The i8 makes an incredible scene wherever it rolls up.
People rush to it. Camera phones and dropped jaws appear. Questions are asked. Swear words are overheard. The i8 looks like a concept car that’s escaped its auto show and gone for a rip. I’ve driven, literally, nothing else that’s caused this level of public reaction to its presence.
As an incredibly unique and specialized machine, a review of the i8 should be prefaced with a little context about what it is, and what it isn’t.
What the i8 is not is a hardcore supercar with lung-crushing acceleration and track-ready implements designed to set lap records. What it is, is more of a rolling, high-efficiency showcase of the latest in materials, styling, and futuristic design, wrapping the latest electrified driving technologies into a package that’s surprisingly easy and comfortable to drive just about anywhere.
The BMW i8 is low and wide, slashed and sculpted deeply to both harness and slip through the air flowing around it. Vents, and slats, and highly aerodynamic wheels are flaunted, and the upper portion of the rear bodywork even floats over the i8’s hips, creating a unique element that aids in airflow, efficiency, and stability. Largely because of this bit of styling theatre, I was told (often and vigorously) that the i8 looks like a spaceship.
It’s futuristic under the skin, too. Open the wing-like doors on their forward hinge, and you see proudly exposed carbon fibre galore. Virtually, the entire BMW i8 is made of this most neat-o of materials, because it’s light and strong, albeit very pricey.
Then, you get inside.
Well, not quite.
The low profile, oddly shaped door aperture, combined with the door hanging threateningly overhead, make creativity mandatory when boarding and exiting. Using the wide doorsill and seat bolster as a butt-slide is easiest while kicking your legs up on the way in so your shoes clear the mile-wide rocker panel. I had minimal trouble with this, and neither will you, provided you’re average in proportions and reasonably fit. It’s a charmingly clumsy process, but one fitting of (and forgivable for) a magical-looking space car. If you’ve ever owned an exotic, you know its part of the deal. If you’re old and your back sucks or your physique and agility are on par with a pregnant manatee, you may disagree.
Efforts to board the i8’s cabin are rewarded. A giant screen is front and centre for the infotainment, navigation, vehicle settings, and more. Another doubles as an instrument cluster. The shifter looks like a high-tech joystick, and the whole layout, complete with sweeping lines that wind through the cockpit, add a super-modern flare assembled with the very best of BMW build quality. Virtually all controls, interfaces, switches and dials are standard BMW kit, so there’s some familiarity galore if you’re adding an i8 to your fleet of Bimmers.
There’s even a rear seat: basically useless for humans with legs, but it’ll make a decent spot for some gear or groceries while augmenting the packsack-sized trunk.
Don’t miss the way the cabin lights up after dark, in a deep, high-tech blue, accented by prominent light pipes and heaps of ambient illumination. The sense of after-dark-theatre as the lighting accents fade to life and the doors lift vertically open is absolutely out of this world. This is as close as you’ll get to driving a road-going spacecraft, which is awesome if you’re a giant nerd, like me.
The BMW i8 has no warp drive, only eDrive. This uses gas and electricity in varying combinations for propulsion, with an electric motor driving the front wheels, and a mid-mounted 1.5L turbocharged 3-cylinder running over 20lbs of boost driving the rear. Added up, drivers get 357 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of absolutely instant electric torque response. Thanks to instant torque, light weight, and AWD traction, 0-60 is possible in 4 seconds, en route to a quarter mile pass in the same ballpark as a Corvette Stingray or a Porsche 911 Carrera S.
However, unlike those, you can plug your i8 in and drive a few dozen kilometres solely on electricity, even beyond highway speeds. Or put the system in full automatic, and use gas and electricity to travel as long as you’d like, just like a normal hybrid. Engage sport mode, and you get full performance with the beastly little 3-cylinder standing perpetually ready, its output boosted by its turbocharger and, again, by the electric motors. The absolutely instant low-end torque, even from impossibly low revs, is monstrous. And the sound of the whining electric motors enters the cabin as the i8 rockets along at full throttle, until fake but delicious sounding car noises slather the cabin through the stereo speakers. There’s even an external exhaust “speaker” outside in the rear bumper. Exhaust note by Harman Kardon, anyone?
All said, at the touch of a button, here’s a car that transforms from an electric car to a hybrid car to an electrically boosted performance car. It’s all up to you.
Other notes? On a highway drive, the 2016 BMW i8 is relatively comfortable. The cabin is wide, the seats are luxurious, and wind- and road-noise levels are present though kept relatively in check. The ride is on the stiff side, smooth on flat highways but choppy and abrupt at times on rougher in-town roads. I spent no less than 10 hours on the highway, and found no issue with ride quality or seat comfort, and appreciated the powerful stereo system as a travel partner.
Steering is fast and instant, fully capitalizing on the lightness of the i8, and its mid-engine balance. The narrow 225-series tires don’t enable spleen-twisting G-forces in corners, though pushed as hard as you’d care for on a public road, its 100% sports car where feel and response and grins are concerned. Steering snobs will be slightly less impressed, as feedback is minimal. Further, brakes can be a touch inconsistent and abrupt in engagement at times, as hybrid cars tend to be, though they’re powerful when called upon, and seem most precise when used hard.
Most interesting? The mileage. My test week saw the BMW i8 charged fully every night, with plenty of gas-free in-town driving and a few lengthy highway trips contributing to an overall, measured-by-hand 6.2L/100km of consumption on average over 1,200 km of driving. That’s Corvette C7 Stingray pavement consumption, with Toyota Yaris fuel consumption.
All said, shoppers looking to reduce fuel use and gather an awful lot of attention while rolling around in their very own concept car should consider this one a priority test drive.