by Jay Traugott
The i8 is a futuristic coupe from BMW that was one of the first performance hybrids to hit the market back in 2015. Its unique looks distinguish it from all other cars out there thanks to its carbon fiber chassis, butterfly doors, and aerodynamic swoops and buttresses. It's a plug-in hybrid, utilizing a turbocharged 1.5-liter, three-cylinder engine which makes 228 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque and drives the rear wheels. It also has an electric motor which makes 141 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque that drives the front wheels, with a combined output claimed at 369 horsepower. The main competitors to the i8 are the Porsche 911, Audi R8, and the Jaguar F-type, which leaves one question on everybody's lips - can a hybrid really live up to the glorious sports cars of yesteryear?
One of the main updates to the i8 is the increase of the battery capacity to 11.6 kWh, which increases the electric range by four miles and increases the peak power by 12 horsepower. Exterior changes are minimal, with two new colors E-Copper and Donnington Grey to choose from and the option of 20-inch Jet Black alloy wheels with radial spokes. BMW has also introduced Tera World Copper as new interior trim, as well as ceramic controls. Infotainment is upgraded with BMW's iDrive 6.0 software.
There is only one model in the i8 coupe range and it has an MRSP of $147,500, which excludes any registration, taxes, and licensing, as well as destination fees. That's expensive and places the i8 in some lofty company alongside the likes of Porsche's 911 GT3 at $143,600, the Jaguar F-Type SVR at $122,750, and the Audi R8 (V10) at $164,000.
See trim levels and configurations:
1.5L Turbo Inline-3 Plug-in Hybrid
Getting into the i8 feels like stepping into the future, and from the moment the car starts it feels different to everything else out there. In electric mode, the performance is nothing to write home about and isn't close to some of the newer electric cars out there. The range of 18 miles is also dismal compared to newer cars that can do hundreds of miles on a charge. At the time that the i8 was released, it was groundbreaking, but even then it was more of a novelty car for BMW to test future technologies.
When pushing on with a combination of combustion and electric power giving the i8 all-wheel-drive capabilities, things begin to feel as they should in a sports car. Low to the ground and with compact dimensions, the i8 seems nimble, and there's a sense of point-and-shoot precision around every corner. Speed comes easily, and the abundance of grip just means you can go quicker.
But it's difficult to feel the limits of the i8, not just because you're thrown out of kilter by the incorrect audio inputs, but because there really isn't much communication coming from beneath you. You point the steering wheel and the i8 goes. There's resistance for the sake of resistance, but there's no feeling as to how much load the front tires are carrying, or where the limits of adhesion are.
The brakes are similarly effective, but also uncommunicative, stopping time and time again, and blending electric regen with friction braking impressively well, but at the cost of communication.
The only place the i8 feels genuinely brilliant is in the way it rides, striking a balance between outright capability - sitting on the road with immense stability - and general ride comfort. Eyes closed (not in the driver's seat, please), you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference in ride quality between the i8 and a BMW Z4 or even a 2 Series.
NHTSA safety ratings are not available at this time.
The i8 is an innovative car that showcases new technology in an eye-catching design. Compared to most of the cars in its class, the design is unique and is sure to turn heads everywhere. Even among more expensive and better-performing cars, the i8 still stands out. It also has a brilliant interior that befits the wild exterior and gives it even more appeal. As a plug-in hybrid, it poses greater levels of daily usability with reduced running costs, and with two semi-usable rear seats there's an extra element of practicality, too.
But how does it fare as a sports car? I'm afraid not so well. While it may be quick, competent, and look good, it lacks key sports car traits that are integral to the experience. The lack of feel throughout is amplified by the simulated sounds that don't correlate with the actual driving experience, while performance hinging on how much charge you have in the battery is a recipe for a let-down when you need performance most.
As a technological exercise, the BMW i8 is tremendous, but as a sports car, it's just not. The futuristic looks hype it up to standards it can't achieve, and at the end of the experience, you're left with something beautiful that ultimately leaves you feeling cold, and a sports car should never feel cold.
With only one BMW i8 Coupe available, it comes down to personal taste as to how you customize the offering. In light of there being no vivid colors available, we'd recommend Crystal White Pearl with Frozen Gray accents ($1,800) outside with the no-cost option of 20-inch W-Spoke wheels, while inside we suggest opting for the Tera World Copper scheme - a $3,700 option that equips copper leather with cloth accentuation. Don't bother with the laser headlights. All-in, the aforementioned options get you an i8 at $153,000. Or you could spend similar money on an Audi R8 and get that sweet V10 singing in your ears...
The 911 has a legendary reputation spanning decades and is synonymous with great all-round performance in a reliable package that can be used daily. The i8 is a young upstart looking to make a name for itself and prove itself worthy, but it fails to do so with cold driving dynamics, performance hinged on how much juice is in the battery, and limited levels of practicality compared to the 911. With only one model of i8 Coupe to choose from there's no choice when it comes to engine selection, but the Porsche has a number of offerings that are cheaper in price than the i8. In fact, the i8 goes for $147,000 and makes a total of 369 hp. In the same price range, it's possible to get a GT3 for $143,600 which makes 500 hp. There's no doubt about it, the 911 is the better car, even if the gas mileage is a fair bit higher, but that's the price you pay for the most comprehensive sports car on sale today.
The M4 is the i8's stablemate, but that's where the comparisons end. The M4 has a well-earned reputation for offering brilliant performance and driving dynamics. It may not have the same extreme styling of the i8 but looks great in its own right. The M4 is powered by a turbocharged 3.0 liter, six-cylinder engine connected to a six-speed manual transmission, and makes 425 hp compared to the i8's 369-hp three-cylinder engine and electric motor combo. While the i8 has great takeoff and the advantage of all-wheel-drive, the M4 is more of a driver's car, communicating better and feeling more involving - all while offering a full-size trunk and rear seats. Out of the two, there's no doubt that the i8 has more 'wow' factor with its outrageous styling and butterfly doors, but in terms of functionality and practicality, it's hard to beat the M4, especially when at $77,650 it's half the price.