When the first-generation Toyota Prius and Honda Insight started to appear on our roads, few people would have ever predicted that a hybrid could be one of the most desirable cars in the world. Yet, fast forward some 15 years and that’s precisely what’s happened. In fact, it’s happened four times over.
With the introduction of the Ferrari LaFerrari, McLaren P1 and Porsche 918, this could well go down in history as the year the sports car changed forever. As of right now, without a doubt, the whole notion of the hybrid vehicle needs to be reexamined through a completely different lens.
Although the 2014 BMW i8 does not offer the same level of performance as the three other hybrids, it could well be the most important of the bunch. Those cars may be firmly in the hypercar category, but the BMW is as equally advanced from a technological perspective.
The fact the i8 is a high-performing plug-in hybrid isn’t revolutionary. Instead, it’s the fact that this largely brilliant car starts at $145,000 – or about $700,000 less than the least expensive of the hybrid hypercar trio. The secret to the savings is the proprietary carbon fibre manufacturing process that BMW has revolutionized, a process claimed to give the company at least a two-year competitive advantage over every other car maker on the planet.
The platform of the i8 consists of a carbon fibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP) passenger cell fastened to an aluminum chassis. The lithium-ion battery pack is mounted underneath the floor and in the middle of the vehicle. This design ensures a low centre of gravity (for better handling) and close to 50:50 weight distribution, front-to-back (ditto). The i8 also boasts a curb weight of just 1,485 kg – some 45 kg lighter than the stellar BMW M235i.
The electric aspect of the hybrid powertrain is a 96-kW motor (134 hp; 181 lb-ft) that sends power to the front wheels through a two-stage transmission. The internal combustion engine is a turbocharged, 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine (231 hp, 236 lb-ft) that directs power to the rear wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission. The combined output, then, is 362 horsepower – not a small amount, but not a lot for a sports car these days.
The i8 features five different drive modes: two that are 100% electric, two that offer a relaxed balance between gas and electric power and a sport mode for maximum attack. In all-electric motoring, the i8 is a mild performer that boasts decent kick off the line as expected, but that acceleration plateaus early. It’s an odd sensation to flatten the accelerator pedal in a sports car and feel so little throttle response.
The i8 can (eventually) hit 120 km/h in all-electric mode and travel for up to 37 km without the need for any fossil fuels. While these figures aren’t wildly impressive for a modern-day hybrid, it’s important to bear in mind that the gas engine is frugal as well. As a result, the i8 is expected to deliver some impressive fuel economy, an estimated 2.8 L/100 km in combined driving.
As might be expected, the real excitement happens as soon as sport mode is engaged. The cool blue instrument panel accent lighting glows orange. The small gas engine starts to growl with surprising aggression. And the BMW lays claim to being an honest-to-goodness sports car with a 0-100 km/h time of just 4.4 seconds.
As impressive as the powertrain is, the performance plays second-fiddle to the chassis, handling and suspension systems. In fact, the setup of the car is so good, everything else about the i8 seems less impressive by comparison. Even with all driver aids disengaged, it was still a challenge to get the BMW to slip up on the drive route up in the canyon roads of Malibu.
There was not a moment where the car lost contact, not a single corner that wasn’t carved with perfect precision. The standard adaptive suspension system soaked up ripples in the pavement with no trouble at all. And the hybrid all-wheel drive system kept traction at a very high level on uneven pavement, over bumps, in corners and up hills.
By this point time, you have likely already read other reviewers claim that the BMW i8 “understeers when pushed” – these reviewers are universally wrong. When driven properly, the car does not naturally understeer because its balance is near perfect, more torque is going to the rear wheels and the torque-vectoring brakes are always clicking away.
The canyons did serve to highlight the areas where the BMW i8 is less than stellar.
While the steering feel is nicely weighted, the amount of lock you dial in does not correlate directly to the response of the front wheels – it’s a bit slow for a true sports car. The bigger issue, though, is the braking system.
In city driving, the brakes on the i8 are dogged by that old, vague, regenerative brake feel that has affected so many hybrids. This is disappointing – but the bigger disappointment is that the brakes aren’t powerful enough. Diving down the canyon roads at speed, the brakes were the limiting factor as they remained vague, locked up under duress and didn’t inspire much confidence. There’s an opportunity here and, without a doubt, a true sports car needs better binders.
In other news, the exterior design of the i8 is aerodynamic and bold to the core. Even in car-obsessed Los Angeles, the BMW pulled attention like Lindsay Lohan exiting a nightclub. The car is very wide and very low – so much so, it makes the standard tires seem too skinny. Inside, the BMW sets new standards in eco-luxury; recycled and recyclable materials are used throughout and the feel of all them is high-grade.
The passenger cabin is of the 2+2 variety – there are two back seats, but they are tiny. The scissor-style doors open upwards, leaving a relatively wide access point. To enter the car, you back in by sliding across the wide, carbon fibre door sill, then drop into the seat, as you would in a racecar. The handle to close the door behind you should be within easy reach of most people. It sounds difficult, but it isn’t compared to other exotic cars with “non-traditional” doors.
In the final analysis, the BMW i8 may not be able to keep pace with the latest hybrid hypercars from Ferrari, McLaren and Porsche. But, then again, the i8 doesn’t cost as much as the average mansion.
Without a doubt, BMW has a winner on its hands – a true sports car that is loaded to the teeth with the latest technology and one that paves the way for an entire line of lightweight, high-performance vehicles. It also opens the (scissor) door for a M version – an M i8 with sharper steering, better brakes and slightly better acceleration. Now that would be something…
2014 BMW i8
Base Price: $145,000
Engine: Twin-turbo 1.5L 3-cyl. DOHC 16-valve; 96 kW electric motor
Horsepower / Torque: 362 hp / 420 lb-ft.
Transmissions: 6-speed automatic
Fuel Economy Ratings (city / hwy. / comb.): 13.7 / 9.0 / 11.6 (manual), 2.8 (auto) L/100 km
Warranty (mos. / km): 48 / 80,000