BMW i8 review
The BMW i8 is a revolutionary plug-in supercar with incredible performance and economy
The BMW i8 is the second in a range of ‘i’ models from BMW, with the first being the BMW i3 supermini, an electric car which is also available as a range-extender hybrid. The i8 is the latest addition to the line-up and a different proposition altogether. It's a £100,000 plug-in hybrid coupe with the kind of looks you only normally see from outlandish concept cars. In its construction, though, there are similarities with the BMW i3 – it uses the same carbon fibre-reinforced plastic body on an aluminium chassis construction.
In terms of rivals, the BMW i8 is aimed at models like the Porsche 911 and Audi R8 but with a 1.5-litre turbo three-cylinder driving the back wheels and a 129bhp electric motor driving the fronts, it’s a powertrain set-up like no other we’ve seen before in this class. Figures of 135mpg and 49g/km are also unprecedented – and help give the i8 the sort of running costs that even city cars can’t match.
It’s been nearly four decades since BMW last produced a mid-engined supercar, so it’s no surprise the German brand has gone for bold with its latest high- performance flagship. Featuring futuristic looks, a hi-tech plug-in hybrid powertrain and claimed 135mpg fuel economy, the new i8 is a sports car like no other.
The BMW i8 looks absolutely stunning whichever colour and wheel combination you go for. The narrow headlights (optionally available with laser technology, that’s even brighter and more energy efficient than the standard LED set-up), 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.
As a result, you’ll need to get used to being the centre of attention, because the i8 us a car that attracts a constant stream of camera phone wielding car fans. The BMW is available in a variety of colours, including silver, white, blue and black, with the latter the most understated. That’s because it does without the contrasting panels (such as in the bonnet) that come on the other. You can also choose between neat silver or blue trim detailing for areas such as the familiar double kidney front grille.
Open one of the i8’s jaw-dropping dihedral gullwing doors and you’ll discover an interior that’s every bit as stylish as the exterior. The wraparound dashboard it 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 sat-nav and infotainment functions.
Better still, quality is top notch, with excellent fit and finish and top notch plastics. As with the smaller i3, recycled and sustainable materials are used throughout. It’s very well equipped, too. Sat-nav, a DAB radio, Bluetooth and heated seats all feature, while the high-backed seats are finished in leather. Buyers can also upgrade the materials and leather by opting for either the £1,150 Carpo or £2,150 Halo interior ‘world’ finishes.
A three-cylinder sports car doesn’t sound like the most thrilling prospect in the world but with the assistance of the 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 quicker off the line than that.
Keep it in Comfort or Eco Pro mode and the i8 will try and run on electric power alone, which it can do for about 22 miles and at speeds of up to 45mph. Using just the electric motor, you’ll find acceleration comparable to a hot hatch. The eco-friendly eDrive setting gives you pure electric running for the same range, but raises the maximum speed to 75mph.
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 and firmer settings for the dampers and more aggressive power steering. Flooring the throttle in this mode 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 – clever tuning means that it sounds a little like a Porsche flat-six. Adding to the sensation of speed is the six-speed automatic gearbox, which delivers seamless changes to create the illusion of an uninterrupted wave of acceleration.
Yet it combines this thrilling performance with the eco-friendly traits you’d expect from a Toyota Prius. Leave the i8 in Comfort or EcoPro mode and the electric motor will carry you for around 20 miles at speeds of up to 45mph. Engage the eDrive setting and you’ll get all-electric drive up to 75mph.
Through bends the i8 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 pummelling 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 it’s no worse than a Porsche 911.
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 been used in the MINI family and will be in models like the forthcoming 2 Series Active Tourer.
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. However, for extra peace of mind BMW covers the battery pack with a comprehensive eight year and 100,000 miles warranty – the rest of the car is covered by the firm’s standard three-year guarantee.
With the carbon fibre body we’re expecting safety to be excellent, especially considering the front, side and curtain airbags fitted as standard. The battery is also well protected by a crash structure and BMW is saying that repair costs are normal for the class – despite the hi-tech construction.
The BMW i8 is 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. In fact, it’s best to think of them as extra storage space.
It has to be said that the scissor-opening doors aren’t the most practical way of getting in and out, either, but the drama that they add to proceedings is definitely worth something, while the powerful gas struts mean the big doors never feel heavy. There is a boot in the rear, which you can fit a couple of weekend bags in but don’t expect to be carting around large suitcases.
As a plug-in hybrid, the i8 does without the range anxiety of traditional electric cars. With a 32-litre fuel tank onboard it can theoretically cover just over 300 miles on a full charge and with a full tank. Plug into a domestic power socket and you’ll get an 80 percent charge in around three hours, while fitting a BMW home charging station will reduce the charge time to two hours, while BMW’s £315 15-amp iWallbox reduces the charge time to two hours. Once fully charged, the i8 can travel around 20 miles on electric power alone, while careful use of the regenerative braking system should increase the range
Even so, BMW understands its buyers don’t want any compromises and offers them the option of borrowing a traditional model (such as an X5) for longer journeys or family holidays.
The i8’s official figures of 135mpg and 49g/km are a little unachievable in the real world but you’ll definitely improve on what you’d get from a 911 or an R8. During our time with the car we returned nearly 40mpg, a figure 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 the car for a short daily commute and have access to a charging point, then you could save thousands at the pumps. And the savings don’t end there.
Company car buyers will also benefit, with the i8 currently sitting in a 5% BIK band, meaning company car tax could be as low as £998 per year. For 2015/16 and 2016/17, the i8 will shift up to a 9% band and then an 11% band but that still significantly undercuts traditional sports car rivals.
And as you’d expect from BMW there’s a great value servicing pack, with a one of payment of £1,000 covering all routine maintenance for five years.