I’ve had a very difficult time evaluating BMW’s revolutionary i8. I toggled from being blown away to disappointed, from enthused to confused. Interestingly, only one other car this year has given me equal (and greater) headaches and it was the new Acura NSX. I say interestingly because both cars have far more in common that one might think.
In the increasingly long line of hybrid performance and super-cars, the i8 was one of the first to combine plug-in electrification with petrol and AWD. At the time, in late 2013, early 2014, only the short-lived Porsche 918 (918 units sold in a year) featured the same technology. This could, in small part, explain why the i8 is a relatively popular hybrid performance car. For comparison sakes, 2 2/3 more i8s were sold in 2016 than NSXs since the start of production last year, until August of this year. There is a price gap but between you and I, the difference between $190k and $150k are pennies to those that can afford toys in this price range.
Furthermore, the i8 is a completely new nameplate. Yes, it harkens back to the old 8 Series but it has little to do with it. The new NSX is, well, the new NSX! And cruelly, the Acura is left on its own to defend the brand’s honor while the i8 is but one of BMW’s multiple poster-worthy cars with more (like the next 8 Series) to come. So, what am I saying? I’ve no idea other than I really liked the i8, and not at the same time.
Styling inside and out
Forget about going unnoticed in an i8. If you’re one to wear 8 gallons of perfume and a laser-blue suit or an orange skin-tight dress with gold diamond-encrusted 8” heels, this is the car for you.
The wide range of available colors, from white to silver to grey, do little to detract attention from what is a rolling future-space-car that looks like it should be hovering above the ground before taking off. Once you’ve landed at your destination, the butterfly doors are guaranteed to attract a glance or ten. This will be compounded by attempting to get out of the car in that orange-dress…
My favorite i8 angle is dead-front. The long-slung, wide snout is all shark and reminds me of my favorite BMW of all time, the E24 M6. It also recalls the sublime M1. One way or another, it’s visually stunning.
The cabin is equally dramatic, especially with the Halo Interior World package. It includes Dalbergia brown leather with cloth accents and insanely hot contrasting i Blue seatbelts. The dashboard is a multi-layered affair with familiar BMW switchgear. The many levels are draped in various materials and beautifully come together. Here, I would have liked a flat-bottomed steering wheel – I think it would have matched ideally with the sporty seats.
Comfort and space
There’s little to say here other than the front perches are spot-on perfect, the rear “seats” are impossibly upright and designed for kids not much taller than 5’. Meanwhile, the trunk will hold little more than a weekend’s worth of groceries while the 2-4 of Bud and giant Costco-sized bag of chips will need to split the rear bench.
In the event that this car is selected for a road trip, the space behind the front seats will prove to be most valuable. There are a few spots to dump keys, wallets and phones but a battle may take place for the sole cupholder accessible by the front passengers. There are two at the very end of the center console.
Lastly, getting in and out of the car can be a comical affair should you be portly, wearing tight clothes or have the flexibility of a 2×4. The door sills are immense and leaning back to avoid the doors when climbing it is necessary.
Value and equipment
The issue with such a car, like the NSX, is that it is unclear who the car was conceived for. A true sports car fanatic with $150,000 -$200,000 to burn will more than likely want something that is equal parts prestige, performance and styling.
This price range opens up an incredible array of possibilities. Think almost any Porsche 911 (GT3!!), an Audi R8, Mercedes-AMG GT, Jaguar F-Type SVR, or even a sublime M6 Gran Coupé with the mental Ultimate Package and its 600-horsepower boosted V8.
I guess I’m still trying to wrap my mind around why this car is available. What I keep forgetting is that those that would purchase an i8 are liable to own a classic 911, an Aston Martin and a Bentley or two. This is where the i8 makes most sense.
Performance and handling
Walking up to the i8 sets you up emotionally. You expect to poke the “start” button and have your clothes torn off from all the power and performance. It’s not quite like that but what ends up happening is that we discover a car with perfectly segmented personalities.
This is a result of a 131-horsepower electric motor on the front axle and a TwinPower turbocharged 1.5-litre 3-cylinder behind the cabin. The latter produces 228 horsepower and 236 lb.-ft. of torque with far more anger than you think.
Upon startup, the i8 is 100% electric. Set in Comfort drive mode, the BMW shifts willingly between EV and fuel. The car monitors throttle application and proceeds with firing up the 1.5-litre for more oomph, when required. In Eco Pro, or e-Drive, the i8 denies the ICE as much as possible. Despite limiting the burning of hydrocarbons, the i8 manages to move briskly with electric power only. Driven reasonably, the BMW will travel up to 24 kilometers and up to about 120 km/h without ever calling upon the 3-pot.
Full throttle or better yet, moving the shifter over the left, engages Sport mode and this is when everything changes. The noises (albeit mostly fake) that emanate from the engine break the serenity and suddenly the go-pedal wants nothing more than to meet the firewall.
It is here that the i8’s dark side comes to light as the system’s full 357 horsepower and 420 lb.-ft. of torque come online. Suddenly, the furious i8 wants to repeatedly crush the horizon from a standstill to 100 km/h in 4.4 seconds thanks to its AWD setup. The standard 6-speed slushbox (yes, a conventional automatic) demonstrates its incredible competence either on its own or through the wheel-mounted paddles. The transmission’s shifts are lightning fast and perfectly timed.
The true brilliance of the i8 is found in its carbon-fiber chassis. Its lightness and firmness translate into a driving experience that is quite unique. The car feels impressively alive and nimble, despite the near 1,600 kg (3,520 lbs.) curb weight. Steering responsiveness and assistance are ideal while ride comfort is excellent, for a sports car. The extremely rigid chassis allows for smart and supple suspension tuning; the dynamic dampers’ compliance keeps the tires in unspoiled contact with the tarmac which translates into excellent steering feel, and flawless grip.
When the fun’s over, tapping Eco Pro on the drive mode switch, the shifter moves back to the right and all falls silent once more. BMW states a fuel consumption equivalent of only 8.3L per 100 km. My week with the car returned 5.5L/100km average where 60% of the driving was done in town.
Impressive though that may be, buying an i8 to get exceptional fuel mileage is the equivalent of purchasing a RAM 3500 HD Cummins diesel with duallies to tow a 13’ 1,200 lbs. Scamp trailer. You could do it but its overkill. And dumb.
The 2017 BMW i8 is true sports car that has the ability to park alongside a Toyota Prius Prime and not feel guilty. Perhaps that’s a good thing but for me, for the moment at least, I’d opt for a 911 and spring for a VW e-Golf for when I’m feeling environmentally conscious.