by Karl Furlong
For a long time, hybrid cars simply weren't fashionable. The Toyota Prius, perhaps, achieved some appeal among eco-conscious (or is that ego-conscious?) warriors, but it never came close to finding its way onto the desktop backgrounds of car enthusiasts. Then, just over five years ago, BMW entered the supercar realm with the i8 - or did they? It looked wild enough to stand alongside a Lamborghini, but under the sensational curves was a meek 1.5-liter three-cylinder turbo and an electric motor, hardly the stuff of teenage boys' dreams. While some of the i8's novelty value has since worn off (there are a multitude of high-performance hybrids and EVs on the market today), its blend of performance and efficiency remains remarkable. The total power output of 369 horsepower ensures a 4.2-second blast to 60 mph, while a combined 69 MPGe is possible. While nimble, the lack of true aural drama and less feel than more traditional supercars, limits the i8's ultimate driving appeal. Still, this landmark car for BMW and plug-in hybrids remains a brilliant feat of engineering.
BMW hasn't announced any changes to the i8 for 2020. Last year, an updated battery with enhanced capacity was introduced. A limited Ultimate Sophisto edition of the i8 Coupe (limited to 200 units globally, including the i8 roadster), has also been introduced to bid farewell to the i8 range, of which production will end this year. It adds Sophisto Grey paint to the exterior, along with E-Copper accents, plus E-Copper leather, special door sills, a head-up display, and ceramic controls.
A revelation when launched, the i8 is still a mesmerizing piece of design today, sitting low to the ground and with its two-tone paintwork. Of course, those gorgeous buttresses and the butterfly doors will never get old. The visual theatrics are boosted by 20-inch bi-color light-alloy wheels and a roof made from carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic. The heated side mirrors have a power-folding feature, the doors and hood are made from lightweight aluminum, and the slim LED headlights have integrated LED daytime running lights. The Ultimate Sophisto uniquely gets 20-inch alloy wheels that are finished in E-Copper, black-painted brake calipers, and Ultimate Sophisto Edition door sills.
The i8 measures 184.9 inches in length (with a 110.2-inch wheelbase), 76.5 inches wide (excluding mirrors), and just 50.8 inches in height, dimensions that contribute to its low, wide stance. Ground clearance works out to just 4.6 inches, which adds to the drama but requires caution when pulling into and out of steep driveways. BMW quotes a figure of 3,501 pounds for the i8 Coupe's curb weight.
With its gloss black panels and blue detailing (a signature of BMW's 'i' range), the primary color on every i8 dramatically alters its appearance. Six metallic color/accent combinations are available: E-Copper with Frozen Grey accents, Sophisto Grey with Frozen Grey, Sophisto Grey with BMW i FrozenBlue, Donington Grey, Crystal White Pearl with Frozen Grey, and Crystal White Pearl with BMW i Frozen Blue. The last two options cost an extra $1,800. While any i8 looks amazing, the Frozen Blue accents are tastefully applied and work well with the unusual curves and slashes. Sophisto Grey with E-Copper accents adorns the exterior of the Ultimate Sophisto Edition.
The i8 achieves its total power output of 369 horsepower and 420 lb-ft in a very different fashion to the typical sports car. Contributing 141 hp and 184 lb-ft is the electric motor, with the turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine managing 228 hp and 236 lb-ft on its own. An 11.6 kWh battery pack is fitted. Power is sent to all four wheels (the combustion engine powers the rear wheels and the electric motor exclusively sends power to the front) and, when you're not intent on saving the plant, the plug-in hybrid i8 will do 0-60 mph in a quick 4.2 seconds before reaching a top speed limited to 155 mph. That's impressively quick and more than enough to shove you back in your seat, but a base Porsche 911 Carrera - at over $50,000 cheaper - will do the same sprint in four seconds dead, demonstrating the inferior power/price ratio of BMW's hybrid sports car relative to a traditional gas-fed vehicle. Operating in EV mode, the i8 will reach 60 in approximately nine seconds.
The i8's innovative powertrain isn't as cutting-edge as it was at launch, but a plug-in hybrid sports car is still a relative rarity. The 1.5-liter three-cylinder turbocharged engine (positioned behind the driver) and an electric motor (mounted up front) team up to deliver 369 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque. While the gas engine is paired with a six-speed automatic, the electric motor gets a two-speed auto.
Despite so much going on, the driver is largely unaware of all of it, as the i8 surges ahead smoothly. With the electric motor's swell of torque, the BMW always feels eager and accelerating past slower-moving traffic is not only easily done, but quite addictive, too. One would think that two transmissions would result in a clunky experience, but it's far from the case as smooth and quick gearshifts are the order of the day. If you like your driving experience to feel like a video game, you might appreciate the augmentation of engine noise within the i8's cabin. If you don't, it's a rather odd experience knowing what's beneath that sleek sheet metal and hearing much more ambitious engine noises accompanying throttle inputs. It's one of the few criticisms of the i8's otherwise remarkable powertrain.
Although not approaching the intoxicating driving experience of a high-revving Lamborghini or Porsche, the i8 acquits itself brilliantly in most scenarios. The all-wheel-drive system provides excellent grip, even on the narrow fuel-saving tires, and in the corners, it stays flat and composed. Sitting low down and considering that the i8 isn't massive, this allows for enjoyable darting around town and taking on faster sweeps with confidence. Is it a sports car in the vein of a Porsche 911? No, because the i8 actually feels a bit more GT-like and its ultimate limits are lower - reminders of the price one has to pay for all of that efficient hybrid tech.
It's also never as communicative or consistent as the best sports cars, even when switching into Sport mode - when punching the throttle early on in a corner, the i8 isn't the most predictable, sometimes provoked into gentle understeer, and sometimes eliciting more enjoyable oversteer.
On the comfort front, the i8 is better. It feels both stable and absorbent - longer trips are not going to be a chore in this car. It's quite refined, too, although road noise does intrude (even more so in EV mode). The brakes are strong and reliably bring the i8 to a controlled stop, but as with other aspects of the i8, feedback through the pedal isn't the best.
Being a plug-in hybrid, the i8 rewards with far more efficient running costs than competitors with only combustion engines. In electric-only mode, the i8 will cover 17 miles according to the EPA, which to be honest, isn't much. Many owners will likely be driving with the gas engine in operation too - when doing so, the i8 has a combined MPGe rating of 69. Using the gas engine only will return a city/highway figure of 27 mpg. With a gas tank size of 11.1 gallons, the i8 will realize a range of around 300 miles, with the electric motor extending that by a further 17 miles. Although these numbers fall well short of other PHEVs, they're more respectable when taking into account the i8's performance and the sports car segment it competes in. A complete charge of the 11.6 kWh battery pack is expected to take just over three hours, the one advantage of the battery's small size.
The i8 is one of the few modern BMWs that gets a unique cabin design, ditching the brand's conservative cookie-cutter approach to interior layout. As a result, it has as much personality inside as it does outside, and that matters in a car like this. There is a clear focus on the driver with a heavily angled dashboard center stack and advanced digital dials. Carbon fiber interior trim, distinctive blue accents, and smart perforated leather seats are all highlights of the sporty cabin. While most of it feels appropriately solid, there are a few too many plastic buttons for our liking in a car of this price. Power-adjustable and heated front seats, along with dual-zone climate control and a Harman Kardon audio system, are among the standard features.
Officially a 2+2, this means that the i8 can seat two in front in comfort, while there should theoretically be space for two in the back for shorter trips. In reality, these back seats will only comfortably accommodate children - both leg- and headroom are severely restricted. The front perches are much better, with enough room for six-footers to get comfortable. Not only does the low seating position make you feel at one with the car, but they're cushioned enough for long-distance travel, too. The scissor doors remain one of the i8's party tricks, but they make getting out of the car a bit more of a challenge. And, while a conventional door allows you to squeeze out in a tight parking space, the i8's doors make this a near-impossible task. Forward-visibility is fine, but thick A-pillars and a smallish rear window do hamper the side and back views out.
As standard, the i8's seats are upholstered in genuine perforated leather. The standard colors are dark Giga Amido and Giga Ivory White - the latter significantly brightens up the cabin, although it will naturally be harder to keep clean. A choice of two luxurious natural leathers are also available: E-Copper and Tera Dalbergia Brown. Both are $3,700 options. Carbon fiber trim is standard, and there are a few aluminum-brushed accents dotted around the cabin. The characteristic blue highlights that are found on all BMW i cars also make an appearance here. Ceramic controls and E-Copper leather upholstery are unique to the Ultimate Sophisto Edition.
The i8 is very much a traditional sports car in this area, which is another way of saying that it's disappointing. The trunk has a mere 4.7 cubic feet of space, not enough for one large suitcase. While a couple of grocery bags will fit, you better stash your chocolate treats elsewhere as the trunk is positioned close to the engine and is susceptible to heightened temperatures. While many sports cars with their engines mid- or rear-mounted have a 'frunk' in front, this space is reserved for the i8's electric components. All of this means you'll really come to appreciate the back seats for the extra storage space they provide.
Interior cubbies are all rather small, but at least they exist: there is a front-passenger storage net, rear storage nets on the back of the front seats, a center armrest with a cupholder, and another two cupholders at the back.
Without any pricey extras, the i8 Coupe ships with six-way power-adjustable front seats with three-stage heating. Automatic dual-zone climate control is standard as well, while other conveniences include a universal garage door opener, power-folding mirrors, an auto-dimming interior rearview mirror, rain-sensing windshield wipers, and a tilt/telescopic steering wheel column. BMW's ambient lighting system looks brilliant at night, with LED illumination of the center console, armrests, and air vents. The i8 is also a safe vehicle and that's thanks to a full-color head-up display, cruise control, LED headlights, frontal collision warning, and speed limit information. A sunroof isn't fitted but that's because the i8's roof is fashioned from carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic.
Although the i8 doesn't get the latest version of BMW's iDrive system, its infotainment offering is still thoroughly up to scratch. The driver benefits from two 8.8-inch color displays, one for the instrument cluster and one central screen for functions like navigation with 3D maps. As usual, functions are managed via a touchpad controller and eight memory buttons. It's familiar and easy to get used to. Standard gear encompasses 20GB of storage for audio files, voice commands, map updates three times per year, and real-time traffic information. Connectivity is enhanced with Apple CarPlay (but no Android Auto just yet), enhanced USB and Bluetooth, and BMW's connected app compatibility. SiriusXM satellite radio is standard with a one-year all-access subscription, as is HD Radio, and both can be enjoyed via the 11-speaker Harman Kardon audio system with a 360-watt amplifier.
A complex plug-in hybrid sports car is bound to raise questions about long-term reliability, and although the i8 doesn't seem to suffer from any serious maladies, it was recalled twice in 2019 for two electric-related faults. The first recall was for a potential shutdown of high-voltage electrical power, possibly leading to a lack of propulsion. Shortly after this, the i8 (along with the i3 and other hybrid BMWs) was recalled again, this time for the risk of an electric shock or a fire from the charging cable.
BMW's standard four-year/50,000-mile new vehicle limited warranty also applies to the i8. Additional coverage is provided by a 12-year/unlimited-miles rust perforation warranty, four years of roadside assistance regardless of mileage, and an eight-year/100,000-mile battery warranty.
The IIHS and NHTSA haven't evaluated the i8 Coupe for crashworthiness, as is the case for the vast majority of high-priced sports cars. That said, BMW's squeaky-clean safety reputation and the i8's many safety features dictate that it'll offer occupants good protection in the unfortunate event of a crash. Of course, there's also the incredibly strong carbon fiber structure of the i8 to provide extra peace of mind.
When assessing the safety credentials of a modern car, it's common to begin with the airbag count, so it's reassuring that the i8 has eight of them, including knee airbags for the driver and front passenger. Other safety essentials like tire pressure monitoring, a rearview camera, ABS brakes, and dynamic stability control are all in place, as they should be.
Front and rear parking distance control lessens the likelihood of scratching the i8's fancy bodywork. BMW's Active Driving Assistant bundles together surround view, speed limit data, pedestrian protection, city collision mitigation, and frontal collision warning. It's just a pity that the likes of adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning don't make it onto the list. While LED headlights are standard, icon adaptive LED headlights with BMW's Laserlight can be added on as an option, but for an expensive $6,300.
No longer the novelty it once was, the i8 Coupe now finds itself in a market increasingly crammed with EVs and hybrids that mix alluring style with intoxicating performance. And yet, that didn't stop BMW from selling over 1,000 i8s in North America last year, easily surpassing its 2018 and 2017 totals, and likely buoyed by the addition of the gorgeous i8 Roadster. As it did at launch, the i8 impresses with its mesmerizing styling, its incredible blend of power and efficiency, and a high-tech cabin from which to enjoy it all. It's only when measured against more conventional sports cars that the i8 begins to disappoint: it's not the fastest, sensations through the steering and via the nimble chassis aren't as natural, and BMW has tried - but can only do so much - to coax a meaty exhaust note out of a small three-cylinder engine. Viewed as a BMW technological experiment, the i8 is outstanding. But as a sports car trying to mix in with a Porsche 911, it's merely average. It's up to you to decide which perspective matters more.
It's not cheap, that's for sure. The i8 Coupe carries an MSRP of $147,500 before adding taxes, licensing, registration, and the brand's destination charge of $995. That's $15,800 less expensive than the i8 Roadster, but it's even more expensive than the superb Porsche 911 GT3 ($143,600). At the time of writing, BMW hadn't yet confirmed pricing for the i8 Ultimate Sophisto Edition.
There are two models to choose from: the standard i8 Coupe and the limited i8 Coupe Ultimate Sophisto Edition. The hybrid sports car is motivated by a 1.5-liter three-cylinder turbocharged engine and an electric motor for combined outputs of 369 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed automatic is paired with the combustion engine while a two-speed automatic links up with the electric motor. Power is sent to all four wheels.
Known for its outlandish styling, the i8's exterior is characterized by 20-inch light-alloy wheels, Shadowline exterior trim, LED lighting (with available Laserlight), and scissor doors. Weight-saving measures include a carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic roof and lightweight aluminum for the doors and hood. The equally futuristic cabin is decked out with perforated leather seats and carbon fiber trim. Ahead of the driver is an 8.8-inch digital instrument display, flanked to the right by a second 8.8-inch color screen for infotainment. Feature highlights include six-way power-adjustable and heated front seats, an 11-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, dual-zone automatic climate control, forward collision warning, and a head-up display.
The Ultimate Sophisto Edition is limited to just 200 units globally (including the i8 Roadster) and is distinguished by 20-inch alloy wheels finished in E-Copper, an exterior painted in Sophisto Grey with accents in E-Copper, E-Copper leather seats, and ceramic controls.
Surprisingly for a BMW, the i8 Coupe's list of optional extras/packages is a limited one. An aerodynamic kit for the exterior costs $500 and adds black, high-gloss adornments like a lip spoiler and left/right front splitters. Requiring much deeper pockets is the Icon Adaptive LED headlight upgrade with BMW's laserlight technology - it goes for $6,300. The i8 doesn't have access to the premium sound systems and more comprehensive safety packages that you can get on many other BMW models.
We can't tell you exactly how to specify your BMW i8 Coupe as individual tastes will differ widely. However, the E-Copper exterior paint or the $1,800 Crystal White Pearl Metallic paint with the i Frozen Blue accents are both particularly striking (if you can get hold of the ultra-limited Ultimate Sophisto Edition, consider yourself lucky). Although the standard leather seats are perfect, the upgraded natural leather in Tera Dalbergia Brown with cloth accents do add a welcome touch of luxury. Otherwise, with minimal options, the stock i8 will suit us just fine.
Visually, no car in BMW's range comes closer to the Audi R8. Both are wide, low-slung sports cars that make a powerful statement. Of course, that's where their similarities end - the BMW is a showcase of what can be achieved with efficient hybrid technology in a performance car, while the R8 is dominated by its raucous, high-revving V10 engine that pumps out 562 hp. The Audi takes just 3.4 seconds to hit 60 mph, comfortably faster than the i8, while consuming considerably more fuel than the BMW. It's the driving experience where the two differ most, with the R8's V10 a treat for the senses and its steering encouraging you to push harder than the BMW's more muted helm. If it's a true supercar experience you're after, the BMW can't come close to the exuberant Audi. But the i8 does have the advantage of rear seats for kids or extra storage, while its gas engine/electric driving range won't make you wince as much as the R8's thirsty V10. As lovely as the i8 is, we're not convinced that its hybrid setup is yet a match for a large-capacity, naturally aspirated V10 engine.
If you've already decided on a modern BMW coupe, you may be struggling to choose between the greener and more dramatic i8, or something more familiar and ferocious in the form of the M4. If price is factored into the equation at all, you'll probably be inclined to save $78,350 and order an M4 without a second thought - yes, that's the gulf in price between these two, despite the M4 being a tenth of a second quicker to 60. The M4 also has a significant dynamic edge with its six-speed manual gearbox and superior communication through the major controls. The high-revving six-cylinder engine also has more character than the i8's hybrid powertrain. Plus, the M4 has usable rear seats and a far bigger trunk. All of which will mean absolutely nothing to the buyer who can afford an i8 and has fallen in love with its sensational styling.