BMW i8
BMW i8

BMW's i8

A technological marvel, this car helps the environment while delivering world-class performance and head-turning design.

When I was growing up, I loved the Back to the Future films—particularly the second one in which Doc and Marty traveled forward in time to 2015. The future looked amazing, especially because of the cars, which contrasted dramatically with what was on the road when the movie first appeared. Not to mention, they could fly and hover!

Cars haven’t turned out quite as the film foretold, but at least we have the BMW i8, which resembles nothing else on the market. Everywhere I drive it, heads turn. When it’s parked, people take photos and ask about it. Some express surprise that such a car is actually in production. Its butterfly doors often draw oohs and aahs, and comparisons to the DeLorean.

Opening those doors provides a sense of occasion every time, and seeing the unpainted carbon fiber around their frames affirms how special this car is. Lightweight and rigid carbon-fiber construction has been around for decades on Formula 1 race cars and the most exclusive supercars, but BMW’s all-electric i3 and hybrid i8 have finally brought carbon-fiber structures to the mass market. The skin is made of aluminum and thermoplastic.

The i8’s construction and drivetrain technology are similar to what you’ll find on the Porsche 918, Ferrari LaFerrari and McLaren P1, but the BMW starts at a relatively modest $136,500 and arguably has better styling. Yes, those other cars have much more power, but the i8’s power and wide torque band are enough to propel it from 0 to 60 in 4.2 seconds, and in real-world passing maneuvers at highway speeds, it is amazingly quick.

BMW kept the center of gravity extremely low, with the battery running down the middle of the aluminum chassis. The car weighs only 3,455 pounds, which allows the drivetrain to reach its full potential, rather than pulling around dead weight. Handling is sharp, thanks to quick-ratio electrically assisted steering and active suspension. Accurately placing the front end of the car in turns is easy, but there isn’t a lot of road feel through the steering wheel.

You can easily use the i8 as daily transportation, with its smooth, controlled ride, quiet and spacious interior, comfortable seats, fuel-sipping drivetrain and infotainment technology (BMW’s excellent iDrive system). The car’s “Departure Time” setting will automatically heat or cool the interior while it’s plugged in at a set time each day, ideally before your departure, thereby extending the electric range. (You can control this and other features with a smartphone app.) A head-up display on the windshield provides vital information—even satellite navigation directions—which helps keep your eyes on the road. Two small back seats can accommodate passengers, or more likely luggage, since the trunk is minuscule with only 4.7 cubic feet of capacity.

The plug-in hybrid drivetrain integrates a mid-mounted 1.5-liter turbocharged 3-cylinder gasoline engine that provides 228 hp, and 236 lb-ft of torque to the rear wheels, with an electric motor behind the front axle that delivers 129 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels, which combine to 357 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque. In the default Comfort Mode, the drivetrain seamlessly switches between full electric to working in tandem with the gasoline engine depending on driving conditions, or how much you put your right foot down.

You can charge the lithium-ion battery in 3.5 hours with a 120-volt charger, or 90 minutes using a 220-volt home-installed charger. A full charge offers about 20 miles of electric range, which might mean you use little fuel if you mostly drive just locally. The EPA estimates range at 330 miles and fuel economy at 76 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent, a rating used for electric and hybrid vehicles). On a trip where pre-charging wasn’t possible, I found fuel economy to be around 30 mpg in mixed conditions, including some usage of sport mode. Driving more consciously with a light foot should return better results.

An eDrive mode selects the electric motor to be used primarily unless you press the throttle pedal almost completely down, and then the gasoline engine provides a power boost. Electric mode feels like a magic-carpet ride and offers a whole new experience on a twisty road in near-silence. Power is more than adequate as long as you maintain momentum through corners, and the regenerative braking and coasting on frequent downhill stretches generated more capacity than I was actually using at times, even with three occupants in the car. Regeneration, or capturing of kinetic energy that would otherwise be lost, is accomplished by using the electric motor as an alternator driven by the front wheels while coasting, or more aggressively while braking as the motor uses its full generating ability to increase drag to slow the car.

The i8 has dual personalities, as moving the shifter into sport mode instantly turns this quiet, eco-friendly grand-tourer into a serious supercar. The gauge color changes from blue to orange, and the usual 0–100 percent power meter becomes a tachometer. Throttle response increases, electric steering assistance reduces, the active suspension stiffens, and valves open in the exhaust system to release a mean-sounding note. Synthetic engine sounds from the stereo system augment true exhaust sounds to add to the experience, and from the outside the engine noise suggests a small inline six with a healthy induction rush from the turbocharger.

The six-speed transmission attached to the gasoline engine holds gears longer before shifting up and downshifts more aggressively with racy throttle blips that ensure the drivetrain stays in its wide, torquey power band. Sport mode provides the additional benefit of charging the battery more readily, thanks to its aggressive use of off-throttle engine braking, which can add a few miles to the electric range meter in minutes.

Sport mode makes the i8 even more thrilling, but there are times when the suspension’s extra stiffness isn’t doing much besides jarring the occupants on bumps, and the transmission refuses to shift into sixth gear unless you force it to do so by using the steering-wheel-mounted manual paddles. It would be helpful to have a configurable drive mode between Comfort and Sport. I’d prefer the standard suspension dampening—which worked perfectly on all road surfaces—with the reduced steering assist of sport mode, and the ability to shift automatically into sixth gear.

I usually prefer to shift gears myself, but the i8 selects its own gears with two automatic transmissions, a two-speed for the electric motor and six-speed for the gasoline engine. In electric mode, switching between the two speeds was imperceptible, and the six speeds of the gasoline engine changed smoothly in Comfort mode, and quickly in Sport mode. I rarely felt the need to manually shift, unless I wanted to have fun with the automatic throttle blipping on downshifts.

BMW wanted to showcase its technology with the i8, but rather than building an ultra-exotic machine that obscurely laps the Nürburgring faster than any other, the company chose to develop a car that can be used practically every day, helps the environment, yet gives up nothing in terms of performance, and competes in cachet and exclusivity with models costing nearly 10 times as much.

This is a first-generation product, and considering how good it is, I can’t wait to find out what BMW does next. I see a bright future for eco-conscious car enthusiasts.