Has the future of the sports car arrived? This is the new BMW i8, and while the McLaren P1, Porsche 918 Spyder and LaFerrari have hogged all the hype around hybrid supercars, all three use electric motors to aid large-capacity petrol engines. The i8 is much more innovative…
Besides a dual chassis made from aluminium and carbonfibre, the BMW i8 boasts a tiny turbocharged three-cylinder engine that drives the rear wheels – it’s way more efficient than the V8s and V12s you’ll find in those £1m hybrid supercars. Of course it’s hugely down on the horsepower that trio produce, but a separate nose-mounted electric motor powers the front axle to give the i8 decent performance.
No, it won’t match the McLaren et al, but on paper the i8 will best a Porsche 911 to 62mph. And yet with the electric motor forming part of a plug-in hybrid system, official consumption and emissions figures are 135mpg and 49g/km CO2.
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What’s the price for the BMW i8’s impressive performance?
UK sales start in July 2014, and it’ll set you back £94,845 (because it qualifies for the government’s £5k low-emissions discount). For that you get an aluminium ‘Drive’ chassis that cradles the electric motor, petrol engine, suspension and lithium-ion batteries, and a carbonfibre ‘Life’ passenger cell. Together the pair keep the weight down to 1485kg, which is 105kg more than a 911 Carrera, but the combined hybrid ‘eDrive’ system of motors and batteries weighs around 200kg.
The mid-mounted petrol engine is BMW’s new 1.5-litre triple (the same one found in the Mk3 Mini) and a twin-scroll turbo helps it produce 228bhp and 236lb ft, which is sent to the rear wheels via a six-speed automatic gearbox. The 96kW electric motor at the front contributes another 184lb ft, so the total power and torque outputs are 357bhp and 420lb ft, and with all four wheels driving the i8 forward it’ll hit 62mph in 4.4 seconds.
Looking like it does, the i8 couldn’t just have a conventional powertrain, could it?
No chance. The i8 might not be quite as radical to behold as 2009’s Efficient Dynamics concept, but with blanked-off kidney grilles, skinny tyres, layered rear bodywork that cascades and folds, butterfly doors and no visible exhausts, it looks like a show pony only built to roll onto a motor show stage under a shower of applause. Even when you’re on the road, surrounded by traffic, it’s like driving a one-off experimental prototype, not a production vehicle. It seems more alien than any Veyron.
It’s a little more grounded inside the i8. There are digital dials, plus blue seatbelts to match the blue exterior highlights, but a lot of the buttons and dials are straight out of other BMWs. It’s nowhere near as radical as its little i3 sibling.
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So it could be any BMW from behind the wheel?
Not quite. Thumb the eDrive button and you’re rolling along using only the electric motor’s power, meaning you’re in a front-wheel drive BMW sports car. The sound of silence is blissful though, and without an engine to interfere you’ve got more time to judge the rest of the i8, realising that you sit high with limited headroom, that the aluminium and carbonfibre chassis is pretty rigid, and that the ride is surprisingly firm. Don’t forget, this is supposed to be a sports car.
So do you want to know about how seamless the switch is between the EV and hybrid modes as you cruise around town, or what the i8’s like on an empty road? Knock the gearlever across and it switches into Sport mode, adding weight to the steering, firming up the dampers, adjusting the gearshifts and increasing the engine noise. The different steering and damper settings aren’t night-and-day different, but the extra heft to the helm is welcome (though it still retains a little too much lightness, as most electric racks do).
The change is engine noise is much more noticeable though. Admittedly it’s pumped in through the speakers, as there’s no switchable sports exhaust, but whereas in an M5 you’re always reaching for the volume control to crank up the V8’s voice, in the i8 the three-cylinder suddenly sounds like a large-capacity six, one that’s rorty and throaty and rather flatulent.
But can the performance match the noise?
Actually, it can. Nearly 230bhp from the little engine is potent, but with the electric motor helping the i8 is quick. Off-the-line shove is good and feels an equal to that 911, and from low speeds there’s a decent punch in the back too. The top-end feels reasonably strong too, even if the rev limit is set below 7000rpm, but it’s more in the mid-range, around 3000rpm, where occasionally the i8 can seem to be caught between low-end torque and high-rev power.
As for the chassis, it’s actually relatively simple. Okay, it’s got a petrol engine and electric motor that have to work with each other, but there’s no active torque vectoring at the front and no electronically controlled limited-slip differential at the back. Body control is very good, and the i8 feels lithe and agile because so much of the weight is contained within the wheelbase. The brakes are worth a mention as well, because despite a regenerative system, underfoot it feels like a pure hydraulics, so good is BMW’s mapping and blending of the two systems.
Yet if you’ve come to the i8 hoping for a proper sports car driving experience, it won’t quite meet your expectations. The limits are relatively low, quite benign and neutral before the soft front end starts to understeer, and up to an imagined six- or seven-tenths pace it’s impressive. It doesn’t fall apart beyond that, but when 911s and other rivals are cheaper, in terms of sheer traction, grip, power and poise for the near-£100k price, you’ll want for more.
Whether you agree with our verdict comes down as much to whether you agree with the philosophy behind the i8. It’s a great showcase of BMW’s engineering skills, and is by far the best integrated hybrid system we’ve ever tested, but as a sports car it’s good rather than great.