want to go into work on Saturday so you can do it all over again.
First Step, Take A Yoga Class
One does not hop into a BMW i8 and then drive away. The manually operated scissor doors swing up pretty effortlessly, but the opening between the roof and the high door sill is narrow, and you must learn to back into the space without knocking your head and then swing your legs on board. This is a car that is familiarly sized, some 184.6 inches long on a wheelbase of 110.2 inches. You’re sitting on a kind of aluminum platform with a long, upright tunnel down the center where the liquid-cooled lithium-ion batteries are located. In front of you is the two-speed, 131-hp electric motor, and behind you is the 231-hp, 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder engine and six-speed transmission. Around you is a bubble of lightweight carbon-reinforced plastic.
Why is there no cupholder in the door for your Coke? Because a bottle stashed in the scissor door would deposit its contents onto your head when you opened it.
This is a plug-in hybrid with a relatively small battery, so the i8 has a range in EV mode of 22 miles at up to 75 mph. You’re meant to drive in Comfort mode once you leave your neighborhood, where the electric motor does its business through the front wheels and then the 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine begins to help out at just under 40 mph through the rear wheels. In this mode, the i8 works like a hybrid, going dead silent at stoplights and regenerating the electrical charge of the batteries through the brakes.
The suspension damping is firm, and you can feel a faint, high-frequency shudder in the body as the car goes over broken pavement. The regenerative braking is pretty communicative, although the off-throttle response from the regeneration system is not very strong in Comfort mode, a sharp contrast to the BMW 1-Series e and the Mini-e.
The driving position is good. There’s enough headroom for someone six-foot-two, although more fore-and-aft seat travel would be better. The thick A-pillar intrudes on visibility to the left. When you get into the throttle hard enough at a stoplight, there’s a delay of a fraction of a second before the engine kicks in and helps the electric motor. Altogether it’s a nice ride, though there’s more mechanical whir from the powertrain and more rush of noise from the 20-inch tires (standard for the U.S. market) than you might expect. Then again, this is a sports car, not a 4647-pound Tesla Model S sedan.
Back To The Future, Doc
As efficient and thrifty as the 2014 BMW i8 is while you drive around Century City in L.A. as if you’re a movie mogul come to meet with your entertainment lawyer, you will soon get tired of driving like this. After all, what’s the use of trundling around in a DeLorean unless you get it up to at least 88 mph?
At speed on the turnpike in Comfort mode, the i8’s turbocharged engine is doing business through the rear wheels, and the electric motor kicks in to provide a boost from the front wheels when the throttle pedal calls for it. The i8 rides pretty well even on choppy cement surfaces, as the combination of a long wheelbase and the placement of heavy masses at either end of the car helps calm the ride motions.
There’s about 320 miles of cruising ahead thanks to the 11.0-gallon gas tank and 5.1-kWh capacity of the battery pack, and the i8 will go as fast as 155 mph before the car’s speed limiter brings you to your senses. You won’t be carrying much with you, since a tiny well of 5.4 cubic feet is all that’s available for trunk space. There is also a dedicated set of optional Louis Vuitton luggage that includes some soft bags to set in the car’s small rear seats.
Not A Helicopter After All
Once we turn off the freeway and into the Santa Monica Mountains, we have our doubts about this BMW. Our experience has shown that fast mid-engine exotics are frequently clumsy on narrow canyon roads, and the driving experience is pretty much like flying a helicopter around your living room.
But once you configure the 2014 BMW i8 in Sport mode, the car engages the electric motor and engine for full-time use, tightens up the suspension damping, increases the effort level for the steering, dials up the regenerative brakes for more deceleration when you lift off the throttle, and readies the usual array of BMW all- singing, all-dancing electronics. In doing so, the car seems to shrink itself by half.
You scribe the corners as if you were a hero of vehicle control. The car leaps away from every bend as the electric motor gives the front tires added grip. You’re in the all-wheel-drive mode. Because the center of gravity is very low, the car feels alert and ready to change direction despite the wheelbase length.
All-wheel drive makes you more aware of the front tires in slow corners, and it can fool you into thinking the car is pushing, but you should remember that the i8 is meant to go fast, and the 49 percent front/51 percent rear balance, the wide track dimensions of the chassis, and selection of tire sizes front and rear are set appropriately.
Just as a sports car should, the 2014 BMW i8 gets better the faster you go, and this alone is a revelation. Really, we could go on and on.
Operators Are Standing By
When the 2014 BMW i8 goes on sale in November (yes, it’ll be a 2014 model, not a 2015), it’ll carry a price tag of $136,625, including transportation and delivery costs of $925. You’ll be able to get it in three broadly different trim levels, Mega, Giga and Terra. When the final numbers come through, BMW expects that the car’s EPA fuel economy rating will be the equivalent of between 70 and 80 mpg combined.
Just as with the 2014 BMW i3 (which is on sale in the U.S. as you read this), the 2014 BMW i8 comes to you as more than just a car, because ownership also incorporates a variety of BMW concierge-style services that help make it even more enjoyable to go places and do things. The BMW i8 is meant to be a car that you can drive anywhere, anytime.
The thing that has always set apart BMW from other companies has been its culture, the way it tells a story and makes us a part of it. The same thing is at work here, only now the story that BMW tells is one of the future, one that expresses innovation -- new ways of thinking and new ways of driving.
Maybe the best thing about the 2014 BMW i8 is the confidence it gives you about the future. Times are changing, yet this car shows us that there is still a place for the kind of car that delivers a thrill when you see a long, winding road toward the sky through the glass of your windshield.
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