BMW has spent the last 12 months at the forefront of the motoring world. This year alone, we’ve been given the astonishingly good 425bhp and 406lb ft M3 and M4 - cars I recently said were ‘as good as it gets in terms of sex appeal, performance, noise and driver involvement’. Towards the latter part of 2013, BMW also launched the i3, an electric city car (also available as a range-extender) that offers bold styling with strong performance and a battery life of between 80 and 100 miles.
And now, there’s the i8, BMW’s new 2+2 sports car that combines the best of both worlds - performance and efficiency - into an intriguing and utterly beguiling package. Even if the i8 does look like it’s swallowing a Porsche 911…
As you’ll agree, the i8 is a striking vehicle. There are curves, scoops, floating panels and sleek lights, which make this a car like no other. The i8 sits low to the ground, is wide and imposing, and has a look only reserved for concept cars and blockbuster movies.
“As a car, the i8 is perfectly made and thoroughly engaging. But the way it makes you feel is another story altogether”
People swarm to the i8 like flies to the proverbial, cameras and iPhones at the ready and current Facebook profile pics soon to be a thing of the past. The i8 is a pin-up car, and to see one in the flesh is a remarkable event.
Underneath the i8’s captivating exoskeleton sits a powertrain combination that might surprise you. At the rear, BMW has fitted a 1.5-litre, three-cylinder petrol engine (the same unit you’ll find in a Mini), which drives the rear wheels. Thanks to the addition of a big turbocharger that runs 25psi of boost, the diminutive engine produces 228bhp and 236lb ft of torque.
These impressive figures make the i8’s mid-mounted engine the most powerful unit per litre that BMW has ever produced.
To keep the hybrid’s weight down (it tips the scales at just under 1500kg), BMW opted for a six-speed automatic gearbox, which is lighter than the eight-speed ‘box used in other models, the M3 and M4 included.
At the front of the i8, you’ll find a 96kW electric motor. It sends 129bhp and 184lb ft of torque to the front axle via a two-speed automatic transmission. Up to speeds of 75mph (and while driven in Comfort mode), the electric motor does all the work, cruising silently and strongly in FWD mode only - interestingly, BMW claims that the i8 can travel a total distance of 22 miles in EV mode, but 15 miles is the more realistic figure.
In unison, the three cylinder engine and electric motor give the i8 a total output of 357bhp. From standing, that power figure equates to a 0-62mph time of 4.4 seconds and a top speed of 155mph limited. It’s the in-gear performance which impresses more, however. Between certain speeds (30-50mph, for example) the i8’s acceleration is immediate enough to make your head swim. As for the i8’s soundtrack and the way it looks on the move, well, judge for yourself…
On the open and empty roads of beautiful Scotland, the i8 is the perfect tool. If you’ve ever driven a BMW, you’ll feel instantly at home and wonderfully cocooned in the luxurious cabin. It’s simple to operate, too; there’s no unique starting process like fingerprint recognition or an eye scanner, simply pop the key in your pocket or centre console and prod at the starter button. The six-speed automatic ‘box gets slotted into D and away you go. Silently, of course.
Choose to explore the i8’s combined power potential, and a firm right foot fires up the Mini engine behind the rear seats. Much to my surprise, the tiny unit makes one hell of a noise. It’s bassy, thrummy and more akin to an out and out sports car, let alone a hybrid coupe capable of a combined (if claimed) 135mpg and 49g/km CO2 emissions.
Sweeping fast roads are where the i8 feels most at home. Thanks to its rigid body - the passenger cell is made from lightweight and incredibly strong CFPR - quick progress is assured and, thanks to near 50:50 weight distribution, balanced. Enter a tighter corner with more oomph and the power split is biased to the rear for sharper turn-in.
Push harder still and, despite the i8’s AWD, the car will wash wide before it lets go of the rear. This is because of the i8’s narrow tyres - chosen for their rolling resistance efficiency - which don’t allow you to take liberties mid corner. Put simply, the i8 is no drift car. For that, you need the M3/M4.
The steering feel of the hybrid BMW is something which didn’t impress as much as I was hoping it would. Yes, turning the wheel translates into quick and confident changes in direction, but the steering weight is too light for my liking. As for pedal weights and gear changes, I can’t fault those. The i8 feels every bit a BMW to drive in those respects as its conventionally powered stablemates.
As a car, the i8 is perfectly engineered and thoroughly engaging. The feeling you get driving it is another story altogether. Sitting behind the wheel of the sports car of the future as BMW calls it, makes you feel special. Even getting in the thing via its carbonfibre, dihedral doors and slipping into the car’s low-slung seats is entertaining in itself. And once you are inside, you’re greeted with the best leather, a driver-orientated dashboard (in the i8 it’s angled towards the driver by eight degrees) and a sleek centre console and instrument binnacle.
Prices for the BMW i8 start from around £100,000 (£95k with the £5000 Government incentive), which is the same price you’d pay for a top spec BMW M5, Audi R8 or Porsche Carrera GT3. All of these cars will be faster, will sound better, and will blow your socks off in any direction.
But none will whisk you from A-B in silence, past people with apparent lock-jaw, and to a barrage of stares, camera flashes and high-fives. And for that sort of money, that’s the least you should expect. If you’re still not convinced, then simply feast your eyes on that striking, 911-ingesting rear end again. Actually, make that six rear ends…
Click play below to see the first UK video review of the BMW i8.