Did you get the subliminal message in the top photo?
When BMW set out to create green cars, it didn’t give much credence to the CARB carrot and stick program. Instead it did a complete re-think on how green cars should be built, what the different missions should be, and what the most logical path to achieve the complete green goal would be. Let the world catch up later. Very German if you reflect on it. The result was not one car to do everything, but a line of cars, so far including one that is a great daily driver for runabout errands, and a different one that can smoke a Ferrari Testarossa in a drag race and out-handle a Hellcat. I am reporting here test on the latter of those two, the 2015 BMW i8.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of the car’s incredible plug-in hybrid drivetrain let’s state the obvious. This car looks fantastic. The doors open up supercar-style, and when they do people watching pretty much lose their minds. During my test I picked up my son at camp and the when the kids saw his door go up they went completely bonkers yelling “Lambo! Lambo!” No, it is not a Lambo, but we will take it is a compliment. Throughout my test folks stopped to wave and stare with big grins. In person, this car is a stunner.
The i8 is a plug-in hybrid in its own segment. Up-front, the car has an electric motor that turns out 184 ft-lb of torque that drives just the front wheels. The power comes from the battery in the car. The battery is charged by plugging it in, but also from regenerative braking and from the gasoline engine in the back of the car acting as a generator. Behind the driver is a sweetheart of a three-cylinder, in-line turbocharged engine that produces 228 hp. Combined, the two can produce 357 hp and 420 ft-lb of torque. Much of that torque is available from a dead stop and RPMs just above idle. Still, if that were the end of the story the i8 would be pretty commonplace, but this is just the start of the technology list.
The i8 is constructed from carbon fiber, lightweight alloys, unicorn horns and fairy dust. The car is not small, and it even has rear seats for placing cargo (not people). Yet, it only weighs 3,455 pounds, about 150 pounds more than a Corvette. The upshot is the power to weight ratio is quite good. Good enough to scoot you from 0-60 MPH in about 4.2 seconds. That is fast on paper, but the really wondrous part of the i8 is how it feels when you drive it.
The car has four modes. Notably absent is the “weenie mode.” There is no button you can hit to make this car feel like a Prius. It is always a quick car around town. The first mode is “comfort.” Here the car starts you off in front/electric drive and quickly adds in its gasoline engine and rear-drive. The car then adjusts the drivetrain to suit the situation. The car also has a purely EV mode. The car can go about 13 miles when fully charged in this mode, and it is silent. Around town, this was my preference. The car still has more power than needed for quick, but sort of legal driving. Next is Sport. Sport makes the i8 a beast. The 6-speed automatic transmission and in-line turbo 3 work together to give the driver a feeling of incredible power. The car’s sound also changes. Yes, BMW opted to include an artificial sound track. In German, this would be called imaginären motorgeräusche. It sounds good. Like a big whompin’ engine behind your left ear. ECO PRO is the last setting. It can be used in all-electric or with the gas engine helping out. I could not figure out why I would ever want to use this mode.
The drivetrain overshadows the i8’s other drive qualities, but it shouldn’t. This car is very complaint over big bumps, and the ride is very comfortable. Yet it is laser sharp in its handling, and it turns and stops, well like a supercar. If I could compare it to one car I have driven, I would say the Audi R8 comes to mind. I did not have a chance to track the i8, but my sense is it would be a blast and would take a long time to master.
Charging was simple. However, with just my 115 Volt, low amperage supply the car took hours to bring the juice level back up to 13 miles. Owners will install a 230 volt, higher amperage line to squeeze the electrons in faster. I’ve charged a few other EVs in my garage and thought I knew all there was to know. However, the i8 has a surprise. That inverted vent in the “hood” section comes on with a vengeance a few times during charging and blows warm air out of the motor/battery compartment. It is startlingly loud and again, I though tit was pretty neat.
Inside, the i8 uses a fully digital screen for the tach and other “gauges.” This suits the i8 perfectly. Blue is standard, and it gets angry orange when you switch to Sport. To the right in the center is a large infotainment screen. The top-down view of the car when backing out a garage is trippy. It works perfectly and in conjunction with the back-up camera makes moving around in tight spaces much easier. The seats are relatively simple, but gorgeously done. The naturally tanned leather (whatever that means) and blue accent lighting of my Terra World trim were soft to the touch and comfortable in all situations. The wheel too is modern and fitting of a car at this $140K price point.
Ok now the quibbles. The door sill of the i8 is as thick as a cinder block and so high you have to sit on it and then swing your legs in to enter the vehicle. That I could live with. Getting out is another story. There is no elegant way to exit this car. Bend, twist, and reach for handles that are not there to help you and then squirm and flop. You look like an uncoordinated doofus when you exit, and that doesn’t work for me physically or mentally. Also, the car is not offered with a removable roof panel.
In terms of green credibility, the engineer in me thinks 28 MPG is not green. Maybe you disagree. Take comfort in this. Newsweek ranked the top 500 companies by market capital in the world by their green credibility. BMW is 26th from the best spot. Tesla, for comparison, is number 431 out of the 500, lower than Exxon and Haliburton.
The 2015 BMW i8 is an amazing vehicle on many levels. Its design is stunning and in person people move toward it smiling. BMW seems not to have built this car to comply with any green mandates. Rather, it is more like a design study in production form. The i8 is alone in a segment it created. Or it is a value supercar that doubles as an EV around town. Define it however you like. The car is fantastic.
2015 BMW i8 Terra World*
- *Not listed
Price Estinmate*: $140,000
- Perfect Ride and Sharp Handling
- Drop Dead Gorgeous Looks
- Power and Performance
- Interior Design and Execution
- EV Mode
- Getting Out
- Price Per Performance Level
- *Note that as mentioned in the story this vehicle was a media press vehicle on loan. It was new with only 1400 miles, but did not have its Monroney stocker available for scrutiny.