Meet the 21st century supercar: the BMW i8 plug-in hybrid. It’s insanely fast despite having three cylinders, not eight or twelve. On country roads you cruise in supreme comfort and quiet. The first 20 miles of your trip come from electric power.
The i8 employs electric motors front and back, the gas engine in back, two transmissions, and lithium-ion batteries running through the middle of the cockpit. The body is all-carbon fiber, the fibers coming from BMW’s own hydro-powered factory. The BMW i8 is a Chevrolet Volt on steroids. It is a sports cars with an environmental conscience. The i8 wins our Editors’ Choice award as the best of the new breed of supercars.
Driving the BMW i8: Yowza!
The toughest part about driving the BMW i8 is getting in: You have to climb over a door sill virtually even with the top of the seat cushion, while ducking under the low-slung scissor doors. To paraphrase mama, “Always wear good underwear. You never know when you’re going to the hospital, or getting out of an i8.” Once aboard, the cockpit is surprisingly roomy for a sports car other than the front-to-back tunnel that houses 217 pounds of lithium-ion batteries. It’s also very BMW-like: pushbutton start, a freestanding 8.8-inch LCD display atop the center stack, the eight programmable buttons that tune your favorite stations or call home, the beer tap-looking shifter, the Eco-Normal-Sport rocker switch, and of course iDrive.
Press the button and … nothing much happens once the instrument panel lights up. No V12 engine roaring to life a foot from your ears. That’s because the i8 starts each day as an electric car. But it moves off swiftly. After 20 miles on the 7.1 kWh battery, sooner if you tromp the throttle, you are in gasoline-and-electric mode and aboard a rocket ship. Zero to 60 mph happens in a shade over 4 seconds. Yes, there are old-fashion supercars with 0-60 times under 4.0 seconds, but they aren’t getting 75 MPGe and they’re paying a congestion surcharge to enter megacities. In London, there’s a weekday congestion charge of £11.50 ($18.75); EVs, PHEVs, and ultra-ultra-low emission vehicles are exempt.
Choose economy, performance, some of each
The i8 offers multiple driving modes, set by the shift lever and the Driver Experience Control, which is BMW-speak for a switch next to the shifter with “Comfort” and “EcoPro” rockers. If you do nothing other than pull the shifter straight back into Drive, the i8 is a front-drive EV with a range of 12-20 miles and a top speed of 75 mph. Push the shifter to the left and you toggle sportier driving modes.
Some plug-in hybrids such as the Chevrolet Volt won’t charge the battery while under way because it’s inefficient compared to recharging using electricity. BMW gives you that choice because in sport modes you need the electric motors to act as turbochargers. Even BMW can’t make a three-cylinder gasoline engine alone shove 3,300 pounds to highway speeds in 4-5 seconds. In performance modes, brake regeneration is turned way up and the car slows dramatically the moment you lift off the throttle, the same as when you’re karting, or aboard a riding lawn mower for that matter. If you hammer the throttle — tsk, tsk — and you’re in electric mode, the gas engine kicks in, but there’s a lag that feels like a second before all power sources are present and accounted for.
Electric front-drive, gasoline rear-drive, combined all-wheel-drive
The power sources are a 131 hp (96 kW) electric motor with a two-speed transmission driving the front, and a twin-turbo 1.5-liter gasoline engine 231 hp (170 kW) and six-speed automatic in back. There’s also a small electric motor in back that doubles as the starter motor. In full-on, pedal-floored driving, you get 362 hp or 266 kW. It’s possible to use only the front (electric), only the back (combustion plus electric), or front-and-rear powerplants combined. This is described as a through the road hybrid. With the 11 gallon tank of gas and full batteries, BMW estimates a range of 300 miles. That’s plenty far enough.
This is a car you could drive Seattle to LA, but there are better cars for going cross-country. Hardly any long-distance cars are the traditional supercar variety. For example, the $230,000 McLaren MP4-12C can be deafeningly loud unless you’re gentle on the throttle. The Mercedes-Benz McLaren SLR from the recent past was a blast to drive but the driver and passenger footwells became claustrophobic after an hour. The BMW i8 is refined yet retains enough performance to satisfy virtually all drivers.
The car itself, like the i3, is built around BMW’s “lifedrive” architecture: a super-strong body made of carbon fiber with replaceable plastic panels. The lithium-ion battery pack is in a tunnel in the middle of the car, safe from impact, helping provide a low center of gravity.
The i8 uses a recent form of carbon fiber without the characteristic hounds-tooth cross-weave. Except when you open the door of the i8, you don’t see much carbon fiber. You do in the i3 cockpit — and because it’s matte gray/black, you could equally call the look bland or industrial chic. Cooler perhaps is the rear window separating cockpit from engine compartment: It’s made of Gorilla Glass, same as on so many smartphones.
Flagship of the BMW i sub-brand
BMW created the i sub-brand and launched a carbon fiber fab in Washington State to showcase its designs for more sustainable transportation with an eye towards the world’s megacities, one where New York City barely tips the scales. Many have horrific pollution problems and gridlock. To enter some of these cities without paying a huge tariff, you need to do so under electric or zero-emissions power.
With a 230-volt charger, it takes less than two hours to reach 80% charge, three for full charge.
Plus BMW’s driver assists and carbon fiber luggage
The car comes standard with telematics, navigation, dynamic damper control (adjustable ride comfort), and a suite of apps falling under the umbrella of BMW Connected Drive to check on charge status or locate the car in a parking lot. Optional and highly recommended is the head-up display that provides speed, navigation, phone, and infotainment info at the base of your line of sight.
BMW Driving Assistant, a series of cameras and sensors that provide collision warning, pedestrian-and-obstacle detection and braking, surround and side views displayed on the center LCD, is available as an option.
A matched set of Louis Vuitton carbon fiber-fabric luggage is the most talked about option: large weekender bag, small weekender bag, and garment bag, all soft-side fabric; and hard-sided business case. They fit into the two smallish rear seats (Porsche 911 size) and the small rear trunk. It’s $20,000 for the set.
Should you buy if you have $150,000 to spend?
There is no car quite like the BMW i8. The closest plug-in hybrid supercar is the Porsche 918, $845,000 vs. the i8’s $136,000 base price. The Bimmer will sell in the thousands each year while the Porsche is capped at less than 1000.
The BMW i8 is also the latest ego-boost car for the rich and famous. One of the first i8s was auctioned off at the Pebble Beach concourse over the summer. Famous chefs, Wall Streeters, and entertainers are early buyers. That’s chef Thomas Keller of French Laundry and Bouchon, below, taking delivery. So it’s a logical successor to the Tesla Model S to wow the neighbors, which in turn displaced the Chevrolet Volt. The Model S is huge inside and has the trunk space to go cross-country but not the energy reserves: 250 miles max on a great driving day. Tesla owners and now Tesla officials have made coast-to-coast runs, but the need to drive out of the way to find the one-hour supercharger stations only underscores that today it is a thousand-mile cruiser only for those who drink the KoolAid. In 10 years, it will be a different story.
The other competition is the Porsche, Maserati, Alfa-Romeo, and used Lamborghini exotic sports car market. Some will be quicker but you won’t win style points for energy conservation.
If you do shop for an i8, the base model nicely equipped has a price of $135,700 in the US. The trim lines sound inspired by 1980s basketball player World B. Free (nee Lloyd Bernard Free): i8 Mega World, i8 Giga World, i8 Tera World, and i8 Pure World. Content varies a bit by country. Mostly the varying trim lines give you LED headlamps, different headliners and dash trim – eucalyptus wood, anyone? — but they also offer larger wheels and tires. If performance matters, the base i8 has for a supercar somewhat skinny front tires to help improve economy.
BMW says the i8 in the US will eventually offer laser headlamps but they’ll be tuned back on output. What’s safe for Europe does yet meet approval of our safety regulators, some of whom still seem befuddled by what makes for a safe ignition switch.
With or without laser lighting, the ExtremeTech Editors’ Choice BMW i8 represents the wave of the future: cars that are safe, efficient, eye-catching, and fun to drive. Baked into the price of the i8 is some of the startup costs for the carbon fiber factory. As it was with safety features since the 1990s, the affluent benefit first on high-end cars, and eventually airbags, anti-lock brakes, and stability control ripple down to $14,000 econoboxes that get 40 mpg. The BMW i8 along with the more pedestrian BMW i3 are beacons to the future. Maybe even laser beacons.
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