BMW i8 Supercar

August 8, 2013

BMW M8 Supercar

BMW i8

To set the scene, I have parked the BMW i8 in the heart of Beverly Hills. Intrigued pedestrians stop in their tracks and begin to gather. They casually eye up the new BMW before reaching for their mobile telephones to snap impromptu photographs of the distinctive two-plus-two coupe, which has also grabbed the attention of passing motorists who pause as they pass by, causing the traffic to bank up down the famed Wilshire Boulevard.

In this car obsessed city it takes a lot to truly get noticed. But the scene being played out kerb side in front of me is no exception. Similarly strong reactions were provoked by the i8 wherever we ventured during our first drive of the petrol-electric hybrid sportscar this week, leading to spontaneous conversations with strangers and calls of appreciation from fellow motorists – all of whom were full of admiration for the car BMW boldly describes as the future of the sportscar.

No doubt, a good part of the attraction rests with the design. The exterior,  heavily influenced by the German car maker’s earlier EfficientDynamics concept car, is fantastically futuristic, giving the i8 an appearance quite unlike anything else on the road today. The highly contemporary looks go further than pure visual appeal, though; they were conceived to represent the advanced construction technology that has gone into the new BMW – the second in a new range of i models, following on from the smaller and more affordable all-electric i3 launched earlier this year.

BMW M8 Supercar

Some 4689mm in length, 1942mm in width and 1293mm in height, the i8 possesses the unmistakable proportions of a mid-engined car, which it is – at least as far as its petrol engine is concerned. But more than this, it is the layered surfaces within the body and flowing forms that are used to form the integral wing at the rear that sets it apart from more conventional BMW models.

Among the more prominent design flourishes is a blanked off kidney shaped grille, slim line headlamps, a bonnet boasting a sizeable duct to extract hot air from the front mounted electric motor, shapely front fenders, scissor action doors, air ducts integrated in the sills, wing elements that spout from the header rails and flow over the rear wheel arches, blade like treatment to the upper portion of the rear fenders and flowing LED tail lamps.

As with the recently introduced i3, the i8 is based around a lightweight carbon fibre reinforced plastic body structure and is underpinned by a chassis fashioned almost exclusively from aluminium. But unlike its boxy city car sibling that relies exclusively on an electric motor for propulsion, the sleek new supercar sports a plug-in hybrid drivetrain consisting of both a conventional petrol engine and a pair of electric motors.

BMW says it weighs 1485kg, which is quite impressive given there is a 7.1kW/h stack of lithium ion batteries running down the centre of the cabin in the space usually taken up by the transmission tunnel on more traditional supercars. The batteries alone are claimed to weigh 200kg.

Getting in requires a good deal of gymnastic dexterity. You have to fold yourself into the cabin between the lower edge of the scissor action door and a substantial slab of carbon fibre that forms the sill. The aperture through which you climb is extremely narrow and instantly raises questions about the suitability of the i8 as an everyday car.

Once you’ve swung your legs down into the driver’s foot well, you discover the interior is every bit as new world in appearance as the exterior, with deeply dished seats, a futuristic looking dashboard boasting LCD instruments which alter in colour depending on the driving mode and a heavily sculptured facia. There are four seats, although those up back are too cramped for anything but brief journeys. They’re best used to extend the i8’s luggage carrying capacity, which is less than excellent; the small boot nestled under the glass rear liftback only holds 154 litres.

The technical details pertaining to the i8 driveline could well describe something out of a NASA space exploration program and go a long way to backing up claims that the new BMW is not only the most futuristic looking cars of our time but also among the most advanced to ever be placed into series production.

But for all the complexity of its various power units and the electronic circuitry that not only connects them but also provides either front- and/or four-wheel drive compatibility, it is remarkably straight forward car to operate. To start it, you press a button within the forward section of the centre console, at which there is an acoustic chime to tell you it is primed and …. well, silence.

All up, the i8 offers a combined 266kW  at 5800rpm and 570Nm of torque at 3700rpm. Just how much of this is available at any given time is  dependent on the state of charge of the batteries and the drive mode that is chosen: Eco Pro, Comfort or Sport. Alternatively you can select E-mode, although it is only available when the batteries are charged to certain level.

Both Eco Pro and Comfort are entirely suitable for urban commuting or when you simply want to cruise at a steady clip on arterial roads. Provided the batteries are sufficiently charged, the electric motor mounted within the front axle is automatically engaged. With 96kW at 4800rpm and 250Nm of torque the moment your foot brushed the throttle, it provides the i8 with zero-emission front-wheel drive running for distances up to 37km up to a limited 120km/h top speed.

The in-house produced electric motor drives through a two-speed automatic gearbox, providing instantaneous response and the sort of standing start acceleration to see the i8 challenge a well sorted hot hatchback in a race away from the traffic lights in electric mode. There is a faint whine from the electric motor under load, but for the most part the overriding impression is of outstanding mechanical refinement, leading to a relaxed driving qualities in an urban environment.

The turbocharged 1.5-litre three-cylinder direct injection petrol engine mounted at the rear automatically engages when you give the throttle a decent nudge or when the electric   energy stored in the batteries is depleted to a pre-determined levels. A more highly tuned version of the unit first unveiled in the new Mini Cooper, it boasts the highest specific output of any engine produced by BMW right now, possessing 170kW at 5800rpm along with 320Nm at 3700rpm – all of which is channeled through a six-speed automatic gearbox to the rear wheels.

A second electric motor mounted at the rear acts as a generator to integrate the operation of the combustion engine with the front electric motor. There is a brief interruption as the three-cylinder unit springs to life and begins to send power to the rear wheels, but it does not impede progress in any great way.


With the petrol engine and two electric motors working together in either Eco Pro or Comfort mode, the i8 feels powerful but not explosively so. Peg the throttle back at standstill and the driveline delivers the sort of performance you’d expect of a modern day sportscar endowed with contemporary turbocharged six-cylinder engine, but with an odd synthesized three-cylinder thrum that envelops the cabin via the speakers of the audio system.

You can forget the headline-grabbing 2.1L/100km economy claim, which is achieved primarily in electric mode exploiting a loophole in the test cycle mandated by the European Union and gives it a CO2 rating of just 49g/km; the reality is the i8 returns roughly the same fuel economy has a contemporary hatchback. During our test drive, it averaged 6.8L/100km over a variety of different roads, which while not quite as extraordinary as BMW would have you believe is still outstanding given the performance it offers.

Knock the gear lever to the left to select Sport, the digital instruments change from a icy   shade of blue to a warmer tone of orange and the i8 instantly becomes a lot more aggressive in nature. All of a sudden there is added response to the throttle, the gear shifts are fired off with greater urgency, the brake regeneration is set to a higher level for added retardation on a trailing throttle and the hi-tech driveline is primed to deliver its maximum performance with a more menacing soundtrack .

So configured, the new BMW finally begins to live up to its sportscar billing. There is strapping low-end response, thanks in part to the electric motors, which chime in with heady levels of torque the moment your foot brushes the throttle, extraordinary flexibility to the delivery and with drive being apportioned to each wheel traction is never in doubt.

As an indication of the acceleration on tap, BMW says the i8 needs just 2.6 seconds to get from 80 to 120km/h. But while the tiny three cylinder petrol engine is genuinely entertaining low down and through the mid-range, it lacks for top end urgency, with the result that its best efforts are over by the time the rev counter is indicating 5000rpm.

BMW quotes a 0-100km/h time of 4.4sec for the four-wheel drive i8, placing it on par with the rear-wheel drive Porsche 911 Carrera S for outright standing start performance. However, the way it is achieved is quite a bit different to that of its more traditional sportscar rival. With instant torque from the electric motors, the new BMW fires off the line in a spectacular burst of speed before the petrol engine catches up and its full load power is unleashed. Top speed is limited to 250km/h.

There is initial promise to the dynamic properties of the i8, but only up to a certain point. Body control, aided by a centre of gravity described as being the lowest of any existing BMW model, is superb, resulting in low levels of lean and an encouragingly flat cornering nature. The steering, which is geared to deliver sharp response in Sport mode, is also deliciously direct, leading to whip crack turn-in characteristics. Yet for all of its immediacy, the electro-mechanical steering system lacks for crucial feedback and is devoid of any meaningful weighting as you up the speed. You could be operating a video console, such is the lightness of the controls.

Engaging Sport also brings added tautness to the chassis. While Eco Pro and Comfort provide the i8 with a supple ride, Sport is noticeably firmer, and with a spurious lack of wheel travel it proves rather choppy with a lack of vertical control at the front end on less than smooth roads.

The new BMW rolls on standard 20-inch wheels, albeit only 7.0 inches in width at the front and 7.5 inches at the rear in the name of aerodynamic efficiency. They are shod with low rolling resistance tyres with an aspect ratio of just 195/50 up front and 215/45 at the rear. They are amazingly quiet with low levels of tyre roar, even on coarse surfaces. However, their lack of purchase is obvious the moment you up the pace, leading to a deficiency of  front end grip. The result? Early breakaway as you enter tight corners followed by incessant understeer. As such, the blinking yellow lamp within the instrument binnacle indicating the operation of the stability control system is a constant companion on winding back roads. The brakes also lack feel, although there’s no denying their ability to wipe off speed.

The i8 is a revolution in terms of technology. But is not the ultimate driving machine we were led to believe it would be. Even so, it looks spectacular – more so on the run than in pictures. Thanks to its futuristic interior, advanced petrol-electric driveline and cutting edge construction, it offers a unique driving experience – all without any obvious compromise in sheer performance compared to more conventional sportscars. Some additional engineering work needs to be focused on the chassis before it could be called fun to drive; for all its complexity it lacks for real depth in terms of dynamics. Still, for those seeking the latest word in environmental responsible motoring and with a spare $200,000 odd to get in on the action, the sleek new coupe will be hard to resist. When the world looks back ten years from now, odds are the new BMW will be held up as the car that  changed the way we think about sportscars.  The question is: will anyone care?




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