It’s no surprise that the i8, first introduced in concept form in 2009, was featured as a whiz-bang piece of automotive techno-gear in the 2011 Tom Cruise movie, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. What is surprising is how the i8 now offered for sale so closely resembles the concept. BMW avoided the dumbing down that usually occurs as carmakers move exciting new models into pedestrian production cars. The i8 turns heads.
BMW filtered its vision of a sports car through the lens of two forward-looking technologies: powertrain electrification and lightweight carbon fiber body construction (the type usually reserved for F1 racers). The chassis is made of rigid aluminum.
The car’s profile is characterized by a long wheel base, short overhang, and low-slung sweeping silhouette. It’s gorgeous. The seating configuration is 2+2—theoretically meaning a four-seater. But for all intents and purposes, it’s a sporty coupe with a symbolic gesture toward a rear-seat option, rather than a practical space for another couple of passengers.
In its transformation from space-age concept to actual production vehicle, the transparent doors were dropped. But its signature feature—the scissor (or butterfly or swan) doors that raise up instead of out—is still in place. The door handles are hidden near the jamb, in a design move to retain the car’s rippling lines. Aerodynamics is stellar—with a coefficient of drag at just 0.26—made possible by the body’s improbable multiple wind channels that weave along its sides, and under the body.
The cascading and overlapping visual elements convey a techno-hip vibe, to great effect. This plug-in hybrid is a hot sports car. The dramatic style gives the car true presence making it a delight to drive (if you don’t mind all the attention). Even the view from the side-view mirror along its flanks—all scoops, crazy shapes, and flamboyant lines that wrap under the car—is filled with unexpected cool.
The i8’s technical design is novel. The car is powered in a one-two punch by a powerful 96-kilowatt (129-horsepower) electric motor driving the front wheels—and an efficient 230-horsepower 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder gasoline engine motivating the rear wheels through a six-speed automatic gearbox. A second smaller electric motor assists in back. The power sources, when combined, make 357 horsepower, providing an M3-level of acceleration—with 420 pound-feet of electric-boosted torque for good measure. A spring from zero to 60 miles per hour takes about four seconds. The vehicle's top speed in blended mode is governed to 155 miles per hour.
The feel on the i8’s steering wheel is surprising light to the touch. That combines with a lightweight carbon-fiber body, advanced electric powertrain, and a serious wallop of power, to produce an uncanny yet accessible driving experience. Push your foot into the accelerator pedal, and you’ll be into triple-digit speeds before you realize. Take it on winding country roads, and you’ll soon be slinging the i8 at screeching speeds—even as it holds remarkably planted on the road.
The unexpected phenomenon—especially for those of who have come to prefer the whir of an electric motor to the rumble of a gas engine—is the way the i8’s three-cylinder engine purrs. It’s a knockout wonderful engine note that many compare with a Porsche 911. Just when we got used to disassociating the sound of internal combustion from high-torque electric acceleration, here comes BMW with a whole new way to combine two electric motors with a tiny engine—to deliver supercar performance in a new authentically EV-centric way.
This blending of old and new—electric in front and gas in the back—also brings advantages for handling: a 50:50 weight distribution and all-wheel drive. The i8 weighs 1,200 pounds less than the Tesla Model S (which, granted, is a capacious sedan, not a low-slung sports coupe).
The i8’s ability to switch its persona from commuter to racer is allowed by a set of driver-selected modes: Comfort mode is all-electric up to about 35 miles per hour; Eco allows some internal combustion if it means greater efficiency; and eDrive (which works in conjunction with Comfort or Eco) to run purely on electric all the way to 75 miles per hour. eDrive means that the zen-like feel of an EV is available in the city, after you’ve had your rollicking fun on twisty roads.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rates the BMW i8 at a combined 76 MPGe, when using both gas and electric. And at a decent 28 miles per gallon purely on gas.
The 7.1 kilowatt-hour lithium ion pack yields about 20 to 25 miles of pure electric driving—and the total driving range, according to the EPA, is 330 miles.
Here’s where you have to get used to something else that’s different about the i8. Even if you don’t plug it in at home, when in Sport mode (where you’ll likely want to be on a regular basis), the electric motor in front is constantly recharging the battery pack. We suspect that energy is also being borrowed from the gas tank. The idea, which makes a ton of sense, is to keep those batteries charged all the time—so power to the front wheels is available on command.
Efficiency is a by-product of the i8’s design, but is not its core feature. In terms of plug-in hybrids, the i8 feels a lot more like an incredibly efficient gas-powered car, due the pronounced engine-note coming from the back (and augmented with some fakery via the vehicle’s speakers).
With the purchase of the i8, BMW will install a 240-volt home charger (the “i” charging station) to allow a full charge to about two hours. Ideally, you should keep topping up throughout the day to keep grid-supplied electrons in reserve. Like other plug-in hybrids with relatively small battery packs, you could get away with charging from a 120-volt source—although it will mean plugging in overnight for a full charge.
Driver and front passengers don’t sit in the low-slung i8, as much as they drop or fall into it. You’ll need a few tries to get used to the i8 entry-swivel. The work is worth it, when you get nestled into a truly delightful high-tech cockpit.
The small rear seats—more likely to be used for hand baggage than human beings—require even more athleticism for egress. That makes them completely out of the question for anything more than a short jaunts to show off your crazy-cool quasi-electric Bimmer sports machine to friends and co-workers.
The official number for cargo capacity is a tight 6.0 cubic feet. In other words, a small overnight case, and nothing else. This is as far as you can get from automotive practicality.
The BMW i8's long list of features includes: heads-up display, BMW infotainment, real-time traffic, a suite of concierge services, and BMW’s 360º Electric program (access to MyCityWay and ParkatmyHouse, and a ChargeNow card for cash-free charging at public chargers.)
Many cockpit features will be familiar to BMW drivers, but designers added layers of colorful digital gauges and displays as a way to continue the futuristic theme. The colors change with the selection of different driving modes.
No official testing yet.
The i8, by far the most expensive plug-in vehicle on the market, should be viewed as an expensive limited-run supercar—rather than any type of attempt to convert everyday drivers to battery power. The production run is rumored to be 500 units a year. You’ll be driving a rare collector car from Day One.
BMW’s luxury plug-in hybrid sports car sells for a base price of $136,725—including destination fee. For that price, you could buy an 85 kilowatt-hour Tesla Model S and a Nissan LEAF. Of course, the i8 is not about the money.
The closest similar vehicle—the Porsche Panamera Plug-in Hybrid—is about $35,000 cheaper. The Porsche, while also a plug-in hybrid that offers long distance driving and quick fill-ups at a gas station, is a variant of a gas car. That makes it seem positively practical and mainstream compared to the ultra-exotic carbon fiber i8.
There’s a design upgrade, about $10,000, that brings a whole set of “frozen blue” accents, on exterior panels, interior lighting, and blue safety belts.
The i8’s first customer deliveries started in July 2014 in the United States. Availability is rare. Our best advice is to contact a local dealer, and be prepared to wait.