There aren’t many times I get to drive a car that promises to revolutionize the entire industry three months before it goes on sale to the general public.
Yes, there are other plug-in hybrids cars. Yes, there are other cars with range extending engines. Yes, there are other cars that use carbon fiber, aluminum and other exotic materials to reduce weight, provide structural rigidity and improve safety. But nobody’s put it together quite like this before.
The fluid lines. The roaring three-cylinder engine. The thrust of 357 total horsepower. The promise of 94 miles per gallon. The confidence of all-wheel-drive. The BMW i8 manages to do what no other hybrid has done before; thrill me.
How do I know this car is special? It was evidenced by all the cameras and questions that came out every time I stopped at an intersection. By the guy in the Ducati who was trying to chase me down and shoot a movie of the car with the iPhone mounted on his bike. By the kids in their Mustang convertible who made an illegal U-turn on the Pacific Coast Highway, just to get a better look at the car.
If you’re in the witness protection program, this car is not for you.
If, however, you want to drive something that accelerates like a sports car, handles like a race car, has the comfort of a grand tourer, uses fuel like mo-ped and will attract a crowd faster than an ATM dispensing free hundred dollar bills, the BMW i8 might just be your car. That is, of course, if you have $135,700, are on a first name basis with your BMW retailer and don’t ever anticipate using the rear seat for anything other than small dogs or groceries.
The obvious place to start with the i8 is its design. What looks interesting in pictures, is stunning in person. Walking up to the car, you know instantly it’s a BMW thanks to the blue-ringed kidney-shaped air intakes. The car is low, long and wide, with lines that sweep from the front fenders right through the integrated split rear wing. And while it looks sexy as hell, the design is pure function, with a drag co-efficient of just 0.26 and the ability to create road-gripping downforce at high speeds.
Grab the handle and the door swings up and forward thanks to the simple hinges on the A-pillar. The opening easily accommodated my six foot three inch frame though I did have to duck my head to avoid making contact with the carbon fiber and aluminum door.
The BMW i8 is the second product in their line to feature their new LifeDrive architecture. The Life Module is the carbon fiber frame that houses the passenger compartment. It is both lightweight and strong, providing excellent protection for the car’s occupants. Interior room is bountiful for front seat passengers with 43.1, 38.7 and 56.7 inches of legroom, headroom and shoulder width. The seats themselves are simple 6-way adjustable buckets with plenty of support for even longer drives. Unlike other cars in this class that provide a myriad of other seat adjustment options, but somehow with only a few adjustment options BMW designers managed to get these seats just right. Even after 8 hours of hard driving, both my co-driver and I were ready to go for more.
The Drive Module in the i8 is an aluminum frame that uses the center battery enclosure as a stressed member. Aluminum obviously saves a few hundred pounds compared to a steel frame, to accommodate the additional two hundred and twenty pound battery pack. It is located right through the center where a driveshaft would go in a traditional car. This has two benefits: it keeps the weight centered in the car and it keeps the center of gravity low. In fact, the i8 has the lowest center of gravity of any BMW on the market which only adds to the race-car like handling characteristics.
On the front end of the battery pack is a 120 HP electric iDrive motor. When the i8 is in all electric mode it operates as a front-wheel drive car. And while it’s not a rocket ship when it’s in eDrive, thanks to 184 lb/ft of torque, it’s quick enough run away from most cars when the light turns green. Range is a very short 22 miles in all-electric mode, but frankly you won’t drive the car that way very often.
If you’re like me, it’s not just because the turbocharged 1.5 liter three-cylinder engine that’s mounted just behind the rear seat sounds fantastic, but also that it adds 228 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque for a total of 357 hp, turning the i8 into a rocket ship. BMW has published a 0-60 time of 4.2 seconds, but we’ve seen the i8 unofficially clocked as low as 3.8 seconds. That’s right in line with the new Stingray and Bentley GT Speed. One feature that allows this to happen is the motor generator that’s mated with the i8’s gas engine. Under hard acceleration, it provides a burst of electric drive power to eliminate traditional turbo lag. After that it goes back to its day job of generating electricity for the high voltage batteries.
But the most fun I had wasn’t watching people gawk at me from the sidewalks as I pulled away from a Ferrari at a Santa Monica stoplight, it was as flinging it through the twisty and treacherous two lane that is the legendary Mulholland Canyon Highway. It was there where BMW’s brand mantra “The Ultimate Driving Machine” came to life.
With the i8 set in sport mode, the suspension stiffened up, the steering became more responsive and the automatic transmission shifted quicker and more often, keeping the motors squarely in the powerband. The gas engine drives the rear wheels and the electric motor drives the front wheels independently. Consequently power is applied exactly where it needs to be. When understeer threatens to rear its ugly head, more power is directed to the rear wheels, allowing the front tires to focus on cornering forces, and vice versa for oversteer. As a result, there wasn’t a moment in the entire time during the drive that I didn’t feel entirely comfortable behind the wheel no matter how tight the corners or how steep the cliffs were on the sides of the Malibu Canyon roads.
From a practicality standpoint, the i8 can work as an everyday car. In comfort mode, the ride is supple enough to handle most urban environments, but because the two engines fill so much of the traditional storage areas, space is limited. To mitigate this, BMW contracted with Louis Vuitton to create a luggage set tailor made for the car. But if you are planning on taking your clubs to the golf course, you’ll have to strap them into the passenger seat.
So what’s not to like about the BMW i8? Other than the fact that it’s entire first-year production run is already sold out, not a whole lot. The folks at BMW know how to make a statement and they’ve done that emphatically with the i8. So if you want to be one of the few to drive an i8 next year, I suggest you get to your BMW dealer now and get on the list for 2016, because this is one of those rare times when the future is worth waiting for.