2014 BMW i8 First Drive: It's a Masterpiece
M Who? Have Your Bavarian Cream Pie and Eat It, Too
We recently spent some time on track with the new BMW M235i. Motor Trend’s captive racer Randy Pobst commented, “This is the best BMW I’ve driven in ten years.” That’s one hell of a statement. I mention this because after spending a day inside the new i8 it could be the best BMW I’ve ever driven. If not, then it’s the best since the E39 M5. Sticking with the superlatives, I feel the Roundel brand’s new $136,625 3-cylinder, carbon-fiber, plug-in hybrid sports car is the most important BMW of all time.. How’s that for overselling it?
As far as internal combustion goes, there are only three cylinders with a displacement of 1.5 liters. They’re force-fed by a wee turbocharger to help provide the wing-door sports car’s forward propulsion to the tune of 228 horsepower. There’s 8 hp of assist from a little helper motor/generator/starter hanging off the side of the engine to make up for the times when the turbo isn’t producing full boost. There’s also a big electric motor up front good for 129 hp to drive the front wheels. The front and rear wheels are not mechanically connected, so it’s up to clever programming to combine the front end’s two-speed transmission to the rear’s six-speed automatic. Combined, the two ends churn out 357 peak hp. As for torque, that’s always tricky to calculate in hybrids. BMW says peak is 420 lb-ft. Which is wrong, as the gas engine, the same engine in the new MINI Cooper, creates 236 pound-feet at 3700 rpm. The traction motor creates 184 lb-ft at 0 rpm. BMW offered up some sort of Porsche 918 Spyder-like torque multiplier explanation (“in sixth gear it makes all the torque in the known universe”) but I think it’s best to just nod and pretend you understand. If you’re interested in an engineer’s explanation of what makes an i8, please check out Mike Febbo's deep dive.
Never mind all that though, because other numbers matter more. About 3275 pounds, first and foremost. That’s how much the i8 weighs, according to BMW. That’s about the same as a Porsche 911 Carrera S and about 500 pounds lighter than a Chevrolet Volt, another hybrid with a heavy lithium-ion battery, big traction motor and small gasoline engine. The i8’s a large car, too – eight inches longer than the 991, the biggest-ever 911. The i8 is about the same length as the soon to launch BMW M4 but its wheelbase is within inches of BMW’s M6. The M4 is thought to weigh about 3600 pounds, where the big mama M6 crushes the scales at 4210 pounds. To be fair, the M6 is a larger car with a semi-habitable rear seat. Side note: I wedged myself into the i8’s back seat. I once rode in the back of a 993 Turbo S with a sunroof. That was worse. Point is that the last M6 we tested was $125K, within spitting distance of the i8, yet the old school coupe weighs nearly half a ton more. The Tesla Model S, which will be the i8’s main competition in eco-conscious, tech-obsessed hot spots like Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, weighs just a hair over 4600 pounds because of the massive, heavy 85 Kw/h battery pack. How’s the i8 so light then? Carbon fiber everywhere. CFRP (carbon fiber reinforced plastic) is used for major components, specifically the unibody passenger compartment, or Life Module as BMW calls it. This is then bolted to the Drive Module, which consists of aluminum sub frames front and rear and another aluminum structure that holds the 7.1 Kw/h lithium-ion battery pack.
Then there are the performance numbers. This is a very educated guess, but 0-60 will happen in less than 4.0 seconds, and the quarter-mile will get done in the low 12-second range. The brakes feel very strong, though the pedal has that typical regenerative brake vagueness I’ve experienced on cars as varied as the Ford Escape Hybrid to the Porsche 918 Spyder. There’s a reason McLaren opted to forgo regen braking with the P1. Back to the numbers, the M6 needs 4 seconds flat to attain 60 mph and takes 12.1 seconds to run the quarter. The last 991 we tested had the 30 hp bump Power Kit (for a total of 430 hp) and required 3.9 seconds to hit 60 mph and ran the quarter-mile in 12.2 seconds. The Tesla Model S P85+ required 3.9 seconds to hit 60 mph and 12.3 seconds to run down the quarter. All this means that the i8 has performance similar to (or better than) a 560 hp super coupe, the German sports car world’s standard barer and the fastest all-electric production car there is. For anything with a 3-cylinder engine that’s impressive enough, but remember that BMW’s claiming sky-high fuel economy (in the 95 MPG range), though the EPA hasn’t signed off on that. Yet. The Telsa’s only rated at 89 MPGe. Note: if you keep the i8 in Performance mode, you won’t get anywhere near that. The car informed me my fuel economy after a few hours of abusive driving was 32.3 mpg. Incredible.
The i8 has three driving modes. Pure electric, or eDrive, is activated by a little button just below the starter button. You’re only able to activate eDrive if you have enough charge on the battery, and you get about 20 miles of electric range. That’s good enough for some people who don’t have to go very far. Also very important in case London decides tomorrow to ban all emissions from vehicles in its center. Which could very well happen. Comfort mode is how most people will drive the i8 most of the time. In Comfort, the front motor moves the car around via the front-wheels only up to 40 mph. Above that, the rear engine fires up and the car becomes AWD. In Comfort mode, the car is (nyuck, nyuck) very comfortable. The seats are good, the driving position’s excellent (even though getting in requires some degree of flexibility) and the steering wheel is just the perfect thickness. The digital screen displaying the tach and speedo is very legible and packed with key information like the state of the battery’s charge, what gear you’re in and how much gasoline is left. It even changes from blue to bright orange when you move from Comfort to Sport. The rest of the interior is familiar BMW design, though made from much lighter materials. The real head scratcher was the iDrive screen, which seemed to be duller, less feature-packed and sport worse graphics than the screen you’d get in any other Bimmer. Maybe it’s a lightweight unit?
The gas engine is also used to charge the battery when you’re driving in Comfort mode: eDrive locks the gas engine out completely until the battery is drained. You can hear the little turbocharged engine start spinning, but it’s not invasive. Then you flip the gear selector to the left and activate Sport mode. Would you believe me if I told you that in Sport the little 3-banger is one of the best sounding sports car engines in the world? You probably won’t, but it’s true. I should mention that it’s not actually the sound of the engine, but rather a synthesized sound coming through the speakers. But if no one told you the good noise was artificial, you’d never know the difference. Moving on: In Sport mode the gas engine is always running, the i8 is now fulltime AWD as both motors are in constant use. The results are incredible. Precise, elegant and most important, massively fun to drive -- three attributes sadly missing from the majority of today’s M Division products. Also, unlike modern and endlessly adjustable M cars, the i8 actually has a point of view. Track junkies will cry that the i8 doesn’t like to rotate. The i8 is about as neutral handling as a sports car gets with a touch of limit understeer and no oversteer to speak of. In other words, it goes where you point it. The i8’s a hoot -- a surprising hoot -- to drive hard on a winding canyon road.
I for one really appreciate how seamless all the technology is. The i8 is without question one of the most complicated consumer products you can (soon) buy, but it’s no more difficult to operate than a normal car. And it’s easier than many BMWs. As an example and to keep picking on it, putting the M6 in launch mode is a ridiculous, Contra cheat-code like procedure. With the i8 you just put the traction control in Dynamic mode, hold brake, hit gas and go. They obviously and easily could have made the i8 as adjustable as an M car, but smartly did not. Think of the i8 as the thinking (wealthy) man’s Porsche 918 Spyder. Only I’ve driven both, and I like the BMW better. Honestly, it’s a masterpiece.
Back in the day, BMW’s M Division was innovative. The M1 was the first mid-engine German supercar, the M5 and later M3 defined genres. . These days? I guess the X6 M is kinda novel, but everything else is just monkey see, monkey do. The new M3? C63 AMG, RS4, RC-F, ATS-V (soon enough). M5? E63 AMG, RS7, CTS-V, XF-RS, GS-F (coming soon). X5 M? ML63 AMG, Porsche Cayenne Turbo, Range Rover Sport 5.0 Supercharged. Competition’s great, and imitation is sincere flattery, but why would you buy a BMW over any of those others? The M Division is paint by numbers these days -- BMW’s version of AMG/quattro GmbH/Caddy V/Lexus F -- who cares? The only reason BMW’s bringing over the Alpina B6 Gran Coupe (for instance) is because they’re hamstrung by their own history -- no AWD M sedans! Yet people that live in the snowbelt are lapping up AWD AMGs and fast Audis like there’s a shortage. Jaguar has doubled its volume of sedans in the northeast simply by offering AWD. You can’t innovate when you’re trying to appeal to single issue voters; you can’t even compete with the brands you’re marching along in lockstep with.
This new i brand however, and this product in particular, is something else altogether. It’s brilliant, it’s important and it’s game changing. In fact, lots of technology from the i8 and i3 will be trickling its way down to the M Division. Things like the lightweight material behind the dash for the HVAC system and carbon fiber technology. How ‘bout them apples? More importantly, like the original M cars back in the 1980s, other manufacturers are going to start copying BMW’s new division. They’re going to have to. You can’t stop progress, but for now BMW has found a way to harness it.
|2014 BMW i8|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Mid-engine, AWD, 4-pass, 2-door hatchback|
|ENGINE||1.5L/228-hp/236-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 12-valve I-3 plus 129-hp/184-lb-ft front and 8-hp rear motors, 357 hp/420 lb-ft (comb)|
|TRANSMISSION||6-sp auto (gas, rr wheels), 2-sp auto (elec, fr wheels)|
|CURB WEIGHT||3300 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||184.6 x 76.5 x 50.9 in|
|0-60 MPH||3.9 (MT est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON||Not yet rated|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||September 2014|