Versus the competiton:
The stunning 2015 BMW i8 is both a plug-in hybrid and an exotic sports car. Considering how polar that combination is, the i8 is effective, but not exemplary, in either role.
In an old sketch, “Saturday Night Live” introduced a product that was both a floor wax and a dessert topping. It would be reasonable to expect such a product wouldn’t be particularly effective in either role, and I wouldn’t blame you for thinking the same thing of BMW’s i8.
Priced at $137,495 and eligible for a $3,793 federal tax credit, the i8 is on one end of BMW’s two-car plug-in strategy. At the other end is the i3, a $43,395 four-seater eligible for a $7,500 credit. (All prices include destination charges.)
Introduced as a late 2014 model, the i8 is unchanged for 2015 except for the addition of keyless access as a standard feature (see the details side by side here.)
The i8 is a multilayered model in many ways, starting with what the eyes can see. Our mostly silver test car also featured layers of blue and black — a design that in the wrong hands could be a disaster. Here it works. If you ask me, the charcoal-on-black i8 we also drove obscured much of the car’s style.
Like many exotic-looking cars, the i8 is stylish enough and rare enough to turn heads — maybe better than it does corners. That was especially true in Cars.com’s hometown of Chicago, where plug-ins and exotic sports cars are less common than in, say, California. On several occasions it evoked behavior in nearby teen drivers that would give a SADD adviser a seizure.
As if the car itself didn’t garner enough attention, the doors put it over the top because they, likewise, go over the top: They open upward — a feature so uncommon it led uninitiated viewers to estimate the car’s value at $200,000-plus. BMW calls them scissor doors, but I’m not convinced. Scissor doors, most often seen on Lamborghinis, typically raise directly upward, remaining parallel to the vehicle’s length. The i8’s pivot up and out. If they’re scissors, they’re ones your kid uses to open blister packs. I’d say they’re somewhere between scissors and gull-wings.
The i8’s exclusive, defining feature is prominent chutes over the taillights through which airflow is channeled. The air flows along the car’s side and is guided upward and through the chutes, making them as functional as they are visually compelling.
LED headlights are standard. That’s seldom a letdown, but in the case of the i8, it is. Why? Because U.S. regulations prohibit the use of BMW’s innovative laser headlights. That’s right: In less uptight markets, i8s drive around with frickin’ laser beams.
Look at its components and the i8 seems like other plug-in hybrids, from the Chevrolet Volt and Toyota Prius Plug-in to the new Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid and the discontinued Fisker Karma. It has a plug-in, rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack, an electric motor, a gasoline engine and limited electric-only range.
But there’s one key difference: The i8’s electric motor powers the front wheels, and the gas engine drives the rear wheels. This is sometimes called a through-the-road hybrid philosophy because the two motors interact only through the road, not directly by powering the same driveshaft as they do in most hybrids. (While a couple of non-plug-in hybrids on the market add an electric motor to the rear wheels to provide all-wheel drive, and the plug-in Porsche 918 Spyder adds an electric motor for the front wheels, these models’ primary drive wheels rely on electric and gas propulsion combined.) In its complete segregation of gas and electric drive, the i8 is unique.
The i8’s electric motor drives the front wheels through a two-speed transmission with 129 horsepower and 184 pounds-feet of torque. The motor alone provides acceleration that’s more than respectable, mainly because an electric motor’s torque is on tap from zero rpm. The transmission’s different gear ratios are tied to driving modes; there’s no shifting as you accelerate.
You can keep the acceleration all electric up to 75 mph by activating eDrive mode via a button just below the car’s start/stop button. Once in eDrive, using a separate switch to select Eco Pro mode ensures you go electric only, even if you push the accelerator nearly to the floor, where it encounters resistance. Only if you push a bit further and trip a switch will it fire up the gas engine for full acceleration — a safety measure that ensures maximum acceleration when needed.
If you select Comfort rather than Eco Pro while in eDrive, acceleration remains primarily electric, but the gas engine comes on a little more easily.
Even in normal Drive mode, the gas engine turns itself on and off as it does in most hybrids — off typically at a stop or when accelerating gradually at low speeds. Full acceleration comes courtesy of both fuel sources. The tiny 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine drives the rear wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission with a whopping 228 hp and 236 pounds-feet of torque thanks to turbocharging, giving it the most power per liter of any BMW engine. The power team’s total output of 357 hp and 420 pounds-feet of torque rocket the i8 to 60 mph in an estimated 4.2 seconds — definitely the province of electrics like the base Tesla Model S, not hybrids like the Volt. The Panamera S E-Hybrid takes more than 5 seconds, and an Aston Martin V8 Vantage S (priced in the i8’s ballpark) gets there in an estimated 4.8 seconds. Nowadays, true supercars — ones that look more like the i8 — hit 60 mph in the 3-second range.
The little engine sounds surprisingly robust. Only one of our editors wasn’t impressed with the sound, for which we’d had low expectations because of its size, cylinder count and high-pressure turbo. It was no surprise to learn the sound is augmented — synthesized and played through the stereo. BMW does that with all its turbocharged engines to replace muffled low- to mid-rpm sounds. (Driven by exhaust gases, turbochargers tend to mute exhaust sounds.) BMW stresses that the sounds, based on rpm and load, are recorded from the engine in use, not some other power plant.
Overall, the two power sources work exceptionally well together. The electric thrust helps compensate for any brief delay while the engine fires up and engages the rear wheels. The only clunkiness I experienced came when calling for more power when the car was in its most conservative, efficiency-oriented modes, like eDrive or regular Drive with Eco Pro activated. In these cases, especially when mid-corner, nudging the accelerator sometimes caused the front wheels to slip a bit and the gas engine to fire up after a beat, causing a balance shift.
To avoid this, simply engage Sport mode by sliding the gear selector to the left. It turns on the gas engine, which stays on, and the throttle becomes more sensitive and the rear transmission holds lower gears.
Sport mode has a couple of additional tricks: It causes the front drivetrain’s two-speed transmission to shift into a shorter gear than the one used in all other modes. That makes for a quicker (if less efficient) launch off the line and more regenerative braking, for the feel of increased engine braking when you let off the accelerator. Sport mode also calls on the gas engine’s starter/generator (what’s slowly replacing alternators in cars) to charge the battery pack, ensuring there’s always enough juice on hand to provide full acceleration. In my experience, it added roughly 1 mile of electric range for every mile I drove in Sport mode.
Overall, the i8 exhibits some BMW hallmarks, including nearly even weight distribution of 48.8/51.2 (front/rear), though it enters corners with mild understeer. The handling is sporty, though possibly not as much as one might expect given the i8’s supercar looks. It feels considerably heavier than its impressive 3,455 pounds, and its steering does the job but feels over-assisted — even lighter than BMW’s regular cars have become. I was able to put it into nice, controllable four-wheel drifts and found roadholding to be good, but not at the level of true supercars. That might have been due to the comparatively narrow, efficiency-oriented tires.
Braking doesn’t feel 100 percent conventional, but as regenerative braking goes it’s very well-executed. Ride quality is firm but certainly livable, thanks in part to an electronically controlled adaptive suspension that can firm up when Sport mode is activated.
In the world of plug-in hybrids, thanks to its modest electric-only range of 15 miles the i8 compares more to the Toyota Prius Plug-in and Ford C-Max Energi than to a Volt or BMW’s own i3. (I roughly hit or exceeded that estimate in ideal conditions, which is to say cool temperatures and moderate speeds.) How well the i8 hits its EPA-estimated range — and matches the range it estimates on its instrument panel, based on charge level and recent driving history — depends mostly on the mode you’re in. Only eDrive with Eco Pro ensures electric-only operation, and while we tend to fixate on gas-free driving, it doesn’t necessarily represent the most efficient use of energy in all circumstances. That means the other modes may turn on the gas engine when it’s the best option, especially at higher speeds. Sustained electric drive around 55 mph and above is impossible outside of eDrive mode.
For comparison, the new 2016 Volt and i3 have impressive battery-only range before their gas-powered range extenders take over (the gas engine is an option on the i3): they go an EPA-estimated 53 and 72 miles, respectively. The Prius Plug-in is rated 11 miles electric and the C-Max Energi 20 miles. Once their batteries are depleted, the Prius reverts to an estimated 50 mpg combined, the C-Max to 38 mpg, the Volt to 42 mpg and the i3 with Range Extender to 39 mpg combined.
When you consider its relatively short electric range followed by an EPA-estimated 28 mpg combined on premium gasoline, the i8 isn’t quite in the same league as any of the plug-in hybrids mentioned above. Does your dessert topping taste like floor wax? It depends on your perspective. The Panamera S E-Hybrid goes an estimated 16 miles electric and then gets 25 mpg combined, and the 918 Spyder goes 12 miles electric before switching to 22 mpg combined. The most affordable Model S goes an estimated 240 miles but has no gas backup. (See these models compared.)
If you look at the exotics, the V8 Vantage gets 16 mpg combined, the automatic Audi R8 gets 16 or 17 mpg combined (depending on engine), and the Porsche 911 GT3 gets 17 mpg. (Compare these.)
BMW estimates i8 recharging time at 3.5 hours with the provided cord and a household 120-volt outlet. (A slower rate is selectable if the car is attached to a shared circuit.) With a 240-volt Level 2 system, it charges in roughly 90 minutes. We found both rate estimates to be accurate. Considering how quick this is, due to the battery’s small size, there’s no reason for a daily commuter to invest in Level 2 home charging.
Kudos to BMW for the simple strap on the charging box, which allows you to hang it — even from some public charging posts when Level 2 isn’t available. All these supplied 120-volt boxes come with short power cords — from which you are warned strictly not to let the boxes dangle. The i8 provides a solution.
The i8’s interior continues the exterior theme of tiers and layers, and it’s just as effective and contemporary here. Look closely and you’ll see evidence of the carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic that comprises much of the occupant space’s structure. Thankfully, there’s no sign of the fibrous plastic panels that plague the cabin of the i3; here the materials fit the price.
The scissor-wing doors are nifty, but they don’t seem to simplify getting in and out. Most people will struggle, and you really appreciate how Lambo’s scissor doors go straight up if someone parks too close to you. Even conventional doors let you slip out if you can’t open them far. The i8’s don’t, and it’s also a little too easy to clip another car’s side mirror with them.
For a high-tech plug-in hybrid, the i8’s interior looks conventional and familiar, especially for those accustomed to BMWs. The front seats have basic power adjustments. I found them comfortable enough, but one of our editors yearned for a lumbar adjustment. Outward visibility is pretty poor. The rear view is cluttered by structure and a high deck, and in front the windshield pillars are far forward and obstructive. Even today, when most cars’ fenders have disappeared from their drivers’ view, it’s particularly difficult to visualize where the i8’s corners are. Thankfully the i8 comes with standard Surround View cameras, plus front and rear sonar sensors.
The Model S and Panamera have exceptionally generous backseats — and dedicated doors to simplify access thereto. The i8 has neither (see the Car Seat Check). In backseat legroom dimensions, a difference of 5 inches between the i8 and Panamera might as well be the solar system. The Model S adds a few more planets still. The i8’s headroom also drops from competitive in the front seat to full inches shy of competitors in back. It’s a seat for children, if that. Look at the i8 as an exotic, and the backseat is irrelevant. Compare it with the Tesla and Porsche, and it’s sorely lacking.
Apart from having three means of controlling the driving modes — a rocker switch, a button and the shifter — the i8’s control scheme is good. The iDrive multifunction control interface on the center console (complete with integrated touchpad) is used to manage the high-mounted 8.5-inch display. Years of refinement show in this system’s menus and ease-of-use. Typical of EVs, navigation is standard to enable finding public charging options. The system includes an Eco Route feature that can prioritize efficiency, range and electric city driving based on battery level, driving style, traffic conditions and even topography. It’s a neat feature that efficiently took me through high-crime areas, from which I elected to beat a hasty and decidedly inefficient retreat.
Also common among EVs (including affordable ones), cellular connectivity enables remote smartphone app control of features like the i8’s charging start times, cabin pre-heating or -cooling, and checking range and charge status.
The instrument panel is another large display that also shows state of charge and estimated range, along with speed and assist/charge information. When the car is plugged in, it momentarily shows the estimated time of completion, which we found to be pretty accurate — a bit conservative, actually. A standard head-up display projects speed and other selectable information onto the windshield to maximize eyes-on-road time.
Audio provisions include a standard Harman Kardon stereo with HD radio, satellite radio (one year’s free subscription), Bluetooth hands-free telephone support and audio streaming, and a USB port that’s powerful enough to charge a tablet. BMW also offers a snap-in adapter that mounts an iPhone securely under the center armrest and — an exclusive feature — taps into the car’s rooftop antenna for better cellular performance.
By most standards, the i8 is desperately short on cargo space, with just 4.7 cubic feet of volume under the rear liftglass — comparable to a Mazda MX-5 Miata. The trunk shares that space with the gas engine (which is well-isolated in its own compartment), and there’s no front trunk under the hood. (It’s meant to be opened only by service technicians.)
In comparison, the Model S has 5.3 cubic feet in its front trunk alone, plus 26.3 cubic feet in the rear hatch; folding the backseat increases the total to 58.1 cubic feet. The Panamera S E-Hybrid has an 11.8-cubic-foot trunk and a maximum 40.7 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats folded. The i8’s seats don’t fold. Technically, one can use its backseat for storage. If anything, BMW might have been wiser to make the space behind the front seats more of a cargo area, because I hesitated to put a rolling bag back there on our test car’s white leather. (I also hesitated because I would have needed a robotic jib to get it in and out of there through the scissor-wing doors without damaging something, like my spine.) This supplemental space is better than nothing, but not much.
As usual, if you put on your exotic/supercar glasses, the i8 looks better. The R8’s trunk volume is 3.5 cubic feet, and the 911 GT3’s is 4.4 cubic feet. The V8 Vantage has 10.6 cubic feet.
As a low-volume model, the i8 hasn’t been crash-tested and probably never will be.
In addition to the cameras and sonar sensors mentioned above, the car has adaptive headlights that swivel in the direction of turns. The i8 isn’t loaded with advanced safety features, but it does have the most important one standard: forward collision warning with autonomous braking, adjustable for early, medium or late warning. The Model S and Panamera have blind spot warning standard and optional, respectively.
Standard side mirrors that auto-dim along with the inside one prove a useful feature in a low-slung car like the i8, in which occupants could easily be blinded by higher-riding vehicles to the rear.
The BMW Assist telematics system provides an automatic emergency call feature if the car is in a collision. A 10-year subscription is included for this feature but not all its functions.
The i8’s value depends on your perspective. Onlookers consistently guessed its price at above $200,000, but there’s no denying its shortcomings in passenger and cargo space compared with the likes of the Model S and Panamera S E-Hybrid, both of which cost less.
As a plug-in hybrid, the i8’s electric range isn’t fantastic and neither is its gas-only mileage. As an exotic sports car, both are pretty impressive.
What we can’t figure out is whom this car is for. It’s certainly not your typical green commuter, and it’s probably not your performance-first, cost-is-no-object sports-car fan. I’ve long said people buy luxury and the latest high tech for similar reasons: status and exclusivity. Short of the $847,975 Porsche 918 Spyder, the i8 is a singular entity. After all, the Panamera S E-Hybrid is just a version of the gas-only model.