The BMW i8 is the zen-like, sustainable, low-emissions, petrol-electric, ‘new premium’ German sports car of the future. Expressions of concept don’t get much more complicated. But, while the two most important words in that string get crowded out by their louder neighbours, they are undoubtedly ‘sports car’. Or rather they should have been – written in bold, enlarged, indelible type.
Unfortunately – predictably, perhaps – that probably wasn’t quite how it was. Because the i8 turns out to be a car of incredible visual impact, laudably mature execution, and offers a uniquely appealing ownership proposition. But drive it and you won't be acquainting yourself with the undeniable perfect future of the sports car – but instead a BMW that doesn't deliver the engaging edge an enthusiast might expect.
It should be like a Porsche 918 Spyder for a fifth of the outlay. It’s certainly got some promising ingredients.
The 1.5-litre three-cylinder Mini Cooper engine cradled between the i8’s back wheels has a higher specific output than any production combustion engine that BMW currently makes, feeding 228bhp and 32.6kgm to the rear wheels of the car via a six-speed ZF automatic transmission. Between the front wheels, there’s a 128bhp, 25.4kgm ‘hybrid synchronous’ electric motor, driving those front wheels through a two-speed automatic transmission.
And here’s the clever bit. That electric motor and transmission, the 7.1kWh lithium ion battery mounted where the car’s transmission tunnel might otherwise be and the high-voltage power management system add almost exactly 200kg to the i8. Relative to an aluminium or steel equivalent, says BMW, the carbonfibre-reinforced plastic monocoque saves exactly 200kg. So the car weighs in at 1540kg with fluids onboard: which is less than a current Porsche 911 Turbo, never mind the 918.
The i8’s two-speed gearbox, meanwhile, allows the electric motor to operate at peak torque as the combustion engine passes its torque peak in the lower intermediate gears. And that means, as well as 357bhp, you really do get 58.06kgm of mid-range thrust from this car at times. And it feels like it.
Early impressions of the i8 are of nothing less than a fully fledged supercar. The body looks ridiculously low, wide and ground-hugging. The styling’s got smack-in-the-chops impact to rival a Lamborghini, and scissor doors for belt-and-braces extravagant effect.
You have to fold yourself into the cabin between a low roofline and a high, wide, expensive-looking sill. And once you have, the interior’s got no less of a sense of occasion to it, with a generously sculptural, driver-focused dashboard, colourful LCD instruments, low-slung and deep-dished sports seats; there's also an abundance of little features and touches that lift the ambience way above BMW’s usual conservative norm.
So it talks the talk, the i8 – loud and clear. Walking the walk of something as pure as a Porsche 911 was always going to be the harder bit. On handling precision and that final sliver of driver engagement, the BMW falls short of brilliance. But it’s good, and almost there. Certainly good enough to consider the car an amazing success in its own hyper-specialised niche.
Right up until you go looking for that critical last fraction of driver appeal, in fact, the i8 does almost everything right. Starting off with ‘Comfort’ mode selected on its adaptive dampers and near-silent drive turning its front wheels, the i8 is comfortable and super-civilised around town. It’s a bit choppy-riding occasionally, but not often.
Its steering is light but there's a modicum of well-judged feedback, and performance is entirely decent in electric mode. Electric-only range is a bit low, in reality about 24km. But the BMW seldom operates like a range-extended EV unless you explicitly instruct it to anyway, its combustion engine regularly chiming in through most drive modes, even when the battery is relatively well charged.
Knock the gear selector into ‘Sport’ mode and the engine begins to run almost continually. Gun the accelerator away from a standstill and the powertrain feels like a big V6: instant and heavy-hitting on pedal response, but with a loud, gruff, synthesized soundtrack broadcast to you over the audio speakers.
Yet the harder it revs and the faster you go, the smaller that imaginary V6 seems. Work it really hard beyond 5000rpm and the i8’s performance level feels a touch thin and strained.
The car’s handling stands up more stoutly to inspection – but not indefinitely. Body control is excellent; steering response equally immediate. Lateral grip levels could be higher, particularly at the front wheels, which begin to scrabble and scream under load if you harry them.
Drive intelligently though, using weight transfer to give the steering authority on turn-in, and the i8 responds for the most part like any good mid-engined machine should: with some balance and alacrity, but exceptional in neither.
The rear axle is always glued to its line, giving dependable stability. It declines any attempt to adjust your arc through a corner with a bit of throttle-steering. That's a typical facet of a car that just doesn’t respond well to being driven hard, and one that approaches its adhesive limits a bit early for our tastes.
The i8 can be enjoyed vividly enough as you approach that point, of course. But not ultimately as vividly as a sports car at this price point really ought.
If you genuinely don’t mind compromising on sporting clarity of purpose for lower emissions, enhanced economy and of-the-moment desirability, then you should definitely opt for the BMW i8. But if that’s you, the sports car market would seem to be a strange place to go shopping for your next car anyway.
The BMW i8 doesn’t quite feel as exciting as it does fast; it’s secure and fluent, but not the last word in fun. Accounting for its novelty value, brimming supercar attitude and its low-emissions sense of environmental responsibility, it’ll be more than sporting enough to satisfy people who couldn’t otherwise have justified a sports car.
But it’s not quite convincing enough to hit the heights that true enthusiasts will expect of it. There is all the intriguing complexity in the world to contemplate here, but sadly not quite enough depth.