ASSOCIATE EDITOR GRAHAM KOZAK: I don’t say this for the sake of being a contrarian, but the 2014 BMW i8 is not the car of the future -- no matter how hard it tries to be precisely that. Or maybe it is the car of the future, which would be very bad news for cars.
For a moment, let’s attempt to ignore the i8’s exterior. Once you snake your way inside, you’ll find an interior that’s nice. Just nice. Every BMW should get an interior at least this nice baseline, which says more about the state of BMW interiors than the quality of the i8’s cockpit. Push the start button and endure the typical hybrid car start-up symphony, and then maybe push it again because the car has a tendency to shut off at random intervals, and then you’re off.
The first couple launches are undeniably fun. Smooth, catapult-like, much torque, all the usual electric car clichés apply. It’s great up to about 60 mph. Then, when you’re in sport mode on an open stretch of highway and you want to push forward to escape velocity…it just feels like it runs out of guts. You’ll keep accelerating relatively quickly, and that hokey synthetic engine note makes sure you know that the little I3 and dual electric motors are working overtime to deliver the dynamism. But you don’t feel it. There’s no high worth risking a speeding ticket here to chase.
Inputs and feedbacks were a mixed bag. The brakes were numb, but steering was not. There is an awesome amount of potential in this car’s very rigid frame.
Unfortunately, it was tough to see if that oft-reported tendency to understeer showed up under hard cornering. It’s getting cold here in Detroit, and the car’s rubber band-thin tires simply couldn’t grip the chilly pavement, forcing an extremely aggressive traction control system to jump in and cut power before I could have much fun. I’d have expected this complex powertrain to handle lower-grip situations with a little more composure. Heck, maybe even some flair.
The 2014 BMW i8 comes in at a base price of $136,650.PHOTO BY JONATHAN WONG
Why would I expect that? Why would I expect the i8 to be a sports car, let alone a supercar, a hypercar?
Ah, because it looks the part, which is probably all that will matter in the high-density multimodal zero-emission cities of the i8’s hypothetical future. Low, wide and sleek, there are some striking lines hidden beneath the plastic bits tacked on to the i8. But let’s not confuse the busyness for beauty.
I think I know how we ended up here. Somewhere along the i8’s design process, a focus group decided that the arresting, cohesive M1 Homage concept needed More Future. And so someone dropped a bleached space whale skeleton on the car’s carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic passenger cell structure -- a component that, given its mass-production potential, is arguably more significant than the car’s so-so hybrid powertrain.
People stop to gawk at the car. Of course they do. That’s what happens when you drive an auto show concept on public roads. There’s nothing about a concept that’s subtle, or even necessarily coherent. Often, its sole task is to shock a disinterested public into taking notice. Its task completed, it’s sent to the crusher or tucked away in a museum. Years later, people look and laugh at how the Chevrolet Highlander is what 1993’s top designers thought the future was going to look like.
There’s a lot of insecurity that comes with being on the cutting edge, especially when you’re talking about something like a car. In this age of accelerating technological advancement, you don’t want to be the guy that says, whoa, hold on, maybe this isn’t really a step forward. Nobody wants to make that bet, because time and time again, innovators and inventors have proved them wrong. Look at Tesla…
What is it?First previewed as a concept in 2011, the advanced electric-powered BMW i3 is the BMW i brand's first model. The contemporary four-seat hatch has progressed to the pre-production stage with ...
Some of us try to jump out of the race entirely by looking backward. I’m not talking about people who like old cars because they’re cool; I’m talking about the guy who thinks that the automotive experience will never get any better than the BMW E30 M3. That’s nonsense. Look at the Alfa Romeo 4C. It has exotic looks, exotic construction and no power steering. The Alfa is thrilled to be a car and it shares its excitement with you once you rearrange yourself into the driver’s seat. Even better? It isn’t priced into the stratosphere.
I would urge the bleeding-edge techno fan boys to look at the 4C, too. It doesn’t have the 75 mpg-e rating of the i8, but we’re talking about cars here, not four-wheeled environmental indulgences. If you want to save the planet, take a bus. If you want to buy the best car you can, don’t compromise and pretend that your extravagant purchase is actively helping the planet.
It’s thrilling to be in the i8, around the i8. But it’s simply not that thrilling to drive the i8. I’d attribute some of this to my disdain for BMW’s recent product-planning and pricing cynicism, but I do have a more or less grudging admiration for many of its cars. The new M3 may be a cold, calculating performance robot, but its vast potential is your reward for figuring out how to program it.
We’ve asked high-end automakers whether the recent crop of hypercars are hobbled by their hybrid systems, whether the Ferrari LaFerrari or McLaren P1 or Porsche 918 would be even better than they are if engineers didn’t need to bow before fickle (and arguably misdirected) eco-sentiment and ever-tightening emissions regulations. They’ve answered, with varying degrees of conviction, that hybridizing their purebreds hasn’t compromised performance. We’ve believed them, or at least played along.
I simply couldn’t buy it here. Once the fun of torquey launches and ion-thruster midrange acceleration wore off, I couldn’t stop thinking about how monstrous this rigid carbon-fiber wonder would be with, say, the powertrain of that new M3.
That would defeat the forward-looking point of the i8, of course, which is sort of to my point: In their attempt to design the earth-shattering Car of the capital-F Future, BMW missed an opportunity to design a truly spectacular car of the present. We’d be wise to separate our acknowledgement of the attempt from our slack-jawed, if slightly misplaced, admiration for the end result.
The 2014 BMW i8 is a ridiculously fun way to get around town.PHOTO BY JONATHAN WONG
DIGITAL EDITOR ANDREW STOY: Graham offers an exceptionally well thought-out critique of the i8 above, and I won’t argue with any of his points. They’re all valid, but they leave out one completely unexpected trait I discovered in the i8 -- something I haven’t felt in a BMW product in years.
That it took the digitized, hybridized, motorized spaceship that is the i8 to inject some personality into a BMW says something about the brand. Maybe the engineers were so busy trying to figure out how to make the thing they didn’t have time to design out all the quirks. It’s not perfect, and that somehow makes it far more endearing than a 6-series.
It is not a groundbreaking vehicle, however. Alfa makes a carbon fiber sports car that’s half the price of the i8. The powertrain is not far removed from that of the Chevy Volt, give or take a motor or two. Interior space, performance and electric range are far eclipsed by the Tesla Model S P85. True hybrid hypercars like the LaFerrari and Porsche 918 are vastly more capable.
What is the i8, then? It’s gorgeous, at least to my eyes, though as Graham mentioned some of the appeal is simply the fact that BMW plopped a concept car in our parking garage. I also think the cockpit is a near-perfect driving environment; while it may be the interior all BMWs should have, it’s not the one they do have -- the i8 takes the brand’s ergonomic character to the next level. The swinging doors? If you don’t grin every time you open them, you’re dead inside. Viewed as an urban/suburban supercar, the i8’s capabilities are perfectly aligned with the type of driving it’ll ordinarily do. When you’re able, you can rocket around, but you don’t feel as though you’re pissing away a brilliant supercar (and quarts of fuel) when you’re inching along in rush hour traffic.
Sad to say, but that’s increasingly looking like the future of motoring for most of us -- creeping through gridlocked city streets and negotiating jammed interstates. Think about it -- then consider whether you’d rather be in, say, a burbling Audi R8 V10, praying for the chance to give it even a quarter throttle as it idles away half a tank of gas, or an i8, perfectly content to squirt along in electric mode until you can invoke all the torque.
Given that scenario, the i8 looks a lot like the supercar of the future, a future that probably is pretty bleak for cars as we know them. However, given the EVs I’ve driven lately, and now this i8, I absolutely disagree that it’s bleak for car enthusiasts. The i8 is a ridiculously fun way to get around town, and I suspect it’ll only get better as time marches on.
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