Travel/Experiences  •  2Drive

2Drive: The i8 Experience

Who says you can't have super fun in a supercar if you want to be environmentally responsible? Certainly not BMW, who introduced the i8 in 2014 as the answer to the supercar of the future.

September 06, 2017
I collect my shiny, graphite grey i8 with both anticipation and trepidation. The car is highlighted by BMW’s iBlue color on the badge, front kidney grilles, side sills, and rear air vents. I touch the hidden button by the door’s edge and the drama begins with the spectacular opening of the scissor doors (call them dihedral or butterfly doors if you prefer). Seatings are low with wide door sills so getting in and out requires some dexterity; get some practice unless you wish to flash your sexy g-string to pedestrians or the doorman if you’re wear short skirts.

Inside, the passenger cabin is relatively spacious and airy with a wide central tunnel where the high voltage 7.1 kWh lithium-ion battery is kept. BMW’s signature electric blue is highlighted all over the cabin: on the steering wheel, the seat belts, running along the dashboard, and sewed as double stitching on the environmentally-tanned leather seats and back rests. The i8 has the usual drawbacks of sports cars space-wise but at least there’s a second row of seats unlike some hardcore mid-engined hot rods with a prancing horse or a charging bull on the bonnet. Although beautifully upholstered, the rear seats are only suitable for small children however, as both head and legroom are restricted and the view out is minuscule. Otherwise, use the space for your baggage or shopping: while there is a boot at the back, it is small and anything you put there is likely to get toasted by the engine.

Once in the low-hugging sport seat, excellent ergonomics allow you to quickly get comfortable with all controls. Those familiar with the marque will feel right at home with the interior, from the switches and buttons to the screens, the gear lever, and the iDrive controller on the central console. On the dashboard are two 8.8 inch high definition screens: the one in front of the driver shows the speedometer, rev counter, and energy use dial and the other on the central console is for entertainment, air conditioning, and navigation. A heads-up display on the lower windscreen and a Harman Kardon hi-fi system add finishing touches to an all-around stylish, quality feel.
For supercar fans, don’t expect a thundering roar at startup: instead, there is only silence as the display lights in front of the driver come on, followed by the air conditioning, and then you’re ready to go. Glide away carefully if it is your first time, because the i8 is a wide car: wider than the full-size 7-series. As you depart, the only sound you may hear is from the tires on any uneven surfaces. For an exotic looking car, the i8 is surprisingly easy to drive. I loved the way the car accelerated like a sling shot using just the electric motors: silently but super fast. While the car feels light and agile with light steering, the suspension feels tight in town and driving is fairly stiff but not crashing or bone-jarring.

On the highway, floor the throttle to get past a row of cars and the internal combustion engine joins the fun; only when you step harder on the accelerator does the petrol engine come on, accompanied by a surprisingly throaty roar from the 3-cylinder engine. Don't be disappointed, but the sporty soundtrack is courtesy of an electronically enhanced V8 growl that’s a satisfying sound nonetheless and actually enhances the driving fun—the fast-forward action that is accompanied by the mighty roar means that all four wheels are driving the rocket ship relentlessly, all the way to the car's electronically-limited speed of 250 km/h.

For extra excitement, engage sport mode to change gears manually by pushing the gear lever to the left; this allows you to use either the steptronic gear lever or (even better) the paddles behind the sport steering wheel. On straights, the car is roll free and very agile, consistent with precise handling and a good grip; however, the car feels less planted in curves perhaps due to those narrow tires on 215/45 fronts and 245/40 rears on 20-inch wheels. Even though the car is carrying both the battery and the electric motor (a penalty of nearly 200 kg of weight), you cannot feel this while driving.
This sustainable supercar can be driven in pure electric mode with zero emissions if you press eDrive on the central console and can run for over 30 kms at a maximum speed of 120 km/h on a fully charged battery. However, during my tenure with the car, I did not have access to a fast wall charger (that can charge 80% of the battery in less than two hours) so I kept to the usual eco-pro, comfort, and sport modes, using the petrol engine and regenerative braking to replenish the battery now and then.

So the future doesn't have to be boring for those of you who are environmentally concerned but a purely electric car with limited range is not yet the answer here in the Land of Smiles where no charging stations are publicly available outside the city and it otherwise takes longer to charge a battery than it does to fill up a tank of petrol.

For the time being, it has to be hybrids with combustion engines to help the electric motor when the battery juice runs low. Apart from the mega-performance and the space age look of the BMW i8 that will turn heads wherever you go, you will still benefit from supercar parking spaces at your preferred shopping venues (some with free wall chargers as well). And since all eyes are already turned on you, you might as well flash your knickers or your recently acquired Brazilian wax and flaunt it all.

ABOUT PROJECT BMWi and the i8:
The space age-looking i8 belongs to Project BMW i, considered a sub brand of the marque that makes plug-in electric vehicles including the i3 city car. The i8 is built with a carbon fiber reinforced plastic passenger cell that is 50% lighter than steel and 30% lighter than aluminium but at the same time stronger than both. Aluminium is used for the subframes, outer door skins, and the front bonnet, while the rest of the outer body panels are molded thermoplastic to keep weight to a minimum.

The low slung, futuristic look is aerodynamically shaped with air channels, flying buttresses, and gorgeous gull-wing doors that open out and upwards. Under the front laser headlights, vents direct cool air to the brakes, and air curtains in the front apron help reduce drag coefficient and create down force as the air stream is funneled at the sides of the car through pronounced channels out to the u-shaped rear lights.

The power of this hybrid supercar comes from a 3-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine—yes only three cylinders! It is mounted transversely above the rear axle, driving the rear wheels, and pumps out 231 horsepower and 320 Newton/meter of torque. Helping out is another 131 horsepower and 250 Newton/meter of torque from the electric motor mounted over the front axle and driving the front wheels. Instant torque of the electric motor will get you from zero to 100 km/h in 4.4 seconds.