The BMW i8 is now 4 years old and later this year there will be a new convertible version, but is it as relevant now as it was when it was launched? I spent a day with one to find out.
My previous experiences with electric and petrol-electric hybrid vehicles have been far from exciting and haven’t really filled me with confidence and hope for the future of motoring. When I was offered the chance to take an i8 out for a 24-hour test drive, I told myself to not base my opinions on previous experiences with other cars. With a whopping on-the-road price of £113,000 – the benchmark for this was not the other cleaner or greener vehicles, rather proper sports cars in a similar price bracket, like the 911 Porsche.
From the outside, the i8 really is a beauty to behold. Its futuristic and clean styling still stands out amongst the regular BMWs in the dealership car park. It just looks fabulous. I normally veer more towards the classically styled sports cars like Aston Martins and the 911, but there is something about the way the front end is so low and aggressive looking, with subtle nods to the classic M1. And let’s not forget those doors. You either love or hate silly doors on sports cars, and I am definitely in the former camp. The way the dihedral doors go up and forwards creates such an event, and it makes the i8 that little bit more special to look at. Unfortunately, all sense of style and sophistication goes out of the window as soon as you try and actually get in the car. Its high and wide carbon sills and low roofline make it a bit of a challenge to clamber in and out.
Inside there is a strange mixture of standard BMW fittings and ultra-stylish LED strip lights in the signature neon blue. It’s fun and cool but did become a bit of a distraction when driving at night. The i8 is technically a 4-seater, but the rear seats are literally just padded cushions bolted onto the body, a bit like the rear seats in older 911s. Ideal if you have small children, or are carrying extra luggage that won’t fit in the shoebox-sized boot. One thing I do like about the interior is the dash screen, which shows a speedometer on one side, and either a rev counter or power-gauge (depending on what drive mode you are using) on the other. The i8 also has all the standard BMW onboard computer trimmings, but it isn’t cluttered with graphics and silly animations. The main speedometer screen is grey and blue when driving in Comfort or EcoPro, and turns red when you switch into Sports mode. All very simple and very clean. The head-up display also projects the speed and other key information on the windscreen, which is handy.
One thing I do like about the interior that I am aware completely contradicts what I have just said about flashy screens is the main dial. It has a simple screen showing a speedometer on one side and either a rev counter or power-gauge depending on what drive mode you are using. The i8 also has all the usual onboard stats and so on, but it’s not cluttered with graphics and silly animations. The screen is grey and blue when driving in Comfort or EcoPro, and then it turns red when you switch into Sports mode. All very simple and very clean. It also has a head-up display that I used to hate in previous cars but the more I experience them, the more I see the benefits.
Driving the car is a bit of a strange experience at first. You’re sat in a low-slung sports car so you have a particular idea in your mind of how it should sound and feel, however, this isn’t a regular sports car, so when you engage reverse and move out of your parking space, there is just the quiet rumbling sound of tyres on tarmac… Then when you pull off, it’s the same. Complete engine silence. It’s all very unfamiliar. The i8 is powered by a turbocharged 1.5 litre, 3-cylinder engine pulled straight out of a Mini Cooper but tuned to push out around 229 bhp. This is mounted in the middle and powers the rear wheels via a 6-speed automatic gearbox. It is also powered by a 2-speed electric motor at the front, feeding another 127 bhp straight to the front wheels, giving you a total power output of 356 bhp. This doesn’t sound like a huge amount of grunt, given there are family estate cars that can push out double this figure, but due to the car’s lightweight blend of aluminium and carbon fibre, the actual performance is a very pleasant surprise.
The acceleration isn’t ground-breaking but it’s not slow either at a claimed 4.4 seconds to 62 mph, but somehow it actually feels a lot quicker. I think it’s the way you have instant power to the front wheels pulling the car off the mark, while the petrol engine at the back has time to catch up, then keep pushing the car all the way to its limited 155 mph top speed. Surprisingly, the overall feel of the drive is very similar to that of the Porsche 911 Carrera S with regards to balance and delivery. You have a great driving position: nice and low, with everything exactly where you need it to be. The steering is also nice and light when manoeuvring but also has good feedback when you need it at higher speeds. The i8 is by no means a lap time champion. The all-wheel-drive setup and skinny tyres mean you have a fair bit of understeer when turning, but overall the experience is a very pleasing and focused. The added bonus of the car’s lightweight build means that braking is as good as you would expect and that little 3-cylinder engine sounds and feels like it’s twice the size. One grey area with this car that has left the room quite divided is the amplification of the engine note – when the car is in Sport mode, the engine sound is pumped through the car’s speaker system making it sound more impressive than it really is, but to be completely honest I kind of like it.
All in all, I was really surprised and impressed by the i8. The detail in the design is nothing short of beautiful, and the way they have made something look so futuristic without looking silly is a great achievement. The i8 doesn’t have a loyal or established audience yet but if you want something that is fast, expensive, full of futuristic technology and also returns a claimed 140+ mpg, there is nothing else out there yet.
We are living in a changing world with more and more manufacturers stepping away from larger capacity engines in exchange for smaller, more environmentally conscious powerplants and BMW have shown that you can make a great looking, great performing sports car with only 3 cylinders and some electric motors whilst emitting only 49 grams of Co2 per kilometre. We still have a long way to go, but BMW really are ahead of the game and for that reason, I think the i8 is more relevant now than it ever has been and I am very excited about the arrival of the i8 Convertible later on in the year.
All images are supplied by, and the property of, BMW UK.
Word by James Ford – Well Driven.