2015 BMW i8 Review

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The 2015 BMW i8 is a ground-breaking new sports coupe with a plug-in hybrid powertrain that delivers several driving personalities from which the driver can choose.

There is absolutely no way to drive the 2015 BMW i8 without attracting attention everywhere you go. You might as well show up in a Batmobile, given the crowds that gather to watch the striking "bird wing" doors pivot up and away, above the roof, to reveal which glamorous international celerity clambers out.

But the i8 is actually a sport coupe for a new age of efficiency. When's the last time such a stunning car came standard with a three-cylinder engine--and a charging cord to plug its electric components into the wall? The sleek and undeniably sexy two-seat sport coupe shape uses its classic design cues to draw attention to some unexpectedly cutting-edge technology. It's not your grandfather's imported coupe, that's for sure.

The BMW i8 is the second, the most alluring, and the priciest model from BMW's revolutionary "i" sub-brand. The goal of the "i" cars is nothing less to reinvent the automobile for a new and more energy-efficient world. That label first spawned the boxy i3 electric car, but whereas that hatchback is all about elegantly soothing and miminal city transport, the i8 is meant to respond to the need for "a new era of sustainable performance," according to BMW. Like that of the i3, the i8's body shell is made of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP), carried on an aluminum chassis that absorbs frontal crash energy and holds the powertrain.

The styling of the i8 has elements of traditional BMW, including the twin-kidney grilles at the front, but it also introduces elements unique to the BMW 'i' family. These include a groove between the upper and lower rear bodywork, wing-like fins at the rear, and blue trim accents. The 'i' cars also have unusually tall wheels and tires (20-inch wheels are standard on the i8) to cut aerodynamic drag by narrowing the area of the tire between the car's underside and the ground..

Inside, the floating instrument pod and ultra-modern--almost Scandinavian--design are simple, but made of unusual materials including reclaimed wood veneer and fabrics using recycled fiber content. The driver and passenger sit low, as in any sports car, with the tall tunnel for the battery pack between them. The highly contoured lightweight seats proved comfortable for most occupants, though we'll be curious to learn whether that's the case over longer trips.

The powertrain of the BMW i8 actually consists of two separate power sources. Up front, an electric motor powers the front wheels, and at the rear, a high-output turbocharged three-cylinder drives the rear wheels. The combination gives the i8 the ability to run solely on electricity, as a sporty hybrid, or with both operating together for maximum performance. The independently operable pair of powertrains makes the BMW i8 what engineers term a "through-the-road" hybrid, with each mode of propulsion coordinated not mechanically but via control software when they are used together for all-wheel drive and maximum performance.

The electric motor up front is rated at 96 kilowatts (131 horsepower) and 184 lb-ft of torque; it's used for all-electric running at speeds up to 75 mph. The energy comes from a liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery pack with a usable energy capacity of about 5 kilowatt-hours, mounted in the tunnel between the seats, giving the entire car a low, sleek profile.

In the rear, the i8 is the first BMW to use the company''s new 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder engine, rated at 231 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. (It's also used in the new third-generation MINI Cooper, in a lower state of tune.) The engine drives the rear wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission.

BMW quotes an electric range of up to 22 miles in "Max Emode", but the electric motor also provides "boost" to the engine when the car is running in its highest-performance "Sport" mode. The default mode, known as comfort, uses each powertrain or both in a more efficient manner, and the EPA rates the i8's total combined range between the charged battery and the gasoline tank at 330 miles. In addition to the three driving modes--Max E-Mode, Comfort, and Sport--the first two can be driven using the EcoPro function, which increase efficiency and range by capping acceleration and other energy uses.

The EPA rates the i8's electric range at 15 miles, and gives it a rating of 76 MPGe, or miles per gallon equivalent when running electrically. MPGe measures the distance that a car can travel on the same amount of energy as that contained in 1 gallon of gasoline. When running as a gasoline hybrid, the BMW i8 gets a fuel efficiency rating of 28 mpg--decent for a high-performance sport coupe, but lower than comparable ratings for more pedestrian plug-in hybrid sedans and hatchbacks.

Whether buyers of six-figure sports coupes really prioritize fuel efficiency and sustainability is open to question. Clearly the BMW i8's light weight, advanced powertrain, and innovative materials will make it a technology icon. But after driving a prototype in April 2014, we are more inclined to view it as a sports car that's comfortable in the role of a touring car rather than as a track racer. Which is not to say that BMW doesn't have plans up its sleeve for even higher-performance models.

The very first (2014) BMW i8 models were delivered in August 2014, and 2015s are now on sale. The base price is $135,700, which includes the mandatory delivery fee, and options can add $10,000 or more depending on how heavy-handed the buyer is on the specifications sheet. Among the features offered on BMW i8 cars in some markets are the world's first laser headlights--where they're legally permitted--with LED headlights fitted elsewhere.

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