First Drive: 2015 BMW i8

The BMW i8 combines eco-friendly and lightweight construction, marvelous bodywork, and driving dynamism to create a car that stands as a glimpse into the future of cars for the 21st century.

Generally, having to ‘fake it’ is indicative of a failure or shortcoming.

Kids will fake an illness to get out of a test they refused to study for. People will buy fake diamonds to look wealthier than they really are. And companies make fake cheese for those who can’t digest lactose.

But the faking that the BMW engineers did in the i8 isn’t suggestive of a fault or flaw but rather the inverse.

In fact, buyers will likely send the BMW-i engineers a thank you letter.

What am I referring to? The evocative, riotous engine notes heard in the cabin of the i8 are completely fake, entirely manufactured. The burbling, sporty sounds inside the i8 are simply prerecorded sounds of the engine piped through some speakers.

In fact, the engine’s roar doesn’t even necessarily correspond to engine rpm; the sounds are piped in simply to entertain and delight the driver.

Don’t let this perturb; the i8 is so good, so smooth and quiet, and twitchy and alive, that drivers won’t for a split second fret over artificial engine sounds. In fact, buyers will likely send the BMW-i engineers a thank you letter.

Plug-in hybrid

Yes, the i8 is a plug-in hybrid, but it’s like nothing else on the road today. It’s not just a plug-in hybrid; it’s also a four-wheel drive sports car.

Under the hood, which is bolted shut, is an electric motor mated to a two-speed automatic transmission. Producing 129 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, the small electric motor drives the front wheels.

In the mid-rear of the car lies a transversely mounted, turbocharged 1.5-liter inline three-cylinder gasoline engine, which has both a motor-generator (used for running accessories and the eBoost function) and a six-speed automatic bolted to it. Producing 228 hp (152 hp per liter) and 236 lb-ft of torque, this pint-sized three-banger is responsible for driving the rear wheels.

Cradling these two independent powerplants is an aluminum frame system centralized by a sealed and cooled 7.1 kWh lithium-ion battery pack that rests in the center of the car where a conventional driveshaft would be located.

On top of that frame is the i8’s carbon fiber body. And if you’re keeping track at home: yes, the i8 is a body-on-frame sports car. But it’s nothing like your grandpa’s Gran Torino.

This body architecture has been cleverly called “LifeDrive”. On top, the carbon fiber body tub is where the occupants reside. And the frame beneath it houses the driving bits. Makes sense, right?

A mode for every mood

At the push the start button, the i8 comes alive with a computerized chime, the sound of which, given the seriousness of the rest of the vehicle, is strangely sci-fi cartoonish. It sounds like a fazer gun charging up.

The i8 feels not like a rocketship but like a spaceship.

The default drive setting is called “Comfort”. In Comfort the TFT instrument cluster is backed by a grey hue. In this mode, car is driven in an intelligent hybrid mode, which relies primarily on the front electric motor for propulsion but the three-cylinder is ready to help out at a moment’s notice.

Above that – or beneath, depending on your mindset – is EcoPro and eDrive modes. EcoPro takes Comfort and retards drivetrain power and electrical loads – namely the climate control features. In this mode, the instrument cluster takes on a blue hue.

eDrive transforms the i8 into an EV, driven solely by the electric motor in the front. The car has enough energy onboard to travel up to 22 miles in eDrive up to speeds of 75 mph.

Then, finally, we have Sport mode, represented by bright orange glowing instruments in the TFT screen. Sport mode stiffens up the chassis, quickens shifts, perfects steering directness, and maximizes eBoost. This is the i8’s least efficient mode but perhaps where it is most at home.

2015 BMW i8

eBoost is a function of the motor-generator bolted to the three-cylinder engine. To fill out low- and mid-range torque until the turbocharger spools up, the motor-generator literally flips over from its accessory powering position and supplies extra power to the gas engine.

Taking the entire sensory experience into account, the i8 feels not like a rocketship but like a spaceship.

Artificial noise, real performance

Forget everything you know about plug-in hybrid driving dynamics. The i8 dashes them to bits.

At wide-open throttle, the BMW i8 – thanks to its 357 hp and 420 torques – can rip to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds. And while the sensation is absolutely intoxicating, it’s the noise that delights.

The sound is almost indescribable. You have the roar, albeit artificial, of the beefy sounding three-cylinder behind you and the whine/whistle of the electric motor in front. Together, it’s a sound straight out of the Jetsons. Frankly, it’s the sound the new Formula 1 cars should make.

Some have scoffed at the i8’s horsepower numbers, given its anticipated sticker price. It’s the torque, though, that makes the show. 420 pound-feet isn’t astronomical, sure.

Thanks to the two electric motors, the quick revving three-cylinder, and big turbo, the torque is available and insatiable at any and all speeds and revs. Taking into account the 3,285-pound curb weight and 420 torques is more than enough.

Imperceptibly complex

Given what I’ve felt from other hybrids with sporting intentions over the years, I wasn’t expecting much from the i8. After only a few minutes behind the wheel, though, I was floored.

Other sport hybrids, while undeniably quick, still lacked refinement. They felt lumpy and far too clinical. Until now, when making a sporty hybrid, automakers suck all the life and zest from a car. And although the Germans are well known for their love of precision, the i8 doesn’t lack personality or gusto.

The i8 doesn’t lack personality or gusto.

The i8’s drivetrain is imperceptibly complex.

Watching the drivetrain power delivery screen on the onboard iDrive gives passengers a simplistic glimpse into the intricacy of the powertrain system. The car is constantly and seamlessly moving power delivery and energy regeneration from the front to the rear. At any given moment, acceleration could be 100 percent in the front or 100 in the rear or any combination in between.

All this positive and negative torque – and the lowest center of gravity of any BMW in production – means the i8 handles with preciseness never before seen in a plug-in hybrid. Considering the narrowness and low rolling resistance characteristics of the i8’s tires and the handling astounds.

The steering – especially in Sport mode – is perfectly weighted and incredibly direct. Turn in hard and you know exactly where the car is going and what it will do. Add in the sounds of the two powerplants and the i8 is a real giggle of an eco-friendly driver’s car.

2015 BMW i8

I did encounter some understeer in hard cornering, but I’ll give the i8 a pass. When not driving right on the line, the i8 performs with a punctiliousness I’ve not felt below $200,000. The car wants to be driven hard; it loves it. It feels like Border Collie; it’s fine lounging around, but it’s most at home – and happiest – at full-tilt with 1,000 tasks to perform at once.

The point

Ignore the recycled materials, the carbon fiber produced using hydroelectric energy, and the leather tanned not with formaldehyde but with olive leaf extracts, and the eco-friendly pretentions of the i8 come into question.

BMW estimates that, on the European drive cycle, the i8 achieves 94 mpg. During my time with the car, I achieved 23.8 mpg.

On the heels of my drive, I wondered to myself, “What’s the point of the i8 if it’s not as composed or as efficient as, say, a Lotus Elise?” After a few days of pondering it, I realized I was missing the point of the car by posing such a question.

Not one feature, be it the driving dynamics, the complex powertrain, the stunning body, or the eco-friendly and lightweight construction alone defines the i8 – it’s the whole package. It’s all of the bits combined that make the i8.

BMW could have just as easily made a cool-looking plug-in hybrid coupe and called it a day. Or it could have produced a carbon fiber performance car. Instead, it looked to the future and did it all.

So, no, the i8 isn’t perfect. It never could have been. But it’s a daring step into the future, to where cars in the 21st century will inevitably go – and have to be to survive.

Highs

  • Stunning exterior design
  • Smooth, powerful, and wildly complex powertrain
  • Straight-line acceleration
  • Interior refinement and layout
  • Hybrid all-wheel drive puts traditional, mechanical AWD to shame

Lows

  • Understeer prone
  • Seats lack adequate side bolstering
  • Virtually zero cargo space
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