2016 BMW i8 review FLASHBACK From our BMW archives
Yes yes yes, oh YES: looks, looks, looks
Oh dear me no: No apple car play, limited luggage space, few driver aids
There were more than a few raised brows when BMW announced a hybrid supercar was in development. “Light the raging fires of hell”, are words never said about a car that relies heavily on batteries.
At $322,903, the i8 will be for the kind of buyer for whom price is irrelevant. BMW make no apologies for the price, so what do you get for your money?
You get a fabulous 2 door coupe with movie-star looks, and the performance of Usain Bolt strapped to a rocket. The chassis and exterior skin are aluminium and the passenger cell is carbon fibre. It is simply gorgeous, but it isn’t all lightweight practicality, oh no. The interior is furnished with lashings of cow highlighted with more aluminium. Just to put an exclamation mark after “hi-tech”, parts of the interior are left unpainted to show the carbon-fibre construction.
The lighting is courtesy of a shedload of super-bright LEDs, and if you’re feeling decadent you can pay a few extra shekels for headlights with reflective. Who’d ever have thought there one day be laser headlights? The rear of the body has a beautifully sculptured taillight in two parts. The stop/tail light cluster is in the main section of the panel, with the indicator in a voluptuous fold of bodywork which is part of the rear window above. The rear fenders bulge muscularly outwards barely containing the 20” alloys within. It looks fast even when standing still.
The super-light scissor doors are made of aluminium and carbon fibre and hinge forward, outward, and upward supported by a substantial gas strut. Because they are so light, the doors are incredibly easy to use. Supercar doors in the past have been so heavy that they were almost impossible to open even harder to close without half getting out of the car. The i8 door can be closed with just 2 fingers.
The exterior door handle is concealed at the rear of the door in what looks like yet another aerodynamic fold of aluminium. You can leave your key secreted about your person because both the door ignition can be operated merely by touch. The car knows you’re approaching and switches on the puddle lights so you don’t dirty your loafers. It allows you to push the button causing the door to pop out where a gentle pull brings it out, up and forward in a single swift motion.
The car is very low and the door aperture somewhat bijou. Getting in takes a bit of practice if you’re not to look awkward. The man at BMW said “put your bum on the sill then turn and slide”. I took him at his word, and like magic I slipped straight in. After a few days I mastered getting out the same way.
Opening the door attracts looks, then you have to get in or out. The reason they open the way they do is so that you don’t bang the door against the curb. The sill is so low that even a modest slope would see a normal hinge leaving you wedged against the footpath.
No matter what you do or where you go people will be looking in your direction. Every time you stop someone will want a selfie or asking if you’ll swap cars with them. One crusty old gent asked “Is it a V8, V10 or V12”. Quick as a flash I said “That’s so last century. This is a twin turbo 3 cylinder 1500 with a couple of electric motors tossed in for good measure”. With that, I pulled down the door and waved as I glided regally into the sunset. The only sounds were lightly crunching gravel and a faint electric whine.
The 1.5 twin turbo petrol engine drives the rear wheels through a 6 speed paddle shift auto. There is an electric motor driving the front wheels through a 2 speed auto, and a second to act as a generator to charge the batteries. At various states and in various modes they operate together to push the BMW to 100 in 4.4 seconds. If 170kw/320Nm for the petrol engine, and 96kw/250Nm for the battery powered motor doesn’t sound like much, remember that the torque of the electric motor is always available. From the moment you press the Bally into the Axminster, the torque of the electric motor will try to rip your face off, very gently of course. It is, after all, a BMW.
BMW claims you’ll get up to 600ks from a combined full electric charge and 42L tank, but I doubt it. Then again, who cares. The more you have to call into a rest stop the more people will see you.
If it all looks sounds terribly cutting edge, it is. Despite all this, the i8 is very normal to drive. You see, if you can drive any other hybrid you can drive an i8. Press the start button and the dash comes to life. The instrument cluster is 1 single LCD. Another LCD sits tablet-style on the top of the dash. Between them, hey share Satnav and other such functions.
There is also a heads-up display which shows speed, navigation directions and music details. They’re hard to see if you wear polarized sunnies and you find yourself lifting them periodically. There are no operational instructions needed if you’re already familiar with BMW controls. The interior may look like a fighter jet, but the function is pure BMW. Most modern prestige vehicles have this familiar environment.
The I-drive has been refined and has a touch pad on the top of the central control knob. Input is made easier using voice commands especially in the navigation system. Surprisingly, it actually works but is still not as intuitive as Siri. Unlike Siri, the voice control is self-contained and works without the aid of cell service.
The mood lighting is particularly attractive at night where discrete blue lines highlight doors, dash and centre console contours. The entire cabin is bathed in an eerie but tasteful glow. Our nine-year-old honorary-nephew excitedly proclaimed, “Oh, It’s like Tron”. This made me feel about a thousand years old. He loved the green creds which come with hybrid technology and suggested mum and dad buy one and get solar panels to charge it. Ollie is a smart kid. First the first time since he started riding shotgun on test drives, the i8 scored multiple “Ollie Approvals”. Usually it is a simple yes or no, so I suspect i8 is approaching schoolboy pinup status.
Unlike super-cars of the 70’s, this one is completely practical. You can use it as a daily driver but then all super-car makers say that don’t they? While it’s true that i8 doesn’t have the driver aids of cars a tenth of the price, you can still toss a couple of Coles bags in the boot. If you’ve popped in to DJ’s on your way home, there’s a back seat for those Hounds-tooth-wrapped packages.
When you get home, you’ll want to reverse into your garage where all round sensors and a multi-view rear camera which can simulate 360° views will prove invaluable. The rear view isn’t bad considering the type of vehicle. Even so, the camera proves invaluable.
It is almost impossible to put into words exactly what driving BMW’s i8 is really like.
The seats are surprisingly comfy even though they’re firm. You quickly get the Goldilocks position. It’s not too high, not too low, but just right. A press of the start button and you’re ready to go, just like a normal car. As you move off, the handbrake releases itself and at car park speeds you’ll be in electric mode. You prowl the rows like a Ninja assassin in complete silence. The electric whine gathers volume only as the speed picks up.
We decided to use the car exactly as an owner would. We took every chance to use the BMW even when going to get a carton of milk from Coles 200 metres away.
We had tickets to an event at the Opera House, so of course we drove when we would normally take the train. Many have seen the Sydney Opera House but fewer have seen the iconic double-helix car park. It is a massive free standing concrete structure in an enormous sandstone pit. Like the i8, it was ahead of its time. Going down one of the helices means coasting most of the way, building charge as you go. The regenerative braking ensures nothing is wasted. More importantly the energy you stored on the way down can be used to go back up the other helix, again, in silence except for a slight futuristic whine.
As you’re ejected into Macquarie Street, pressing the accelerator presses the rasping turbo petrol engine into service. A flick of the steering wheel and in a thrice you’re on the Eastern Distributor.
Slipping the pistol grip gear selector into SPORT means the engine won’t cut out which means there is that glorious sound without interuption. You’ll want to wind down the windows to hear that enthralling exhaust note. It has the added advantage of adding extra charge to the batteries. It’s especially mesmerizing late at night when you’re alone in a tunnel. Pulling back on the paddle drops a few cogs and a gentle press on the accelerator turns the little 4 pot into thunderous monster. It’s a near religious experience.
To round off a perfect evening, you could go home and have a Courvoisier or go for a run down the freeway to the Royal National Park. The latter will reward you with an epiphany of galactic proportions, but the former will just get you sloshed.
Once out of town you a chance to try out the automatic high beam. Annoyingly, bright reflective signs can fool the system into thinking a B-double is approaching so the beams dips when they shouldn’t.
The suspension is firm but not uncomfortably so, and the tyres make a bit of a hum. Somehow that which is unforgivable in other cars hardly rates a mention in the BMW.
As you make that final turn off the freeway the atmosphere has built to a thrilling crescendo. The near-psychic steering seems to sense every thought. It’s the eeriest feeling to have a car go round a corner at almost any speed as if it is held to the surface by a force field. The temptation is to continue to push but many have tried and failed. The park is littered with evidence of those who overestimated their ability and underestimated the danger. With this in mind, our stability control stayed very firmly on throughout. Even though staying within the modest speed limits hardly pushes the i8 to its limits, it still manages a good workout.
On the straights, the BMW felt graceful and elegant like a GT. I took the opportunity to switch between COMFORT and ECO PRO via a button on the console. Doing so makes the gear lever move sideways back to normal driving position. There is much mysterious alchemy under the skin, where the system shifts between full electric, or boost, or a combination of engine and electric all done without the driver being aware.
Shifting back to Sport brings the petrol engine online. While SPORT mode is selected, the petrol engine remains active.
As the straights give way to twists and turns, you can leave the gear selection to the 6 speed transmission, or for a more rewarding drive, use the steering wheel shifters. Each corner is taken completely flat with little or no body roll making the i8 feel like a super-hard-core-sports-car. Even when pushed hard, the tyres keep full contact with the tarmac. The is a particularly tight 15kph switchback near the end of the run but even that was no challenge.
To my surprise, leaving the SPORT mode engaged built up 22k of charge in the batteries. The remainder of the coastal journey was done in silence, a truly spooky experience. Even the final steep 4 kilometre mountain pass ascent elicited only a faint whir. Although the electric motor produces under 100kw, the 250Nm of torque seemed to will us up the side of the mountain. Of course this kind of work drained the 22k of charge in about 10k but it’s incredibly rewarding.
The run back into Sydney showed how brilliantly the cruise controls speed. There is no radar assistance so the braking is provided via electric regeneration of the batteries, again nothing is wasted. The speedo stays fsteadfastly at the desired setting.
There are simply no words to convey a proper picture of how brilliant the BMW i8 really is. Of course really rough surfaces present a slight challenge, but it proved to be thoroughly charming and completely captivating experience.
There is even enough space for shopping or weekends away. You can commute to work or drive just because you want to, but every kilometre is a pleasure. You find yourself inventing reasons to drive even if only a few hundred metres.
There are plenty of super cars, but few are hybrids and even fewer are usable on a daily basis, but the i8 definitely is.
Would I buy one? Yes, even if it meant selling my mother.
- Price: $322,903 (drive away NSW in 2016)
- Electric: 96kw/131Nm, hybrid-synchronous motor with integrated electronics, charger and generator mode for recuperation with 2 speed auto transmission driving front wheels
- Petrol: 1.5l 170kw/320Nm, 6 speed auto driving rear wheels
- Performance:0-100 4.4 seconds
- Economy: combined 2.1L/100k claimed, 49gms CO2, 42L fuel tank
- Weight: 1485 kg