Is this the future of the automobile?
If you’ve ever felt disappointed by the lack of stuff in science fiction movies being turned into reality, the BMW i8 might just be your cure.
BMW showed off the i8 in the Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol film back in 2011 and although there were hints of it going into volume production, no one actually expected the Munich-based brand to produce it so close to concept form.
Alas, here it is. The BMW i8 is the future of the automotive world in more ways than one.
Ignoring its high-performance hybrid drivetrain, the BMW i8’s design, construction and even the brand’s overall philosophical approach to its creation makes it a historic vehicle that will likely be a trend setter of its time.
You may question my choice of words, but I label the BMW i8 as a supercar. It’s time we change our definition of what qualifies as a supercar and I certainly think the i8 is a winning candidate.
Firstly, it costs $299,000 and although price is by no means a qualifier, it does bring about the element of exclusivity.
Secondly, its performance is extraordinary. Sure, the 0-100km/h time of 4.4 seconds is slow in comparison to even the new BMW M4 (4.2), but its electric heart is primarily created to give amazing in-gear acceleration, with a 80km-120km/h sprint time of just 2.6 seconds.
To put that in perspective, the Aston Martin V8 Vantage S does the same dash in 4.6 seconds, the Audi R8 (V8) is 3.9 seconds and BMW’s own M4 is 3.5 seconds. So there is more to the acceleration numbers than just 0-100.
Even if you ignored all that, the thing looks like a proper supercar. We tested the BMW i8 in Melbourne for two solid days and wherever we stopped, it gathered big crowds, more than we are used to for ‘ordinary’ Italian supercars.
Maybe its the scissor doors that scream for attention or perhaps it’s the fact that there are currently only two in Australia and that even by the end of 2015 (customer cars start arriving early next year), there will likely be less than 100 of these getting around. Whatever the reason, the i8 will turn heads for all the right reasons.
As part of the ‘i’ brand, the i8, like the i3, is ‘born electric’ - meaning the cars are produced from the ground up for electrification. They share little in terms of platform with other BMWs and in the i8’s case, the extensive use of carbonfibre-reinforced plastics (CFRB) and aluminium throughout the body helps keep its weight – with the batteries and electric motor – to just 1485 kilograms (the BMW M4 weighs 1537kg).
At the front sits an electric motor that can be charged up via an ordinary wall socket (about four hours) or with a BMW wallbox (two hours). It provides the front-wheels with a healthy 96kW of power and 250Nm of torque.
The internal combustion engine (ICE) is a 170kW/320Nm 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol engine that invigorates the rear wheels. Together they produce an impressive 266kW of power and 570Nm of torque.
The front wheels are managed by a computer controlled two-speed automatic gearbox (most electric cars only have one gear) while the rear gets a six-speed auto that responds to the steering wheel-mounted paddleshifters.
There are four driving moves: Comfort, which relies on the electric motor for speeds at under 60km/h; Eco Pro, which is like comfort but more aggressive on the fuel saving; eDrive, which purely relies on the electric drive and lets you go about 37km without using any fuel; and, most importantly, Sport mode, that keeps the ICE permanently running for maximum performance (and worst fuel economy).
BMW says the i8 uses just 2.1L of fuel per 100km on the standard fuel test rules. In reality that’s probably extremely optimistic, and most people don’t buy supercars to save fuel.
In Sport mode and at full blast around the twisty roads surrounding Mount Macedon, we averaged around 10.2L/100km which was actually surprisingly good, considering the pace and constant demand on the drivetrain.
Around town you’ll easily get a figure under 5.0L/100km, but again, while the i8 is a hybrid (emitting a claimed 48g of CO2 per km), it's more about showcasing that the sports cars of the future – that have to deal with the continuously toughening CO2 emission laws – will still be fun.
There are some peculiar things about the i8. For example, BMW has chosen to pump artificial sound through the cabin if you step on the accelerator. It sounds awesome, but it’s not a 'real' aural experience, and while the 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo actually has a good natural note, the fake supercar sound does tend to ruin the experience a bit.
Even the noises that accompanied the gearshifts - complete with a loud throttle blip, sounded too good to be true.
It’s sad to admit, but by the end of the second day, the counterfeit engine and exhaust note became a little addictive and I found myself repeatedly going for the right pedal to hear it once more.
Is this is the future of the automobile? Where we rely on speakers for that orchestral note that was once the signature of a powerful engine? Perhaps, but there are certainly modern cars – such as the Jaguar F-Type – that have gone completely the other way, extracting the most natural sound they possibly can.
Behind the wheel the BMW i8 is a delight to drive at speed. Its light weight makes it very welcoming of hard and fast corners and the electric powertrain delivers heaps of torque just when you need it.
There’s the occasional sense of understeer and the Bridgestone Potenza tyres seem to make a surprisingly high amount of noise (though for all we know that was also artificial), but the overall sensation is very enjoyable.
Lets be clear, the BMW M4 feels far more intimidating to drive than the i8. It’s not so much that it’s quicker (though we suspect around a track it might be), it’s more so that the i8 is easier to drive fast, while the M4 requires more driving skill. We prefer the M4 for that reason but the i8 still has plenty of appeal in this department.
Where the i8 does shine is its usability and ride comfort compared to other supercars in this price range. While the tiny boot will at best accommodate just half the week’s groceries (if you’re on a diet), the ride comfort around town is better than a 3 Series (without adaptive suspension), making it a genuine daily supercar.
We found it struggling to settle on country roads (when driven at speed) and jumping around a bit over bumps, but it never felt uncomfortable or edgy.
Power delivery from the hybrid drivetrain is also a highlight, with in-gear acceleration guaranteed to put a childish grin on your face.
Unfortunately then, the digital speedometer – which is displayed via a 6.0-inch LCD - can’t seem to keep up with the rest of the car.
While many manufacturers have changed from analogue to digital speedometers for better accuracy, the i8’s seems to update in half-second intervals, meaning (speaking hypothetically if you’re in the police force) speeds can go from 108km/h to 115km/h in one switch, making life a little difficult if you live in a heavily policed state, such as the one in which the car was launched.
On the topic of the interior, the i8’s is like most other BMW’s, including a driver-focused centre cluster with the latest version of iDrive pumped through an 8.8-inch high-resolution screen.
While that may initially come through as a disappointment – considering the rest of the car looks like it’s from outer space – the beauty is its ease of use. There’s no reason why a futuristic car has to be hard to use.
In saying that, when Tesla launches the Model S in Australia come November, the i8 might find itself struggling to match its American rival's ultra-modern interior.
BMW says the i8 is a 2+2 seater, which suggests the rear seats are actually usable, but in reality they are mostly for show or when desperation calls. They do have ISOFIX points, however, so your kids can come along and enjoy the future.
BMW Australia says all i8s coming our way are optioned up to the max, with the only boxes left to tick being the blue seatbelts and halo leather (tanned using environmentally-friendly but awfully corny olive leaf extracts).
Standard features include satellite navigation with Harman Kardon HiFi audio system, ConnectedDrive functions (letting you use the BMW i Remote smartphone app for battery and vehicle data management), rear, side and surround view cameras, head-up display as well as driving assistant systems and intelligent emergency call for automatic response to accidents.
For a sports car, the BMW i8 does showcase the future of the automobile for car enthusiasts that will have to deal with the realities of emission laws.
However, as much as I personally love the car, my ideal situation, given I had $299,000 to spend on a car, would be to buy a BMW M4 ($166,900) for play time and a BMW i3 ($64,000) for commutes to work, leaving me with some change still left over.
Images by Tom Fraser.