The BMW i8 offers jaw-dropping styling layered above a groundbreaking petrol/electric plug-in hybrid powertrain but its implications and potential impact go well beyond that. It would be no to exaggeration if BMW were to claim that the i8 is one of the most crucial new cars of the last decade. BMW's electric car sets the sector benchmark for fuel efficiency with performance to match and in years to come we might look back at the BMW i8 as the car that saved the supercar.
Picking up where the striking and clever BMW i3 plug-in hatchback left off, the i8 is the second model in BMW's 'i' range. Both share head-turning looks with the engineering and advanced materials to match. The combination of an aluminium chassis and those carbon fibre reinforced plastic body panels make the BMW supercar both strong and light. If the otherworldy styling grabs your attention, the engineering you can't see will blow you away.
Despite setting its sights on cars like the Audi R8 and Porsche 911, the i8 sports a less-than-exotic sounding turbocharged 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol engine that sits behind the back seats. But don't be fooled, as thanks to an an additional 129bhp electric motor linked to lithium-ion batteries, the BMW boasts a healthy combined power output of 357bhp and a thumping 570Nm of torque. As a result, the i8 will blast from 0-62mph in just 4.4 seconds and go on to a top speed of 155mph. Yet while the performance figures are pure supercar, the i8’s running costs have more in common with a supermini.
Thanks to its plug-in petrol-electric powerplant, the i8 claims a remarkable 134.5mpg and CO2 emissions of 49g/km. Of course, these figures are only really achievable if you charge the BMW’s batteries once a day and the majority of your journeys can be completed within the 22 mile electric range. Even so, use the petrol engine all the time and you can still expect a return of more than 40mpg, which is impressive when you consider the available performance.
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. 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 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.
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, particularly in Sport mode when the electronically enhanced soundtrack is turned up to 11. 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.
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 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.
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.
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 a price worth paying. And while the long doors look heavy, the combination of lightweight construction and powerful gas struts mean that you never have to break a sweat when getting in and out
There is a boot in the 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.
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 so option of borrowing 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.
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. Even better, our experts expect the i8 to retain around 55 percent of its new value after three years.