BMW i8 review
The BMW i8 is a game-changer for the supercar sector. It has stunning style and performance, but running costs set new benchmarks
The BMW i8 really does redefine what a supercar can be. With looks that are the stuff of a bedroom poster, including ground-hugging proportions and ‘butterfly’ doors, it’s BMW’s most striking car ever. The performance is brutal too, with a 4.4-second 0-62mph sprint, while the handling us up there with the very best sports cars.
But here’s the thing: its official average fuel consumption rating is 134.5mpg, and CO2 is 49g/km. Those near-miraculous numbers come because the i8 is a petrol-electric hybrid, and the culmination of all BMW’s engineering knowhow. It’s not the perfect supercar by any means, but it’s more stunning and more futuristic than anything else close to its price.
BMW i8 vs BMW M1: video
The BMW i8 shook up not only the sports car world when it arrived in 2014, but the car world in general. It’s one of the most crucial cars of the last decade and marks an achievement of true innovation in terms of design, performance and efficiency. It’s so groundbreaking that in years to come we may end up looking back on the i8 as the supercar that saved the supercar.
Sitting alongside the BMW i3 hatchback in the brand’s eco-friendly ‘i’ range, the i8 has head-turning looks, an advanced plug-in hybrid powertrain and a chassis made largely from a material called carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) that BMW developed specifically for its electric cars, at great expense.
In some ways the powertrain isn’t really original – plenty of other hybrids mate petrol and electric motors to achieve good fuel efficiency – but it’s the way they’re combined in the i8 that’s mesmerising. It places a 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo engine – also found in the MINI Cooper – behind the driver, and links it to an electric motor at the front.
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Nothing too sci-fi there, but the combination of a 228bhp MINI engine driving the rear wheels and a 139bhp electric motor driving the fronts gives the i8 stunning, instant acceleration and four-wheel drive traction.
It boasts a total of 357bhp and 570Nm of torque and, as a result, the BMW i8 will blast from 0-62mph in just 4.4 seconds and onto a top speed of 155mph. It’s not quite Ferrari 488 GTB territory, but it’ll give most Porsche 911s a fright, and runs the Audi R8 close.
That puts the BMW i8’s £100,000 price point into perspective. In fact, combined with its zero-VED status and 134.5mpg fuel efficiency rating, it looks a relative bargain.
Is it perfect? No. The reality is that you can’t have that much technology working away in a sports car and make the driving experience feel truly ‘natural’ (a fake engine noise is piped into the cabin through the speakers, for example) but it does a very good job of trying. It’s also not as economical in real life as it is on paper, not by any means.
But still, no other sports car of this type and price can come close to its efficiency, or its sense of futuristic occasion, and that makes the i8 truly special.
Engines, performance and drive
A sports car with a three-cylinder engine doesn’t sound like the most thrilling prospect in the world, but thanks to the assistance of an electric motor, the i8 feels every bit as quick as an Audi R8.
Officially, 0-62mph takes 4.4 seconds, but because you have the instant torque of the electric motor, it actually feels a lot faster in the real world. It doesn’t matter what gear you’re in – the i8 comes as standard with a six-speed automatic transmission – the i8 responds instantly to every prod of the throttle.
The i8’s nature as part-supercar, part-eco car means it has different driving modes that affect how the engine and electric motor interact with each other. So, slot the gearlever to the left into Sport mode you get the petrol engine running all the time, the full output from the electric motor, firmer settings for the dampers and more aggressive power steering.
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Keep it in Comfort or Eco Pro mode, though, and the i8 will try and run on electric power alone, bringing in the petrol engine only when you accelerate aggressively or go above 45mph. The eco-friendly eDrive setting gives you pure electric running for up to 22 miles, and raises the maximum speed to 75mph.
Using just the electric motor, you’ll find acceleration comparable to a hot hatch. Flooring the throttle gives you a smooth and muscular surge of acceleration, accompanied by a sci-fi whine from the electric motor and a deep, throaty growl from the three-cylinder engine.
Adding to the sensation of speed is the automatic gearbox, which delivers seamless changes to create the illusion of an uninterrupted wave of acceleration.
Guide the i8 through a series of bends and it feels light on its feet, with barely any body roll and a crisp response from the fingertip-light steering. Unlike some rivals that feel as if they are pummeling the road into submission, the BMW is more delicate and measured, requiring only small inputs from the driver.
Once you’re actually in the corner, you’ll find the i8 isn’t quite as engaging or as adjustable as a 911 or Audi R8, but it’s seriously capable nonetheless.
Thanks to the standard adaptive dampers, ride comfort is pretty good, while the BMW’s aerodynamic styling – it boasts a drag coefficient of just 0.26 – means there’s very little wind noise. However, despite its skinny tyres, the i8 generates quite a bit of road roar – although no worse than in a Porsche 911.
There’s only one drivetrain to speak of, but as it’s so groundbreaking and so central to the existence of the i8, it’s worth expanding on.
A three-cylinder turbo petrol engine – which, with 228bhp, is boosted to roughly 100bhp more than it has in the MINI Cooper – is located mid-rear, behind the driver. It powers the rear wheels.
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The electric motor, with 139bhp, is in front of the driver and powers the front axle. That gives the i8 all-wheel drive, with the motors able to work together or independently of each other. Clever software ensures that during gentle driving the electric motor, which draws power from a lithium-ion battery pack, assists the petrol motor in using as little fuel as possible.
On the other hand, during more aggressive driving the two combine forces fully, with the electric motor serving up instant torque for a quick getaway then helping the i8 achieve its 357bhp maximum output.
If that output doesn’t sound like much in this context, that’s because it isn’t – the latest Audi R8 develops 533bhp – but the i8 is very light for a hybrid, so it doesn’t need masses of power.
Clever tuning means that the i8 sounds a little like a Porsche flat-six from the inside, particularly in Sport mode when the electronically enhanced soundtrack – piped into the cabin through the stereo speakers – is turned up to full volume.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
The i8’s official figures of 135mpg and 49g/km are almost impossible to achieve in the real world, but you’ll definitely improve considerably on what you’d get from a 911 or an R8. During our time with the car we returned nearly 40mpg – less than a third of its official figure – although that included plenty of hard driving.
However, as with all plug-in models, the running costs will depend very much on how you use the car. If you use it for a short daily commute and have access to a charging point, you could save thousands at the pumps by mainly using the battery. And the savings don’t end there.
Company car buyers will benefit greatly. When the i8 was introduced in 2014 it sat in the 5% BIK band, meaning company car tax could be as low as £998 per year. Sadly (and predictably) it’s now in the 9% band (for 2015/16) and will shift up to 11% for 2016/2016 – but that still significantly undercuts traditional sports car rivals.
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It’s imperative that i8 owners manage their battery charges in order to make the most of the drivetrain’s fuel savings. Like all batteries these ones go flat – and quite quickly if you’re heavy footed – which means that at times the i8 will be running on its petrol engine alone, and consequently will feel notably slower. Both the engine and regenerative braking can regenerate the battery, but it’s always better to keep the battery topped up by plugging it in.
Plugged into a standard household supply, the i8 takes around eight hours to charge from flat, though with a special BMW-supplied wall box (£315) an 80 per cent charge can be achieved within two hours. Most BMW dealerships have one or two of these available too, so any i8 owner can pop in and top up using their special recharging card. The ever-growing network of public charging stations can prove useful as well, of course.
As a plug-in hybrid, the i8 does without the range anxiety of traditional electric cars. With its 32-litre fuel tank onboard it can theoretically cover just over 300 miles on a full charge and with a full tank.
As you’d expect, the BMW i8 is in the top category for insurance in the UK – group 50. So, while fuel and tax costs may be in the family hatchback leagues, insuring an i8 is another matter altogether – one for a specialist high-performance car insurer, most likely.
That’s partly to do with its performance and desirability to thieves, but also repair costs – the engine may be common, but the CFRP chassis and carbon body parts are not cheap to repair.
BMW offers bespoke in-house insurance for i8 drivers, but as ever you need to shop around to make sure you’re getting the best deal.
Our experts expect the i8 to retain around 55 percent of its new value after three years. This is a car that will remain desirable for many years to come, and that figure is in keeping with the Audi R8 and comparable higher-end versions of the Porsche 911.
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Interior, design and technology
The BMW i8 looks absolutely stunning whichever colour and wheel combination you go for. The narrow LED headlights, elegant curves, spaceship-style rear lights and distinctive flying buttresses all make for a low-slung car with more presence than almost anything else on the road; laser headlights are optional, delivering an even more penetrating and bright beam pattern than the LEDs do – themselves a fairly recent development in headlights.
As a result, you’ll need to get used to being the centre of attention, because the i8 is a car that attracts a constant stream of camera phone wielding car fans. The colour palette is relatively small, however, varying from silver to a far more eye-catching electric blue and black. Some are more eccentric than others owing to brightly coloured accents, but BMW has resisted the urge to offer garish paint tones.
Whatever you choose, the options list contains exterior detailing such as contrasting coloured trim for the skirts and grille, and there are multiple wheel choices, albeit only in 20-inch size to accommodate the unusually thin bespoke tyres.
Open one of the i8’s jaw-dropping dihedral butterfly doors and you’ll discover an interior that’s every bit as stylish as the exterior. It’s not quite as futuristic as the smaller i3’s, but the wraparound dashboard is slickly designed and dominated by a pair of 8.8-inch HD screens: the unit in front of the driver displays the speedo, rev-counter and energy use dials, while the centrally-mounted display is for the navigation and infotainment functions.
Better still, quality is top notch, with excellent fit and finish and soft-touch plastics and leather for the dash. As with the smaller i3, recycled and sustainable materials are used throughout, too. It’s also very well equipped, as you’d expect at this price.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
Despite the futuristic leaning of the dashboard design, the infotainment is lifted directly from the BMW parts shelf, meaning you’re dealing with roughly the same iDrive system that everyone from a MINI through a 5 Series driver uses. It’s one of the few disappointments of an otherwise sublime cabin – iDrive’s rotary dial control system remains unintuitive.
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It does however come with a 20Gb hard drive for loading music onto, and fittingly it’s the latest and most top-end version of the system available (until the 2016 BMW 7 Series arrives, that is), so it includes a host of extra features like real time traffic information and BMW’s Concierge service. A head-up display is standard, but internet functionality costs £95, while a Harman/Kardon stereo upgrade (recommended) costs about ten times that.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
This is not a car purchased with practicality concerns in mind, but the BMW i8 does a far better job of being spacious and comfortable that you might imagine, having just clapped eyes on it.
That said, actually getting into the car can prove slightly problematic at times – the i8’s unusually hinged doors aren’t the most practical. In fact, you’ll occasionally find yourself in a mild panic having returned to your i8 to find someone’s parked especially close to it, wondering whether you’ll actually be able to get in. But the drama that they add to proceedings is definitely a price worth paying.
Even parked in an empty car park, getting in and out requires a little contortion compared to a regular car, due to the combination of the hinge and how low the seats are set, but you’ll soon get used to it.
Once you’re inside, the i8 feels surprisingly spacious from the front, and feels especially so if the leather trim is specified in a light colour. For the driver, this is a very easy car to adapt to, with a superbly adjustable yet always low-slung driving position and very comfortable chairs.
In fact, on the motorway, the combination of supple suspension (out of Sport mode), very little wind noise and light steering makes the i8 a very comfortable, relaxing motorway car – certainly far more so than a Porsche 911.
An impressive bonus of i8 ownership is BMW’s offer of lending you a traditional BMW for longer journeys or family holidays. The scheme involves owners being handed an annual allocation of points that can be redeemed against other cars in the brand’s line-up. That certainly makes it a more reasonable ownership proposition (though of course doesn’t solve the problem of impracticality on a day-to-day basis, should that matter).
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The i8 has the dramatic dimensions of a supercar – fantastically low, and wide. The nearest thing to it on the road is the Audi R8. The i8 is that bit more striking due to its wedge-like bonnet and is also a little taller than the Audi but it’s an almost identical width.
There are visibility compromises when you sit this low in a car this wide, with such a shallow glasshouse (especially rearward) but in fact the i8 is surprisingly easy to place on the road. You shouldn’t have undue trouble judging where the corners are. It’s the rear three-quarter view that proves most problematic, but all it means is that extra care should be taken when switching lanes.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
The front two i8 passengers will have no problem getting comfortable, because this car is as ergonomically sound as can be. There’s plenty of head- and legroom and a range of adjustment for the seats and steering wheel.
It’s supposedly a 2+2 but you only get a pair of seriously upright, legroom-limited seats in the back – no one will thank you for squeezing them in there for a long journey. There’s certainly no room for a rear-facing child seat in the back, although children aged roughly 5-10 should find the seats a good size for them – so that’s your sweet spot if you’re a family buyer looking for the ultimate school run weapon.
There is a boot under the glass hatch at the rear, but it’s cramped. You can fit a couple of weekend bags in, but don’t expect to be carting around large suitcases - unless you specify the bespoke Louis Vuitton luggage set from the options list, that is.
BMW quotes a 154-litre boot space, which is about half a Ford Fiesta’s, for reference, and the rear seats don’t fold. In reality you can just about squeeze a few days’ shopping in the boot, but that’s all.
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Reliability and Safety
With such a lot of new technology on board it’s tempting to be cautious about the i8’s reliability. To help put your mind at ease though, the basic layout of this three-cylinder engine has already been seen in the latest MINI line-up, plus BMW’s 2 Series Active Tourer MPV, and much of the switchgear will be familiar to BMW owners.
That said, BMW finished 22nd of 32 car manufacturers for reliability in our 2015 Driver Power owners survey, which suggests there’s room for improvement – though the i8 itself didn’t feature in the survey.
Electric motors are, on the whole, very reliable because of their relative lack of moving parts, while the regeneration from the motor puts less strain on the brake pads over time
The i8 hasn’t been tested by Euro NCAP and never will be because of its expense and relative rarity, but expect nothing less than five-star safety. Its carbon fibre body and CFRP body shell are super-strong, while front, side and curtain airbags are fitted as standard. The battery is also well protected by a crash structure.
It comes with ESP and traction control, and a standard head-up display helps keep the driver focused on the road at all times. LED headlights, also standard equipment, are as close to actual daylight as headlights come, reducing eye fatigue during nighttime driving.
A Driver Assistance pack is a cost option, giving the i8 low speed automatic braking and blind spot detection.
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The i8 is covered by BMW’s three-year unlimited mileage warranty, which matches that of the Porsche 911, while the Audi R8’s expires at 60,000 miles. And for extra peace of mind BMW covers the battery pack with a comprehensive eight-year or 100,000 miles warranty.
BMW says repair costs are normal for the class – albeit that class being the £100,000-plus sports car class – despite the high-tech construction. And the i8 can be purchased with BMW’s Service Inclusive fixed price servicing plan, which at least keeps costs in check.
However, only a select number of BMW dealerships are specialist ‘i’ sales and service centres, so it may be you have to travel further than your local dealer for service or repairs.