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BMW i8 - review, history, prices and specs

A genuinely ground-breaking car, the BMW i8 showed plug-in cars and driving pleasure didn’t need to be strangers

It was the future, once. Now, the BMW i8 looks like being consigned to the history books by its maker, with greater profit margins to be found in grotesque SUVs than slippery sports cars. But while BMW’s i8 might not quite indicate the way the automotive world is heading, the launch of the i8 was a sign BMW had committed to taking plug-in cars seriously, a dedicated sports car featuring its latest construction technology, dramatic styling and a genuinely appealing, if atypical driving experience.

We’ve always been fond of the i8 at evo, even seeing fit to include an example in evo Car of the year 2014, where it finished sixth – ahead of BMW’s own F80-generation M3 in ninth. While we’d ultimately choose a Porsche 911 for a twisty road or racetrack, the i8’s ability to deliver a different, more cerebral thrill, while delivering fine fuel economy and offering excellent long-distance comfort made it a genuine pleasure.

> BMW i8 review (2014-2020) - the new age sports car

BMW i8 in detail

There were signs BMW was thinking about a new sports car as early as 2009. As is often the case, BMW previewed its early ideas with a concept, 2009’s Vision EfficientDynamics. The EfficientDynamics name, a nod to BMW’s new slogan for pairing its traditional driving characteristics with greater environmental friendliness, was also widely applied to the back of fuel-sipping diesel 1-series and 3-series.

The concept though was no mere hatchback or saloon, instead taking the form of a low and sleek sports car, more M1 than 1M in its form factor. Dramatic glass doors cut low into the sills and its bodywork was heavily sculpted around the wheels and roofline. While some of the more extreme colours, lights and details eventually faded, the theme remained admirably consistent, first through 2011’s i8 Concept revealed at the Frankfurt motor show (alongside the i3 Concept), and then on the eventual i8 production car launched in 2013.

By then the glass doors had gone, though they retained their butterfly opening mechanism. There was plenty of technology too, not just in the drivetrain that paired a mid-mounted, Mini-derived 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo (making 228bhp) with a front-mounted electric motor (129bhp), but also in the construction. Like the upright i3 electric city car, the i8 used a carbonfibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP) central tub, to which subframes were attached at either end carrying the engine and motor.

This kept the car relatively light despite the need to stow heavy batteries and a pair of powertrains – BMW quoted a kerbweight of just 1535kg, so well within the Porsche 911 ballpark. Performance was close, too, with a 0-62mph sprint of 4.4 seconds, aided by all-wheel drive traction thanks to that front motor, and while a 155mph top speed won’t set any records the i8 still offered that important grand-tourer quality of having something in reserve even if big numbers are already showing on the speedometer.

Slick aerodynamics no doubt played a part, and also made the i8 a rather fantastic car in which to cover distance. Well, to a point, because two of the i8’s most glaring faults also chipped away at its GT-like qualities. One, luggage space was poor, though in the fixed-roof model the rear seats were adequate for extra storage. And two, with two power sources and a bank of batteries crammed into a mid-engined car, the supermini-sized 42-litre fuel tank means reasonably regular stops at motorway speeds – around 300 miles, give or take.

Driving it remains a unique experience. You can creep around in EV mode for a decent distance (a good 30-ish miles in later models, thanks to a 11.6kWh battery pack rather than the original 7.1kWh) and at respectable speeds, though the sensation of the front wheels pulling you around is an interesting one in a supercar-style BMW. The electric assistance does make for quick-acting punch when you ask for it though, and the three-cylinder engine makes an interesting noise, augmented through the cabin speakers.

Steering is glassy on the relatively narrow front tyres, as little as 195-section at the front on 20-inch rims, but the light, clear feel is actually better than many M-cars with their fat tyres and similarly fat steering wheel rims. The slim rubber does make for understeer in some conditions, so cornering ability lags some rivals, but tune in to the way the i8 does things, accelerating and decelerating smoothly and guiding rather than hustling the car, and the results are still rather satisfying.

BMW introduced a Roadster variant of the i8 in 2018, which was very literally a coupe with its roof cut off – BMW’s engineers realised the CFRP tub’s structural stiffness was more than up to the task, though they still installed extra bracing anyway, leading to a 60kg bump in kerbweight.

The i8 got a power boost at the same time, for a combined 369bhp, and that’s how the car remains on sale as of 2020. Sadly, the i8 isn’t long for this world, and there’s no direct replacement in sight, but for a time BMW had both one of the most innovative sports cars on the road, and one of the most appealing plug-in cars too.

Specs

 

i8 (2013)

i8 Roadster (2018)

Engine

1499cc turbo, electric motor

1499cc turbo, electric motor

Power (bhp)

357

369

Torque (lb ft)

236 engine, 184 motor

236 engine, 184 motor

Weight

1535kg

1595kg

Power-to-weight

244bhp/ton

235bhp/ton

0-62mph

4.4sec

4.6sec

Top speed

155mph

155mph

Price

£99,895 (2013)

£127,105 (2020)

What we said

BMW i8, evo Car of the year test 2014 (evo 203, eCoty 2014)

‘Everything is very serene for the first few miles as I just enjoy the various sensations. Even when the little 1.5-litre turbocharged three-cylinder kicks in, the refinement of the whole car is so good that it still has an air of calm about it. The steering is very light and lacks any real feel, but it’s also clean and precise and the overall effect is one of ease as you guide the car through corners.

‘In terms of pace it feels on a par with the Cayman [981 GTS] across the ground and there are plenty of times when you really do forget the whole hybrid angle and just enjoy the i8 as a fantastically accomplished 357bhp sports car. Yes, if you look at the dials then you can get quite fixated by what’s going on, but the technology is so well executed that if you’ve got a good bit of road or another car to chase in front of you then you can simply enjoy driving and the innovative engineering melts into the background.’

BMW i8 Roadster, Tour de Force (evo 258, March 2019)

‘This hybrid really hustles out of tight corners, the front motor compensating for any hesitation that might be present in the turbocharged triple’s responses. It’s like someone has released the rope on a trebuchet as you squeeze the throttle and feel an instant, proportional urge in your intended direction.

‘Better still is the noise. The three-cylinder has a characteristic tone, and its clear, electronically enhanced sounds actually feel appropriate. The i8 is such a technological car there’s none of the incongruity you get with piped-in noise in a simplistic hot hatch or traditional sports car. The real thrill comes from surging into and out of every corner accompanied by the wooooooeeeeeee of the electric motor harvesting and delivering its power… like sitting on board an R18 e-tron or Porsche 919 as it brakes deep into each chicane on the Mulsanne and brawls out of the other side.’

What to pay

BMW i8 – £40,000 to £70,000

BMW i8 Roadster – £60,000 to £80,000

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