The futuristic BMW i8 is already three years old, but has it lost any of its science fiction lustre living in our sometimes dull reality?
From the Probe-16 (Durango 95) in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, to the Audi RSQ in Alex Proyas’ iRobot, filmmakers have always looked to the most advanced concept cars to depict the future of transportation.
But rarely, if ever, do these celluloid props find their way into the real world, let alone with number plates on them.
In the 2011 film, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, BMW featured its then groundbreaking show car, the Vision Efficient Dynamics. This hybrid super sports car looked every bit the science-fiction prop on screen, but within three years would transform into the first examples of the production car we have here, the 2016 BMW i8.
Some elements, such as the neon lit grille, touchscreen windscreen and Paula Patton, would remain off-limits to the driving public, but in the same way Will Smith’s RSQ previewed the production Audi R8, the lines of the Vision ED weren’t that far off what we saw revealed in the i8 back in 2013.
Looking at it even now, it is amazing to think the $298,995 i8 (before options and on-road costs) is already three years old, and it still looks like nothing else on the road. The contrast between Crystal White paint (one of four options), blacked out panels and the swooping glasshouse, only interrupted by the slick LED head- and tail-lights, is just the start.
The split C-pillar that channels air over the rear hip and through the lamp cluster, plus the side skirts that push air under the car and behind the deceptively thin back wheels (at 245mm, they're narrower than the 255mm rear rubber on a standard 3 Series) help the i8 achieve a drag coefficient of 0.26 Cd, to further improve its running efficiency.
To save weight, the main passenger cell is constructed from carbon-fibre. There are exposed sections to show this off, in both the main cell and on the doors and rear hatch lining.
The bulk of the rest of the car is aluminium, resulting in a total weight of 1485kg. Seem more than you expected? That’s the lithium-ion battery pack that sits under the middle of the car.
It gives the i8 a very low centre of gravity, and allows for a 50/50 weight distribution, but as advanced as those batteries are, they are still the Achilles heel of a sports hybrid like the i8. Meaning that all the lightweight construction and functional aero is crucial to the i8’s performance ability.
Even the signature kidney grille has been blanked off to again improve the way the BMW slices through the air.
And while the ‘pooping a Porsche’ rear bumper design isn’t to all tastes, I think we can agree that BMW should be applauded for taking such a risk with the i8’s look.
The butterfly doors that hinge upward from the A-Pillar make entry an event, at any time of the day. Getting in isn’t too hard, as you step down and into the I8, but climbing out needs to be measured to ensure dignity and composure are maintained, along with checking that you don’t bash your head on the door.
It looks amazing from the front with the doors up, and is only 1958mm high like this - still 200m taller than an X5 (1762mm) but not so much that you will hit the top of even a low carpark roof.
With both doors open the i8 is just over 3m wide (3046mm), which makes it thinner than a Mini Cooper with both doors to the second detent position (3427mm).
The hyper-modern look really shines at night, where the LED strip lighting can really stand out, and the almost ultraviolet blue interior light glows when you unlock the car.
Inside, the cabin layout is familiar BMW, while maintaining an element of the i8’s sci-fi nature. With the doors up, the LED interior lighting adds an extra level of 'wow' to the procedure.
Blue LED light strips surround key edges of the dashboard, and where the positioning of components is unique to the i8, the switchgear itself is standard BMW fare.
Even the transmission lever is the familiar BMW ‘wand’ rather than the more EV-specific switch in the little BMW i3 city car.
The i8 instrument cluster is an 8.8-inch LCD display which changes according to your selected drive mode, not limited to the i8 by any means, but a fitting part of the futuristic feeling of the car.
The 10.25-inch iDrive screen is also fundamentally the same, with just some minor tweaks to the user interface to separate it from a normal BMW. Sadly the i8 is not yet scheduled to receive an update to iDrive version 5 like many of the current BMW range.
It’s a pity as this is an area where the car can feel dated, especially for such a futuristic machine. That said, the i Remote mobile app that works on your smartphone (and watch) is excellent, allowing you to keep tabs on driving efficiency, vehicle location and charging status.
Does all this tech then translate to a practical 'real' world? It's not bad, but isn't the last word in convenience despite being a proper four seater.
I use ‘proper’ with a grain of salt, though. You can fit four smallish adults in the car, but getting in the back is best left for gymnasts or children. When you consider the ‘boot’ is just 154 litres, using the back seats for storage is probably the most sensible option of all.
There’s no storage in the front of the car, either. The panel can be removed for battery maintenance, and that’s best left to the professionals.
Our car featured the Halo interior (a $2500 option) which includes partial Dalbergia Brown leather seats, blue stitching and Carum Grey accents and the really cool blue seat belts. BMW should offer these in all its cars!
Rear passengers have cup holders and basic storage, as well as ISOFIX support, and the front seats are well sculpted and supportive, with the high sills offering a good amount of shoulder room as well.
The door pockets are pretty useless and there is only one cup holder, but the i8 isn’t really about being the most sensible car around.
Ergonomics are good, and despite its Total Recall look, the i8 is a very easy car to just jump in and drive.
And from a pure mathematical standpoint, it’s also a pretty fun car to just jump in and drive.
Up front is a 96kW electric motor with 250Nm of torque, and down the back is a 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine with 170kW and 320Nm. When their powers combine, you score a total of 266kW and 570Nm. Not bad for some magnets and the engine from a Mini Cooper.
Potter around town, and the car will run using its 7.1kWh electric motor as much as possible, but will kick in the tri-cylinder under heavier acceleration or when dropped into a sport driving mode.
It’s here the i8 is at its most aggressive, and although it sounds like a raw sports machine, and is arguably quite quick and pointy, the overall performance experience seems to have more in common with that Mission: Impossible movie magic than more traditional supercar DNA.
The i8 has some punch, though. There's a nice low-down pull as the electric motor does the heavy lifting, and the power stays on until the peak hits high in the rev range (5800rpm), but there's no face-melting Tesla-style acceleration nor M4 level explosion of power. The i8 is a polite sportster.
The all-wheel drive (from both motors) and cohesive six-plus-two speed gearbox (standard six speed Aisin for the back and two-speed for the electric motor at the front) all work very well together. Even the changeover from electric to petrol drive is done well, and the car offers a nice theatrical burble when the engine is engaged, but all is not what it seems.
Similar to other BMW models, the stereo speakers pipe a sound within the cabin of the car to give the occupants are more ‘sporty’ environment. But the i8 also wants to impress the people you drive past, and emits a rorty exhaust note from a speaker in the left hand exhaust pipe.
Don’t get me wrong, it sounds cool, but even just knowing it is there takes a little slice of special pie away from the BMW.
The way it drives too, feels like something is just not complete.
Yes, around town the i8 is light and manoeuvrable, and feels fantastically well balanced, thanks to the even weight distribution, but point the hybrid super-sports at some bendier bits of road, and the reality doesn’t live up to the way it looks.
Those thin tyres, great for improving efficiency, don’t carry the high levels of grip you expect of a sports car. It doesn’t step or slide wildly about, and the grip is in line with the level of performance, its just that you don’t feel the confidence that even a more traditional sports BMW serves up, let alone a tried and true sports car like a Porsche 911.
It rides well enough, both in town and out, but feels a bit fussy over sharper and larger bumps.
Quick but not ultimately fast. Nimble but not ultimately agile. But while the i8 may not be the last word in dynamic performance, it is without a doubt clever.
Leave it running in the standard Comfort setting and the car will use regenerative braking and the occasional boost from the petrol engine to maintain a charge in the battery, to ensure low speed manoeuvrability and punchy acceleration. BMW claims it’s good for a sub 5-second sprint to 100km/h too.
Pop it into Sport and the car will use both engines to keep things moving quickly and the battery almost fully charged. The re-gen system is almost imperceptible, and you can zip along at entertaining speeds, not really aware of which drive is being used and when.
Considering the production car is approaching its mid-life point, and the speed at which hybrid and other automotive tech is progressing, the i8 can still hold its own. BMW states a combined consumption cycle of just 2.1L/100km, which is achievable, but our real world use saw this average out at almost double at 4.1L/100km. Which, to be honest, is still pretty impressive.
You can even recharge the battery with the standard ‘home’ charger (supplied) or at any public charge point. With the optional iWall charger ($1700 plus fitting) the i8’s battery can be fully refreshed in under 3 hours.
The i8 is a real vision of a sci-fi future that is usable, almost practical and extremely cool. It just doesn’t deliver dynamics in line with the way that it looks.
Think of it this way. If someone gives both of us $300,000 to each buy a single sports car, the only real conundrum would be whether we travel together or separately to the Porsche dealership.
My point here, is that the 2016 BMW i8 doesn’t fit a standard mould.
Despite its price, the i8 isn’t a supercar. It isn’t really a sports car, it’s more of a really big techno toy. Something to headline a Sharper Image catalogue; the ultimate gadget that just so happens to drive about town.
People are fascinated by BMW’s halo hybrid, sneaking a peek at every opportunity, wondering which fabulous person chooses to be so different.
But hopefully this point of difference will soon diminish and we’ll see more manufacturers taking bigger risks with their designs and incorporating the most advanced technology to help those sci-fi visions become a daily reality.
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