If BMW is to be believed, the i8 is the future of the sports car. It's designed to rival the Porsche 911 but goes into battle armed with a 1.5-liter three-cylinder turbo gasoline engine supplemented by two electric motors.
On sale next year, the plug-in hybrid will sit alongside the 2014 BMW i3 hatchback as the poster boy of BMW's new "i" range. While the i3 is a practical vehicle aimed at urban types, the i8 is a performance car for those who live in the city but want to venture forth into the great outdoors. In BMW-speak it's a "progressive sports car."
The 2014 BMW i8 will be officially unveiled at the Frankfurt auto show next month but we got some early seat time at BMW's test facility in the south of France. It's the sort of place where they take away your camera and make you sign scary-looking documents to stop you from becoming the next Edward Snowden. The shots you see here were taken by BMW photographers and the cars were preproduction prototypes.
The production i8 is still six months away and BMW admits there's still "work to be done," but wanted to garner some initial feedback. Often these prototype drives amount to little more than a trip around the block, but here we drove the i8 for 45 minutes across a number of different circuits designed to simulate real-world driving conditions. It was enough to offer a valuable insight into what is undeniably a fascinating car.
The car's roots can be traced back to the Vision EfficientDynamics concept car of 2009. BMW built it to show off its latest tech, but the reaction proved so positive it decided to build a production model. The project chief, Dr. Carsten Breitfeld, was given permission to handpick a small team of engineers to halve the time BMW normally takes to develop a new model. "It was critical for the 'i' brand that the i3 and i8 were launched side by side," he says.
Nobody (not even BMW) is quite sure what "i" stands for but the cars are supposed to wrap the latest innovations in an imaginative body. Breitfeld is adamant that the i8 is a different type of sports car appealing to a different type of customer. "Many people want a sports car but worry about what it says about them," he says. "The i8 makes a different kind of statement." Amusingly, all the engineers pointedly refused to discuss the car's performance at the Nürburgring, as if it were unseemly.
This is a swipe at rival Porsche and even BMW's own 2014 M6. For all their engineering brilliance, the 911 and M6 can't quite escape their hairy-arsed, self-indulgent image. By contrast, the i8 driver declares himself a style-setter at the vanguard of the eco revolution. BMW is after the same sort of people that Tesla has successfully seduced, and Fisker tried to.
A Marvel of Modern Materials
BMW didn't want to spoil its Frankfurt fanfare by revealing the car, so our cars came wrapped in a cunning disguise. It might fool the cameras, but to the naked eye it's clear how much of the Vision's style has been maintained. There's now a motorized flap in the nose to help with cooling and the doors are no longer transparent, but the basic shape, the dramatic derriere and the comedy scissor doors remain. In contrast to Tesla, which tried to make an electric car look like a Maserati, BMW makes no secret of the i8's radical intent.
In common with the i3, the i8 uses a carbon-fiber passenger compartment hung on two aluminum subframes supporting the drivetrain and suspension. There's an electric motor in the nose driving the front wheels while the gasoline engine, six-speed gearbox and second electric motor reside amidships and drive the rear wheels. All this is wrapped in a body that's a mix of carbon fiber and aluminum.
The focus throughout has been on minimizing the mass and lowering the center of gravity. In this pursuit, BMW has been successful. Despite the electric motors and battery pack contributing around 441 pounds to the overall mass, BMW is claiming a curb weight of "less than 3,285 pounds." It's surely no coincidence that the official curb weight of a 2014 Porsche 911 Carrera S is nearly identical, this despite the fact that the i8 is 7.8 inches longer than a 911 and 5.3 inches wider.
No Easy Entry
Entering the 2014 BMW i8 in a stylish fashion will take practice. You throw open a scissor door, then perform a tricky limbolike maneuver through the hatch and slide down into the leather-wrapped seats. Officially the i8 is a 2+2 but the rear seats are even smaller than a 911's and are best employed as luggage space to supplement the meager trunk.
The rest of the cockpit will be familiar to any BMW driver. A centrally mounted screen is the focal point of the infotainment systems, just about everything you touch comes from a cow and there's a conventional-looking gearstick and steering wheel. After the eccentricities of the exterior, the conservatism is something of a culture shock. It's much less avant-garde than the i3's simplistic cabin.
For a car with such a sporting intent, the seats are also surprisingly unsupportive. Breitfeld admits this is a result of a "one size fits all" policy that's needed to cater to those of a wider girth. "You mean the U.S. market?" "Yes, but don't write that!"
Sports Car of the Future or Future Sports Car?
Matters get a little more interesting when you push the start button and the digital dashboard comes to life. Breitfeld is a convivial chap with an impressive tan but he and his team must have brains the size of planets. The i8 is monumentally complex. An engine, two motors, two fuel sources and two gearboxes must all join hands and pull together. The engineer admits that trying to get all this to work in harmony was the biggest challenge they faced.
To create the gasoline engine, BMW's engineers chopped their 3.0-liter, six-cylinder engine in half to create a 1.5-liter three-cylinder. This is effectively the engine that will be used in the next-generation Mini Cooper, although it remains to be seen whether the Mini will have a turbo capable of delivering 228 horsepower. It's mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters for added entertainment.
The electric motor in the front is shared with the i3 but retuned to deliver 129 hp. Unusually for an electric car, its power is delivered through a two-speed gearbox; apparently a single-speed unit geared to the 155-mph top speed would have been too tall to provide adequate acceleration.
The smaller motor at the rear also helps to provide forward propulsion. Both motors are fed from a battery pack mounted in the transmission tunnel. It's relatively small (a maximum of 5kWh) and can be recharged in around three hours using a conventional plug.
Add all this together and you have a combined output of 357 hp and 420 pound-feet of torque. By comparison, a Porsche 911 Carrera S develops 395 hp and 324 lb-ft of torque.
Varying Degrees of Consumption
It's not just the engineering that's complex. Getting the best from it demands forethought and the correct application of one of four driving modes. The default is Comfort, which lets the computer deliver the best combination of gasoline and electric power. Or you can opt to run on electricity alone for up to 22 miles (if you drive economically) and to a maximum speed of 75 mph.
If you're feeling particularly hair-shirted, Eco Pro mode works to minimize consumption, adjusting everything from the throttle to the air-conditioning. Or you can go to the opposite extreme and choose Sport, which stiffens the damping, adds weight to the steering and instructs all the power systems to work together to maximize performance.
On paper the 2014 BMW i8 looks nothing short of extraordinary. It can scurry from zero to 60 mph in under 4.5 seconds and is electronically limited to 155 mph. BMW also reckons that it will emit less than 59 g/km of carbon dioxide compared with 224g/km for a Carrera S. Even if you leave it in Sport mode and drive like an idiot, it should still use half the fuel of a 911.
A Different Kind of Sports Car
We drove a number of different test routes, from those that simulate twisting back roads to a recently laid racetrack. Sometimes the different systems take too long to decide who should be doing what, and the engineers admit the intervention of the gas engine isn't yet as smooth as they'd like. They've got six months to fine-tune this and the engine note, which harmonizes real and artificial tunes. At idle in particular, it sounds surprisingly coarse, and while BMW will refine it, don't expect 911 levels of aural entertainment.
BMW likes to call this car "progressive," by which it means it offers a different kind of experience. In electric mode there's a glorious serenity in cruising along in near silence, which should make the i8 a delight in town. The ride is genuinely comfortable and an instant dollop of thrust is just a toe twitch away. It doesn't quite have the thrust of the 2013 Tesla Model S, but the sensation of easy performance is similar.
Switch to Sport and the i8 reveals its fun side. Here the benefit of that low mass and center of gravity is self-evident. It genuinely feels light and agile, with body roll exceptionally well checked. The electric steering has deliberately been kept light. It takes some getting used to and feels over-artificial at the straight-ahead, but it does offer a decent level of feedback.
BMW's acceleration claims may be a function of the traction of four-wheel drive because the i8 never subjectively feels that quick: Think Cayman rather than 911. You'd never describe it as slow, though, and the torque of the electric motor does a fine job of offsetting the lag inherent in such a small turbocharged engine.
The i8 will be offered with a choice of two different types of tires, although all our test cars were fitted with the larger rubber, measuring 195/50 at the front and 215/45 at the rear. Forged 20-inch rims are standard. These tires offer decent initial bite, but on the circuit the i8 proved surprisingly eager to understeer. It will be interesting to see whether BMW dials some of this out by the time the cars reach production trim.
A True Sports Car?
Ultimately the 2014 BMW i8 is not quite responsive or guttural enough to appeal to enthusiasts who can't eat breakfast without mentioning the Nürburgring. They will still buy a 911 or a BMW "M" car.
But the i8 does have a place. Given the way that it looks and for what it can do, it is desirable. Moreover, since Audi cancelled the E-tron, it's a car without an obvious rival if you want to look beyond the gasoline norm.
BMW has done something genuinely different, and this car is so much more than just a show pony in a posh frock. When it arrives next year it's likely to cost around $120,000, and we've little doubt it will be a huge success.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.