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2015 BMW i8 - First Drive

We finally found a hybrid vehicle we want

Greg Emmerson
Jun 25, 2014 SHARE

2015 BMW i8 Details:

  • 228hp/236 lb-ft 1.5L i-3 turbo engine | 129hp/64-369 lb-ft electric motor
  • 375hp, 420 lb-ft | 0-60mph in 4.2sec
  • 3270 lb | 94mpg est | Front-, rear- or all-wheel drive
  • Carbon fiber/aluminum passenger cell
  • Lowest center of gravity of any BMW

Electronics: Full LED lighting (laser lights in Europe) | DDC | Electric steering | HUD | BMW Connected Drive | BMW i Remote phone app

+ Pros: First proper hybrid performance car | Amazing MPG | Great acceleration and handling | Acoustics | Flat cornering

- Cons: Storage space | Odd brake feel


2015 BMW i8 passenger side front view 02 Photo 5/106   |   2015 BMW i8 - First Drive

It's difficult to know where to start when dealing with a new automotive concept - a true mid-level sports hybrid - but let's dive in and confirm the BMW i8 looks great, drives even better and confirms there's a future for driving enthusiasts in a new, greener world.

We say this with huge relief because we were concerned that the purity of the Vision EfficientDynamics Concept - first seen at the Frankfurt Auto Show in 2009 - might have been tainted by its short 38-month gestation period. Yet the design looks as fresh now as it did when Ethan Hunt drove it onto the silver screen in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

2015 BMW i8 interior 03 Photo 6/106   |   2015 BMW i8 - First Drive

2014 BMW i8 Preproduction - First Drive

In fact, two things came to mind when we saw it in bright Californian sunshine (a location chosen because it's the largest single market for a performance hybrid, with 70,000 plugin hybrids sold here to date): firstly, it looks astonishingly similar to the original concept; and secondly, it simply looks astonishing.

We're all used to squinting at concept cars to imagine what the production vehicle will look like, and yet the BMW i8 was barely diluted. It keeps many of the bold features the designers originally envisioned, with seemingly only the transparent doors sacrificed to the homologation process. Fortunately, it does get a lightweight scissor door arrangement that adds a theatrical element to your arrival and departure.

2014 BMW i8 rear three quarters 02 Photo 7/106   |   2014 BMW i8

Put the i8 on Santa Monica Blvd, Pacific Coast Highway or I-405 freeway and you still see the unadulterated concept. Driven alongside Camrys and Altimas, it looks sensational. In truth, it makes everything look rather hackneyed. Even the Porsche 911 and Ferrari 458 appear mundane alongside it.

So while its styling is like nothing else on the road, what's it like to drive?

2015 BMW i8 backseats 05 Photo 8/106   |   2015 BMW i8 - First Drive

If you're like us, your experience of hybrids is limited to the unpleasant Prius and entertaining BMW ActiveHybrid 3. Neither of these made a compelling case to buy one, so would the i8 be any different?

The answer is a resounding yes. Thanks to BMW's holistic approach, everything works. The i8 was designed to be a hybrid, rather than modified to run on electricity, so there were almost no compromises.

2015 BMW i8 driver side rear iew 06 Photo 9/106   |   2015 BMW I8 Driver Side Rear Iew 06

Perhaps its single greatest attribute is the CFRP (carbon fiber reinforced plastic) and aluminum construction, seen inside the door apertures, allowing the BMW i8 to tip the scales at 3270 lb. In turn, this means the brakes can be smaller and lighter, the acceleration better and the economy previously unimaginable.

Although US testing was incomplete at the time of writing, European data suggests 0-60mph in 4.2sec, yet with a combined fuel economy of 94mpg. Take a minute to absorb that implication...

2014 BMW i8 trunk Photo 10/106   |   2014 BMW i8

It's like low-fat ice cream tasting better than the full fat.

BMW has achieved its witchcraft with a combination of gasoline and electric motors, with each playing a vital role.

BMW i8 key fob crop Photo 11/106   |   BMW i8 key fob

In city driving or up to 75mph, the 129hp electric motor gets you moving (unless you've selected the Sport driving mode via the shift lever). It allows you to travel up to 22 miles in relative silence using a two-speed automatic transmission driving the front wheels. The petrol engine kicks in above 75mph, or if you need more acceleration in Comfort Mode, or when you select Sport Mode. It drives the rear wheels through a six-speed auto, giving you sporty RWD characteristics but with the assurance of all-wheel drive when needed.

We can thank the carbon construction for the i8's unique engine - a 1.5L, three-cylinder derived from the new Mini Cooper but turbocharged for this application. As such, it develops a surprising 228hp.

2014 BMW i8 digital instrument cluster Photo 12/106   |   2014 BMW i8

While many people shuddered at the prospect, we knew that a three-cylinder engine meant plenty of torque. And with electric power to fill in the torque gaps, and less weight to propel, BMW found the perfect powerplant.

2015 BMW i8 front seats 20 Photo 13/106   |   2015 BMW I8 Front Seats 20

The only remaining question was how it would sound. Initially, we were impressed by the noise but discovered it was enhanced by the audio system. Having learned nothing from the F10 M5, BMW has done the i8 a disservice because everybody will assume the engine sound is poor. Yet watching several cars tackle Malibu's canyons, we can assure you the engine sounds great. It has an unusual note with plenty of bass and certainly doesn't need enhancement.

Accelerating hard in eDrive while attempting to plug a gap in traffic, the two-speed transmission seemed to hesitate before the demons were unleashed. Fortunately, that trait was invisible in Comfort or Sport, where the i8's operating system makes the best use of its available power sources and provides rapid, instantaneous, seamless acceleration from any speed.

2014 BMW i8 center console Photo 14/106   |   2014 BMW i8

In fact, seamless best describes the i8's operation because, apart from some minor vibration when the petrol engine fires up, the driver is unaware of the activity happening behind the scenes, relying on the iDrive display to keep you informed.

The logic systems decide what propulsion system you need, when to charge the battery and by how much, which wheels to drive, etc. Having used the electric Mini E and ActiveE research projects, as well as its ActiveHybrid production vehicles to develop the operating system, BMW has created a remarkably efficient machine.

2014 bmw i8 solar carport 5 i3 Photo 15/106   |   2014 Bmw I8 Solar Carport

While the ability to run emissions-free is extremely attractive, it's more useful to European cities that limit vehicle use. It will, of course, save you significant money at the pumps and BMW is developing several plug-in charging solutions for customers, including its own solar-powered carport.

2014 BMW i8 cluster Photo 22/106   |   2014 BMW i8

The batteries can also be charged on the engine's overrun or with regenerative braking. The latter creates an unusual pedal feel, where the first portion of the brake pedal travel is sharp and communicative. But the harder and longer you push, the more wooden they feel. It's not that the four-piston front brakes won't stop you; they're very effective. However, you'll need to get accustomed to the pedal feel.

Similarly, the steering is excellently weighted but utterly numb. It does exactly as you command, but you'd have little idea if the tires were in trouble. And despite wider 215/45 front and 245/40 rear Bridgestone S001 tires on all US cars, the i8 looks and feels rather under-tired.

2014 BMW i8 front three quarters 05 Photo 23/106   |   2014 BMW i8

This might be psychological since BMW endowed the i8 with an extraordinarily competent chassis. The handling was superb, with a natural lean towards slight understeer. However, it was generally very neutral, with small amounts of oversteer possible after severe provocation. What's more, the car cornered incredibly flat, body roll seemingly alien to its DNA.

Surprisingly, BMW hasn't provided the driver with a Dynamic Damper Control button. Yet the i8 is equipped with DDC as standard - it simply adjusts automatically to the driving mode, road surface and your inputs. That said, it was rather stiff on surface streets, but seemed to be more forgiving as speed increased. Some of Mailbu's roughest canyon roads upset the car's composure slightly because the suspension seems to have a short travel, but it was generally an exemplary and entertaining drive. While not a track car, the i8 will be an enjoyable companion for anybody with a regular commute that involves challenging roads.

2014 BMW i8 interior view 02 Photo 24/106   |   2014 BMW i8

As usual, BMW went to extraordinary lengths to ensure the car was perfectly balanced. Placing the batteries down the spine of the vehicle and surrounding them in refrigerant to avoid the danger of fire from overheating.

With the engine at the rear, the weight distribution is a commendable 47/53%, making it almost ideal. And with much of its weight concentrated below the floor, the i8 has the lowest center of gravity of any BMW built to date.

2015 BMW i8 driver side profile 12 Photo 25/106   |   2015 BMW I8 Driver Side Profile 12

The only meaningful downside we could discover was the wide sills that make egress slightly awkward. The side windows don't lower fully, leaving an inch of glass to knock your elbow on. And there's a distinct lack of storage space. The rear luggage compartment might take an overnight bag but there are no door pockets, with only a couple of stowage areas in the console and a small glovebox. However, BMW has come to your aid with a line of tailor-made Louis Vuitton luggage designed to slot into all the available space, including the rear seats that even young children might find constricting. A rear luggage area might have been more useful, but BMW has tried to make the i8 as flexible as possible by offering four seats. So we look forward to seeing the first Thule roof box mounted to this sportscar.

Not only is the car good looking, fun to drive and remarkably efficient, it also benefits from a raft of support services called 360? Electric. This will include a BMW i Wallbox for home charging (with the solar-powered carport also announced) and a ChargeNow card for a cash-free payment option at public charging stations. There are also a number of efficiency systems to reduce the amount of time you waste looking for parking spaces. Furthermore, BMW is offering easier maintenance, repair and breakdown services.

2014 BMW i8 front three quarters 03 Photo 26/106   |   2014 BMW i8

And there's an app for that. Your phone can monitor the battery's charge, telling you how long it needs to be plugged in, when it's ready and how far you can travel.

The technology even extends to laser headlights, which sadly won't be available in the US because the ancient laws hadn't predicted it might be an option one day. However, the Europeans will enjoy the range and clarity of the beam.

2014 BMW i8 rear end in motion Photo 27/106   |   2014 BMW i8

With a base price of $137500, you have to ask what the i8 is competing against. You have to assume it will attract Tesla drivers who want more visual drama and driving excitement. It should also attract Porsche 911 Carrera owners, who won't get the same visceral sportscar feel, but will enjoy its technology and their contribution to the reduction of global warming.

As a city car, the i8 has few peers. It can slip silently and emissions-free through any metropolis, casting a stylish shadow. Yet it's also able to pick up and go at the press of a button or moving the shift lever.

This might be the moment we discovered the future of performance driving, and it's alright by us!

Tech Spec
2015 BMW i8

Layout
Rear gasoline engine, RWD; front electric motor, FWD

Engine
1499cc inline B38 three-cylinder 12v gasoline engine with turbocharger, Vanos, Valvetronic, direct injection. BMW eDrive electric motor for EV and hybrid drive

Drivetrain
six-speed automatic transmission rear, two-speed automatic front

Brakes
four-piston calipers, 13.4" rotors f, single-piston, 13.4" r

Suspension
aluminum double-wishbones f, five-link axle r

Wheels & Tires
20x7.5" f, 20x8" r wheels, 215/45 R20 f, 245/40 R20 r tires

Performance

Max power (gasoline)
228hp at 5800rpm

Max torque (gasoline)
236 lb-ft at 3700rpm

Max power (electric)
129hp at 4800rpm

Max torque (electric)
64-369 lb-ft

Max power (combined)
357hp

Max torque (combined)
420 lb-ft

0-60mph
4.2sec

Top Speed
75mph (in EV mode)

Top Speed
155mph (limited)

Weight
3270 lb

Economy
approx 94mpg combined (TBC)

MSRP
$135700

2014 BMW i8 rear three quarter in motion Photo 31/106   |   2014 BMW i8
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By Greg Emmerson
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