Yes yes yes, oh YES: looks, looks, looks
Oh dear me no: No apple car play, limited luggage space, few driver aids
BMW i8 is a low sleek Supercar that does more than a good job of being a GT.
Design: Say the word Supercar and people think of Ferrari, Lamborghini and other such exotic names. Similarly, the word Luxury GT conjures Rolls Royce, Bentley, Aston Martin and Jaguar but BMW too has had a go at both GT and Supercar models in the past with varying levels of success. The M1 in the late 70’s is an example, but since then BMW has been keeping the GT fires burning with the 6 series, leaving the Supercar stuff to Bugatti, Porsche and McLaren.
It’s no surprise that eventually BMW would re-enter the hyper-fast world of high end motoring. In doing so they’ve managed to turn the idea of a Hybrid on its head. Technically, the i8 is a range-extender plug-in electric car. If you want, you can run the i8 just on electric power alone but only for a little over 30kms. In order to understand the BMW system, you have to forget what you think you know about hybrids.
The i8 has a small 1.5L twin turbo petrol engine and an electric motor running on batteries. There is a second electric motor which acts as a generator for the batteries and this is where it gets interesting. The batteries are charged by a wall charger, or by braking/coasting or by the petrol engine. If you were to spend half the day in SPORT mode, you’d find you had yourself a near full charge. Although you only get about 30km, it’s fine for commuting. You’d have a fast charger at either end of your journey for an 80% top-up. Most people only travel to work, but if you have a longer journey, the petrol engine cuts in so no range anxiety. It sounds complex and unless you’re an engineer, most of us have little chance of more than a casual grasp on the propulsion tech.
The cutting edge development extends to the body where aluminium and carbon fibre make the weight little more than 1400kgs while giving a stuffer chassis. Consider the weight of a motor, 2 engines, and a bank of batteries, then tell me 1400kgs isn’t an achievement. The light weight helps the 4.4 second 0-100kph sprint become a reality.
Even standing still, the deeply contoured body gives the impression of speed. Shapes like this are not possible in any other material. BMW have been clever with their use of design elements. For example, the door handles are recessed on the door itself, but on the rear side of it hidden from view. The smart entry lock is there too. The “scissor” door pops out, up and forward in one easy movement. It is carbon fibre and aluminium like the rest of the structure so can be moved easily. Once open, it is held in place by a piston. Some supercars needed a person with the strength of Hercules in order to pull the door closed. The BMW needs only two fingers slipped into the door handle which is easily reached sitting in the driver’s seat.
The car is very low and the door aperture somewhat petite, in fact it is much smaller than it looks from the outside. Getting in takes a bit of practice if you’re not to look awkward. The man at BMW said “put your bum on the sill then turn and slide”. I took him at his word, and like magic I slipped straight in. After a few days I mastered getting out the same way. The reason they open the way they do is so that you don’t bang the door against the curb. The sill is so low that even a modest slope would see a normal hinge leaving you wedged against the footpath.
The shape is a basic wedge that has been heavily carved to help air flow. The rear lights are in two parts, upper and lower, and wrap around one of these deep folds. You can’t fully appreciate the affect until you’ve seen it in the flesh. The headlights have a similar cutting edge look but if you want to pay extra, you can have Laser headlights instead of the LEDs.
If it all looks sounds terribly cutting edge, it’s because it is. Despite all this, the i8 is very normal to drive, for a supercar that is. You see, if you can drive any other hybrid you can drive an i8. Press the start button and the dash comes to life. The instrument cluster is a single LCD. Another LCD sits tablet-style on the top of the dash. Between them, they share Satnav and other major functions.
To aid the twin LCD screens, a heads-up display projected on the windscreen which shows speed, navigation directions and music, among other details. They’re hard to see if you wear polarized sunglasses and you find yourself lifting them periodically. There are no operational instructions needed if you’re already familiar with BMW controls. The interior may look like a fighter jet, but the function is pure BMW. Most modern prestige vehicles have a familiar environment across their range.
The I-drive has been refined and has a touch pad on the top of the central control knob. However, input is made easier using voice commands especially in the navigation system. Surprisingly, it works but is still not as intuitive as Siri. Unlike Siri, the voice control is self-contained and works without the aid of cell service.
The pale blue mood lighting is particularly attractive at night where discrete lines highlight doors, dash and centre console contours. The entire cabin is bathed in an eerie but tasteful glow.
The seats are firm and deeply sculptured and the dash wraps round the drive. It looks unique but definitely recognizable to a BMW owner. Because of this instant familiarity, the environment feels much less intimidating. The driver can easily manipulate controls and settings but despite the advanced look and cutting edge materials, there are some things missing. The centre LCD tablet does not have Apple Car Play, and there is no massaging/fan cooled seats, no lane departure warning, no radar cruise control, and no forward collision warning. You get some of these on a humble Kia.
None the less the interior feels luxurious and well equipped.
It is almost impossible to put into words exactly what driving BMW’s i8 is really like. It feels festher-light with steering like a scalpel. The brakes are sharp and handling superb.
The 1.5 twin turbo petrol engine drives the rear wheels through a 6 speed paddle shift auto. There is an electric motor driving the front wheels through a 2 speed auto, and a second to act as a generator to charge the batteries. They switch between modes to operate together to push the BMW to 100 in 4.4 seconds. 170kw/320Nm for the petrol engine, and 96kw/250Nm for the battery powered motor doesn’t sound like much, but remember the torque of the electric motor is always available. There is an immediacy about the acceleration a conventional petrol engine finds hard to match. It’s particularly eerie driving on batteries alone but more about that later.
BMW claims you’ll get up to 600ks from a combined full electric charge and 42L tank, but we all know those figures are rarely achieved in the real world. We achieved 5.5L/100k over a 3 day drive including: city, highway, and the usual Royal National Park tight twists.
Unlike super-cars of the 70’s, the i8 is practical. The boot is small but useable and if pressed, the back seat is better for gifts than people.
Another thing Supercars are known for is terrible rear view. Reversing can be a nightmare but the BMW didn’t feel all that different to a more conventional coupe. The rear camera can be switched between views, one of which is a simulated 360° top down view. It is invaluable in tight spaces although a concrete car park can look like indefinable splodges of grey.
The seats easily find the perfect position and the steering wheel has plenty of reach and height adjustment.
As you move off, the electric handbrake releases itself and at car park speeds you’ll be in electric-only mode. You prowl the rows in complete silence. The electric whine gathers volume only as the speed picks up.
We decided to use the car exactly as an owner would. We took every chance to use the i8 even when going to get a carton of milk from Coles 200 metres away. Apart from the fact that we loved driving it, we wanted to prove that it was no more difficult to use than a family hatchback.
We had tickets to an event at the Opera House, so of course we than the train. I mention this because of the Opera House carpark. Like the famous building it services, the car park is unique in construction. It is a concrete construction consisting of two interlocking ramps looking rather like a squashed double-helix string of DNA. It stands inside a cylindrical sandstone pitwithout touching the sides, but many will not appreciate its considered design and construction. Like the i8, it was ahead of its time. Somehow this was not lost on either of us.
Going down one of the helixes meant coasting most of the way, building charge as we went. The regenerative braking ensured the batteries stored energy that would normally have been lost. The ramps of the carpark are joined periodically by cross tunnels allowing a driver to get to the ascending ramp without going all the way to the bottom. Importantly, the energy stored on the way down can be used to go back up the other helix, in silence.
As we exited the car park, a firm press on the accelerator brought the petrol engine to life and in to the Eastern Distributor tunnel we went. The exhaust sound in a tunnel with no other cars in it is extraordinary. It’s a moment to enjoy with the windows down.
Time in the i8 was limited and the following day promised nasty weather so we opted to do a run through the National Park to round off the evening.
Once out of town there was a chance to try out the automatic high beam. Annoyingly, bright reflective signs can fool the system into thinking a headlight is approaching so the beams dips when they shouldn’t.
The suspension is firm but not uncomfortably so, and the tyres make a bit of a hum. Somehow that which is unforgivable in other cars hardly rates a mention on such a sublime drive.
As you make that final turn off the freeway the atmosphere builds. Every moment feels special and that is something few cars can match.
As with all our tests, we left the stability control switched on at all times.
I’ve driven this road many times and it takes very little for a car to get ruffled. Often, there are protesting tyres and frightening body roll, but the BMW remained poised and calm. The cabin was quiet and calm with no body roll. Even through the very tightest turns, the chassis felt tight keeping the tyres in contact with the road in a way I haven’t often felt.
On the straights, the BMW felt graceful and elegant like a GT, and in the bends like a super-light go-cart. We switched between the various modes to get a feel the differences in handling. The changes were confined to how the petrol and electric motors interacted.
The forest scenic drive was done in SPORT mode. This keeps the petrol engine engaged for maximum power. To my surprise, leaving the SPORT mode engaged built up 22k of charge in the batteries. While the car was by no means pushed hard, the experience completely enveloped us.
Because we built up a considerable charge in the batteries, the remainder of the coastal journey was done in silence, a truly spooky experience. Even the steep mountain pass ascent elicited only a faint whir. Although the electric motor produces under 100kw, the 250Nm of torque pushed us up the side of the mountain as if being driven by a V8. Of course this kind of work drained the 22k of charge in about 10k but it’s incredibly rewarding.
The run back into Sydney showed how brilliantly the cruise control works. There is no radar assistance so the braking is provided via electric regeneration of the batteries, again nothing is wasted. The speedo stays almost exactly at the desired setting.
There are simply no words to convey how properly brilliant the BMW i8 is. Of course rough surfaces are clearly evident, but the sophisticated suspension always felt in complete control.
There is enough space for shopping and weekends away, but a road trip would always beckon.
You can commute to work or go for a spin just because you feel like it, but every kilometre is a pleasure. You find yourself inventing reasons to drive even if only a few hundred metres. I could easily imagine crossing Australia just for fun.
There are plenty of super cars, but few are hybrids and even fewer are usable on a daily basis. The i8 definitely is.
Would I buy one? Yes, even if it meant selling my mother.
Price: $322,903 (drive away NSW)
Electric: 96kw/131Nm, hybrid-synchronous motor with integrated electronics, charger and generator mode for recuperation with 2 speed auto transmission driving front wheels
Petrol: 1.5l 170kw/320Nm, 6 speed auto driving rear wheels
Performance:0-100 4.4 seconds
Economy: combined 2.1L/100k claimed, 49gms CO2, 42L fuel tank
Weight: 1485 kg