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Like it or not, the BMW i8 is a bold look into the future and, if it all goes to plan, the shape of things to come.
About 18 months ago, yours truly ventured to Lake Moses, Washington, to visit a manufacturing plant. Normally, this is not my kind of thing—one car factory is the same as the next, give or take. But in this factory, they weren’t making cars, they were making carbon fibre, the notoriously expensive and ultra-lightweight material that automakers have been toying with for decades.
The plant, a joint venture between the BMW Group and carbon experts SGL Group, is a key building block that could well determine whether BMW i – the sub-brand responsible for the BMW i3 and BMW i8 – will ultimately prove successful. Alternative-fuel vehicles are still not a sure thing for a few reasons, one of the main ones being their sticker price related to petrol or diesel options.
But BMW claims to have a substantial edge over its competitors because its carbon fibre is just as strong and as light as that made by other companies, but it costs less to produce. Enter the 2014 BMW i8, a plug-in hybrid sports car that is infused with the advanced material. The result: a relatively light vehicle, a proper performer and one that doesn’t cost $1 million.
The stellar performance capabilities of the BMW start from the ground up. The car’s platform consists of a carbon fibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP) passenger cell fastened to an aluminium chassis. The lithium-ion battery pack is mounted underneath the floor and in the middle of the vehicle. This design ensures a low centre of gravity and close to 50:50 weight distribution. The i8 also boasts a kerb weight of just 1485kg—or about 45kg lighter than a BMW M235i.
The car’s hybrid powertrain combines an electric motor (96kW; 250Nm that sends power to the front wheels through a two-stage transmission. The petrol engine is a turbocharged 1.5-litre three-cylinder (170kW; 320Nm) that directs power to the rear wheels via a 6-speed automatic transmission. (This engine is from the same family that powers the latest Mini Cooper.)
The combined output, then, is 266kW and true hybrid all-wheel drive – a situation good enough to send the BMW i8 sprinting from 0-100 km/h in 4.4 seconds. That’s an entirely decent time for a sports car, one that puts the BMW in the mix with various Porsche 911s and the like. As per BMW policy for non-M vehicles, top speed is electronically limited to 250km/h.) Then, when you consider that this car can also run in all-electric mode, the brilliance of its engineering comes into sharp focus.
This plug-in hybrid features five different drive modes: eDrive and eDrive EcoPro (both all-electric), Comfort and Comfort EcoPro (a balance of electric- and gas-powered), and Sport (maximum attack from both power sources).
In all-electric motoring, the i8 boasts reasonable kick off the line, but that acceleration plateaus very early. The EcoPro switch, which promotes further energy conservation, cuts response even more and deadens the accelerator pedal.
Still, the BMW can (eventually) hit 120 km/h in eDrive mode and has a battery range of up to 37 km. While these figures aren’t wildly impressive for a modern-day hybrid, it’s important to bear in mind that the gas engine is a frugal operator as well. As a result, the i8 is estimated to consume just 2.1 L/100 km in combined driving.
As might be expected, the real excitement happens only when sport mode is engaged: The cool blue instrument panel accent lighting glows orange and the small petrol engine growls with surprising aggression.
But the defining characteristic of the BMW i8 is this: the chassis, handling and suspension system are so good, they outshine the hybrid powertrain and all other aspects of the car. Even with all the driver aids disengaged, it was a challenge to get the BMW to slip up on the drive route, which wound through the canyon roads of Malibu.
The standard adaptive suspension system soaked up ripples in the pavement with ease. The low centre of gravity and near-perfect balance kept the car on an even keel. The hybrid all-wheel-drive system kept traction at a very high level, regardless of the elevation or condition of the road. And the torque-vectoring brakes were always clicking away, helping to swing the car around the tightest bends.
This drive did also serve to highlight the areas where the BMW i8 falls short of other sports cars in its price range. The steering feel is nicely weighted but the amount of lock you dial in does not correlate directly to the response of the front wheels—it’s a bit slow. The bigger issue, though, is the braking system.
In city driving, the brakes on the i8 are dogged by that old, vague, regenerative brake feel that has affected so many hybrids. Then, while diving down the canyon roads at speed, the brakes felt underpowered, locked up under duress and generally didn’t inspire much confidence. There’s an opportunity here – without a doubt, a true sports car needs better binders.
From an aesthetic standpoint, the BMW i8 is unlike anything else on the road today. Even in car-obsessed Los Angeles, it never failed to draw a crowd. The design is aerodynamic and decidedly bold. Inside, the BMW sets new standards in eco-luxury; recycled and recyclable materials are used throughout and the feel of all them is high-grade. The i8 is certainly the most luxurious car in its current fleet.
The passenger cabin is of the 2+2 variety. There are two back seats, but they are tiny. The scissor-style doors open upwards, leaving a relatively wide access point. To enter the car, you back in by sliding across the wide, carbon fibre door sill, then drop into the seat, as you would on a race car. The handle to close the door behind you should be within easy reach of most people. It sounds difficult, but it isn’t compared to other exotic cars with “non-traditional” doors. There is a small storage compartment in the boot, but the back seats are also suitable as package shelves.
This year, we’ve seen the introduction of three wildly advanced hybrid sports cars: the LaFerrari, the McLaren P1 and the Porsche 918 Spyder. While the BMW i8 doesn’t have the same level of performance as these three, it does lay claim to being a true sports car at a fraction of the price (though it will still cost upwards of $300,000 in Australia when it arrives late 2014/early 2015). It’s also a car that real enthusiasts should pay close attention to – they may be driving something that incorporates similar thinking in the not-too-distant future.