BMW’s i8 hybrid

BMW’s new petrol-electric hybrid sportster is priced at a fraction of its competitors. Does it measure up? Simon de Burton takes it on a 150-mile blast through Californian canyons to pit its gusto against its green credentials

Image: BMW AG

To my mind, California car culture is about hot rods, dune buggies and rag‑top cruisers; The Beach Boys’ Little Deuce Coupe blasting out of a Motorola through the wound-down windows of a sun-faded Mustang; the gentle grumble of gas-guzzling V8 engines gliding along the boulevards.

It’s an image that prevails, but these days the Golden State has come to be just as well known as the heartland of the hybrid car, where Hollywood stars demonstrate their green credentials by quietly cruising the streets in low-emission vehicles brimming with technology developed in Silicon Valley. So it’s no wonder that BMW chose Los Angeles as the venue for the official drive launch of its i8, the petrol‑electric hybrid that is said by the German firm to represent “the future of the super car”. For once, the strapline is probably accurate – but it might be more so if “future” were to be prefixed by “short-term”, because it’s beginning to look pretty clear that the cutting-edge cars of 20 years hence (or maybe even sooner) will rely on battery power alone.

It is range, of course, that’s currently holding them back. But now that Elon Musk’s Palo Alto-based Tesla – which leads the way in electric-car design – has agreed to lift the lid on its tech secrets in an effort to advance the development and appeal of emission-free motoring, it seems alternatives such as hydrogen fuel cells, solar power and compressed air might fall by the wayside. But until the day comes when a family of four can jump into their electric car and confidently head out on a non-stop 400-mile journey without having “range anxiety”, the future of motoring does appear to lie in hybrid powertrains.

The wraparound dashboard
The wraparound dashboard | Image: BMW AG

BMW has already proved its commitment to electric cars with its rather brilliant i3 city hatchback, a more luxurious £30,680 alternative to other all-electric runabouts such as the Renault Zoe and Nissan Leaf.

The idea of the hybrid i8, however, is to provide sports-car looks and thrills with the efficiency and economy of electric motoring and the combustion-engine convenience of being able to drive as far as you wish. All of the above also applies to cars such as the Porsche 918 Spyder and the McLaren P1, but they cost from €781,155 and from £875,000 respectively – making the sub‑£100,000 i8 seem rather good value.

In fact, when you look at the technology that’s gone into the car it soon becomes apparent that the profit margin on an i8 is probably rather slim. A dedicated team of the firm’s top boffins worked solely on its creation for 38 months, coming up with a rather futuristic-looking two-plus-two sportster that combines an ultra-rigid carbon-fibre passenger cell with lightweight aluminium and magnesium underpinnings to provide the 50-50 weight distribution that is the holy grail of performance-car handling.

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And, to highlight the type of buyer at whom the car is aimed, BMW collaborated with Louis Vuitton to create a bespoke luggage set for the i8, which is also made from carbon fibre and tailored to the available load space. Comprising four pieces (two weekend bags, a garment holder and a “business cover”), the set costs a suitably exclusive £14,720 – slightly more than the aforementioned Renault Zoe.

Behind the i8’s cabin, meanwhile, is a neat, three‑cylinder, 1500cc, 231hp turbo-charged petrol engine, which drives the rear wheels. At the same time, hanging down low beneath the space that would ordinarily be called the “bonnet” is a small but potent electric motor. This powers the car’s front set of wheels. Used in purely electric “eDrive” mode, the i8 makes for a nippy cross-town commuter vehicle, which can travel distances of up to 23 miles on a single charge and achieve speeds as high as 75mph.

After that, there are “comfort”, “eco pro” and “sport” modes, which have varying combinations of petrol and electric power. These can offer motorists anything from ultra-economical long-range cruising to adrenaline-inducing high-speed driving.

The BMW i8 with its gullwing doors open.
The BMW i8 with its gullwing doors open. | Image: BMW AG

BMW claims the i8 will return the equivalent of 135 miles per gallon, which is decidedly impressive for a car that has a restricted top speed of 155mph. At least it would be impressive, were it not for the fact that the best fuel economy I could manage during a blast through the canyons was a far-from-frugal 40mpg, while the figure was actually well below 30mpg for the majority of my 150-mile drive.

The problem lies with the fact that the “official” numbers are produced under controlled conditions, not in “real-” driving. I don’t doubt that it would be possible to achieve the claimed 135mpg figure but, in order to do so, it would be necessary to make a lot of short, in-town journeys in all-electric mode, charging the batteries in between each stage. Because, once you’ve used up your 23-mile electric range, you’re back to running on good, old-fashioned petrol.

So, if you’re expecting to be able to enjoy sustained supercar performance for less than the cost of running a Fiat 500, think again. If, however, you decide to buy an i8 on the basis that it is the most advanced and affordable car of its type available and that it offers a superb driving experience, then you won’t be disappointed.

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Its versatility in having the capacity to transform from an emissions-free, all‑electric (short-range) commuter car to a pure driving machine with the flick of a switch is impressive. And, in full-on petrol mode, its synthesised exhaust note ensures it really sounds the part.

But perhaps the most exciting thing about the i8 is that it offers a massive leap towards the future in terms of hybrid sports-car technology. As such, it deserves to go down in history as an automotive landmark – even if it is likely to be overtaken soon.

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