BMW’s plug-in spaceship the i8 gets an extended model year, and this is our drive review of it in the middle of a Canadian winter.
After experimenting with electrification during pilot projects including the MINI E and BMW ActiveE, the i8 was introduced with its “i” program in 2014. The car along with the all-electric i3 urban compact stunned the world as high-tech, carbon-fiber intensive plug-in vehicles with very different missions in life.
Sharing a basic spec sheet not all that dissimilar to the Porsche 918, Ferrari LaFerrari or McLaren P1, the i8 was an instant hit, combining SciFi styling, advanced drivetrain and the requisite dihedral doors – all at one-tenth of the price of the aforementioned PHEV exotics du jour.
A total of 2,265 copies were sold in the U.S. in 2015, the i8’s first full model year. As is often the case with Top-40 acts, success is an intense but brief experience. In the first 10 months of 2017, only 364 examples made their way to properly wide parking spaces.
While not a bread-and-butter volume product, the i8 needed a pizzazz injection to chart again and the car’s first update will be for the 2019 model year and reaching showrooms this spring. A roadster version first shown as a concept will join the fixed-roof coupe, horsepower count will climb as will battery capacity and EV-mode autonomy (details here). Meanwhile, the 2017 version of the i8 gets an extended stay for the first few months of 2018, so while the car remains available, technically there won’t be a 2018 model year i8.
It is in that context that we took the wheel of a 2017 i8 in 2018 while waiting for the 2019. And to stray even further from Vulcan logic we drove the car in Canada. In January. At -12°F. On snow tires. The corner carvers at regular car mags have dissed the i8 a bit for its “hybrid compromises,” limiting its test track heroics in the supercar club. But when is the last time you’ve seen a LaFerrari on snow tires dodging Montreal potholes?
Dissecting a PHEV icon
Even though the i8 has been around for a few years now, its driver will face many questions from bystanders (those that managed to get their jaw back up, at least). Again and again, the most frequently asked question was: “Is it electric?” The good news for BMW from my real-world encounters is that people really get that the “i” division is all about electrics. The bad news, of course, is that people don’t “get” what a plug-in hybrid is.
By supercar standards, the price of admission to the i8 is very reasonable. To that end, BMW had to pick a few items from the corporate parts bin, but that bin has a few gems. At the heart of the i8 is the corporate 3-cylinder 1.5 liter (premium) gas engine, a direct-injected TwinPower Turbo that produces a healthy 228 horsepower and 236 pounds-feet of torque in this application, thanks to 22 psi of boost and built-in electric help. The engine is basically the more-potent version of what propels the MINI with 134 horsepower / 162 pounds-feet of naturally aspirated go-power under its short hood.
In the i8, the tiny little fury sends power to the rear wheels via a conventional 6-speed automatic transmission that can be shifted manually either through the shifter or paddles behind the wheel. That engine is centrally located between the cabin and rear wheels, in the classic mid-engine sports car idiom. Under some circumstances, the i8 will be a proper RWD machine.
But now, here’s the “i” part: What BMW’s specs don’t reveal in detail is that a small electric motor is integrated into the gas drivetrain, in classic hybrid fashion. A 280-volt motor/generator is connected to the 3-banger by a belt drive and is rated for 20 horsepower / 74 pounds-feet (both are figured into the 3’s total numbers). Its mission in life is to start the combustion engine, compensate for turbo lag at lower revs and provide battery charging while the car is in Sport mode. It will also lend a hand when the driver throws away green intentions and requests maximum acceleration – through the rear wheels, in tandem with the engine.
Up front, under a hood that only a “qualified service technician” can open, as per the owner’s manual, sits the eDrive electric motor. It produces 129 horsepower and 184 pounds-feet of torque, sent to the front wheels through a 2-speed automatic transmission that’s entirely under computer control. Hidden under the massive center tunnel is a 7.1 kWh li-ion high voltage battery pack with “advanced active thermal management”, according to BMW.
The i8 offers 3.3 kW Level 2 charging through an SAE J1772 port located on the front driver’s side fender, while a 1.4-kW Level 1 portable charger is included with the car. As with any hybrid / electric, regeneration is activated when coasting or braking. An 11.1-gallon fuel tank ensures reasonable overall range for a type of vehicle not usually picked for cross-country jaunts. The i8 will run solely in electric mode through its front wheels for up to 15 miles, provided the conditions (weather, driving mode and style) are right.
Now, try to explain to a Vulcan that an i3 is RWD while an i8 is FWD and he will raise an eyebrow, I’m sure. Most of the times, the i8 will run all systems at once and behave as an AWD car, with a RWD bias of course since this is a sports car, after all.
Despite the fact that the i8 has three power units, you can’t see any mechanical bit unless you take the toolbox out. When all systems are at their optimal peak, the i8 produces a combined 357 horsepower and 420 pounds-feet of torque, not your typical 3-cylinder car numbers, and plenty to move this 3,455-pound science experiment. As with the i3, low mass is achieved through extensive use of exotic materials. The i8’s tub is made of carbon fiber, as are the doors, while aluminum sub frames support both propulsive systems, joined by the battery pack, resulting in a perfect 50-50 weight distribution. Body panels are partly aluminum but mostly thermoplastics.
You said ‘spaceship?’
The Star Trek vibe is set to 10 when you open up the door (literally). It’s even better in the dark, as a blue strip of LED light adorns door panels and dashboard. The panoramic windshield is set far and away from front passengers, bordered by thick, right-in-your-face A-pillars. The car’s slippery shape creates surprising headroom up front, enough for a six-foot tall pilot to sit there with his winter gear on without becoming intimate with the headliner (Italian manufacturers could take note of this).
The seats are elegant and devoid of race car over-bolstering, the high sills and center tunnel doing their part in locating your torso. The iDrive controller is a blessing here, as the infotainment screen is set far away on top of the dash, but in excellent view. The multi-hued interior is elegantly futuristic, but tactile feel doesn’t rhyme with the price of entry. Do not expect the buttery leather and ceramic surfaces of, say, a 650i. Ergonomics are pretty good overall for this class of car, with easily set HVAC controls and a good’ole on / off / volume button for the excellent Harman/Kardon stereo. My co-pilot daughter noticed the SOS button on the overhead console. “Is that for when you flip the car over and can’t open the doors?” Good observation there, kiddo. And let’s not test that theory.
What bystanders may not expect is that you can explore the galaxy with three passengers tagging along. The i8 follows the “2+2” seating arrangement that used to be the norm with sport coupes, providing cushions (calling them “seats” would be generous) where kids or willing adults can ride in discomfort. The engine / trunk compartment is separated from the cabin by a vertical piece of glass, so be aware that your 4.7 square feet of luggage won’t be held at cabin temperature. That trunk is small, but deep, holding a few grocery bags without spilling anything out, and was just big enough for my laptop back pack. There is no spare tire, just an inflator kit. And don’t look for a “frunk”, as the front of the car is devoted to the electric drivetrain.
Outside, pictures tell the story. If this car folded its wheels in and flew away, bystanders would not be any more stunned. As a spiritual successor to the famed M1, the i8’s styling assumes the same technical elegance, with no vulgar scoop or wing to ruin its basic, fluid shape. Intricate air channels along the rear buttresses show far more engineering finesses than slapping an NHRA-grade spoiler on top of the rear deck. And what can we say about the way the tub hugs the bottom of the drivetrain towards the back of the car, making the rear wheels stand out like those on a supersonic rocket car? Said wheels are staggered, 7.5 x 20 inch in front, 8.5 x 20 in the rear. The test vehicle wore accessory wheels that fit the design, in my view, much better than the standard gear, wearing Bridgestone Blizzak LM32 snow tires in the stock size (215/45R20 front, 245/40R20 rear) instead of its i8-specific summer Potenzas. The Pearl White paint highlights black inserts and blue accents to great effect, making the i8 glimmer over the white snow.
Permission to fly
Although I have a half century of experience here on Earth, while approaching this plug-in spaceship for the first time, keys in pocket, I couldn’t wipe an eight year old’s smirk off my face. The smirk became a full stupid grin when I opened the dihedral door, which swiveled easily up and away, pushed by a huge gas strut. And then reality sets in: how do I get in there? Forget using the door as a handle, it’ll just come down on your head. For a tall guy like me, best technique is right leg straight in, then swivel your behind down while ducking under the door and pull the left leg in in one swift move. Reach up to the handle with your left arm, and pull down the door. After a few tries, it becomes second nature. Buckling the electric blue (what else?) seatbelt requires a few contortions, especially with a winter coat, but once settled in, the driving position is nothing short of fantastic. Sitting more upright then expected, thighs have proper support, telescoping wheel is right in my hands, headrest is not intrusive of my space (rare these days). What is intrusive, at least until you become familiar with the car, are the massive and steeply reclined A-pillars. Once your personal sensors tolerate the pillar’s proximity, all-around visibility is impressive, and placing the pretty wide i8 in traffic is a cinch.
Pressing the start button, the car activates its systems and defaults to “Comfort” mode, operating as a regular hybrid, cycling the combustion engine on and off according to conditions. At -12°F on my first drive, MAX eDRIVE the EV mode, was not available and the 3 cylinder fired right up, offering a pleasingly nasty tone. The i8 uses BMW’s traditional automatic shifter (you get used to it), and the parking brake was set for automatic engage and release, a very useful feature. Boulevards were covered in thick, iced-up snow, creating treacherous conditions for a pricey supercar. But here lies a surprise: the i8 is an electromechanical snow leopard. Leaving all driver aids on, I moved with confidence as the i8 provided me with a sure-footed assurance I did not expect. Thanks to perfect weight distribution, awd grip, wide stance and relatively narrow snow tires, the i8 offers exceptional balance and traction on slippery roads. The rear drive bias allows the pilot to easily modulate trajectories in snow through throttle input. Slippery urban hills or steep driveways are no match for the i8, but mind the very limited departure angles as the car sits pretty low to the ground (for the record, I never scraped anywhere). I have driven countless press vehicles under varying conditions, and I can’t recall ever feeling more confident on slippery roads
At first the i8’s HVAC system was not able to cope with the cold, the interior fogging up within minutes. I deactivated the “eco” mode for the climate control system and all was well afterwards, proving once again that you can’t be hypermiling in winter. After a few days, temps became more seasonal, making MAX eDRIVE accessible even when the car sat outside overnight. Using the cabin conditioning feature, the i8’s interior was toasty warm for my morning commute, taking juice from my domestic charging station. The EV mode is good up to 75 mph on the highway, and given the outdoor temps, climate control settings and driving history, I was indicated a maximum range of 15.5 miles (25 km), the very length of my one-way commute; I was able to reach 12.5 miles (20 km) in pure EV mode, the battery charge going down faster once I reached the highway. Moving on electricity in underground garages, the i8 plays a flying saucer soundtrack to warn distracted pedestrians that a big object is getting near them. The regeneration effect from the brake pedal is more noticeable while the car is in fully electric mode, but the dominant trait here is “regular car”; the i8 is not designed for one-pedal driving and lifting the go pedal will just induce typical coasting, even though there is a “softer” form of regeneration going on, as per the status display in the infotainment screen. Moving manually to MAX eDRIVE at lower speeds induces a marked hesitation from the car as it makes the transition from regular hybrid operation.
Given proper conditions – and short trips – I can attest that BMW’s claimed 94 mpg (2.5 l/100km) average is attainable, provided one is able to resists the fury that lies beyond one’s right foot. After finding my bearings with the car, I settled on using MAX eDRIVE for the urban, low speed portions of my commute and reverting to “Comfort” on open roads. The i8 is credited with a 4 second 0-60 time, which I don’t doubt, and offers supercar-level acceleration and grip. To further dive into the sci-fi aura, the i8’s speed and grip will alter your senses, seemingly immobilizing all vehicles around you as you move along at speeds you really shouldn’t. The 3-banger’s soundtrack is impossibly enticing – the Italian V8 intake snarls and high rev growls you hear are electronically enhanced through the rear speakers. Like today’s Top-40 acts, the i8 can’t really sound as good as it does in real life, but the illusion is awesome nevertheless. To be honest, it doesn’t sound half bad from outside either, reminding my neighbors that I leave for work at 6:30 am. Braap! Pulling the shift lever to the left engages Sport, turning gauges to red, the energy gauge into a tach and unleashes all that the i8 can deliver. The doctored sounds become even more seductive as the throttle blips downshifts and barks upshifts.
Despite succumbing to these evil antics, I finished my week with an indicated 39 mpg (6.1 l/100km), 35 (6.7) according to my calculator. Flirting with 40 mpg never felt so good.
First World Problems
All is not rosy when living with an i8. Even if you master the ingress / egress ballet, in winter your pants will become more salty than fries at a fast food joint. And your fancy winter coat may pop a button under the strain of egress. Parking requires strategy, the kind where planning for door space is not an option – there’s no squeezing in with these doors, they need to open fully.
Automated underground parkings will remind you of just how low you sit, and how far your actually are from the side of the car when you try to take a ticket or ping your card (and good luck picking either up should you drop’em). The turning circle is 40 feet. Snow will freak out the parking sensors, which will confuse snow banks for batting rams and scream at inhuman frequencies until you find their “off” button. Do practice your dihedral door skills in private, as you will become the center of attention everywhere you go You will be stopping kids in the middle of crosswalks. You will become an Instagram star on just about every cell phone in the surroundings. And try to be elegant when filling up gas at knee height, people are watching – or filming (seriously).
Still, the BMW i8 proved to be amazingly easy to pilot through the asteroid field of my daily grind, soothed my senses by providing imperial grip over slippery roads, took in less fuel – and electrons – than the Cooper S E I drove prior…and plastered a stupid grin on my face for a whole week. If only for that, it’s time to make Powerball plans.