- Stunning coupe looks
- Remarkable fuel efficiency
- Quiet all-electric running in town
- Sport Mode's electric boost
- Pricey for the performance
- Interior slightly plain
- Does the plug-in part matter?
- Low tax credit for small battery
The 2016 BMW i8 blends a stunning coupe design with a slew of advanced technology underneath; the plug-in hybrid powertrain, and its corresponding efficiency, may be all but irrelevant.
The 2016 BMW i8 attracts attention for its exterior looks, but the technical wizardry in the plug-in hybrid powertrain should turn heads just the same. It could be powered by coal and ground-up baby seals and it'd still be viewed with awe and admiration by the crowds that gather to watch the striking "bird wing" doors pivot up and away, rising well above the roof.
The running gear is very unique. When's the last time such a stunning coupe came with a charging cord to plug it into the wall? AND a three-cylinder engine? The classic design cues are merely there to point out that it's possible to blend energy efficiency with both style and performance. And that makes the i8 a car unlike any other.
Its mission is to respond to the need for "a new era of sustainable performance," BMW says. And its highest-tech features may be its construction, with a body shell made of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic that attaches to an aluminum chassis that absorbs crash energy and carries the powertrain. Then there's the battery pack, the electric motor, and the three-cylinder engine too.
As a design, the i8 includes a number of elements of traditional BMWs, including twin-kidney grilles at the front. But much of its style is owed to elements that are unique to the BMW "i" sub-brand. These include startling wing-like fins at the rear, blue trim accents, and a groove between the upper and lower rear bodywork. Like the i3, its smaller city-car counterpart in the "i" lineup, the i8 has unusually tall wheels and tires (20-inch wheels are standard) to reduce aerodynamic drag.
The interior is a blend of ultra-modern lines with some recognizable BMW bits from other cars. But they're executed in unusual materials that include reclaimed wood veneer and fabrics with recycled fiber content. Both front occupants sit low, with a floating instrument pod in front of the driver; the tall tunnel for the battery pack forms a large divider. We found the i8's highly contoured lightweight seats comfortable for most occupants, though we've not yet taken an i8 on an extended drive to see if that holds true over longer distances.
Then there's the powertrain, really two separate power sources, one per axle. At the rear, a high-output turbocharged three-cylinder drives the rear wheels, while an electric motor powers the front wheels, fed by the liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery pack with a usable energy capacity of about 5 kilowatt-hours. Because it's located between the seats, the entire car maintains a low, sleek profile.
The combination of engine and motor gives the i8 the ability to run solely on electricity, as a sporty hybrid, or with both operating together for maximum performance. It's known as a "through-the-road" hybrid, with each mode of propulsion coordinated via control software but not mechanically connected, even when they are used together for maximum performance or to provide all-wheel drive.
The i8 was the first BMW to use the company''s new 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder engine, rated at 228 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, powering the rear wheels through a 6-speed automatic transmission. The same engine is now found in a lower state of tune in the latest Mini Cooper line. The electric motor up front is rated at 96 kilowatts (131 hp) and 184 lb-ft of torque; it's used for all-electric running at speeds up to 75 mph.
The electric range of the i8 is rated at 15 miles by the EPA, though BMW says the Max E-Mode setting can give up to 22 miles. The motor also offers a sort of power boost to complement the engine torque, when the car is running in its highest-performance "Sport" mode. In addition to 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 default Comfort mode uses each powertrain or both in a more efficient manner, running essentially as a hybrid once the battery is depleted.
The EPA rates the i8's total combined range between the gas tank and a fully charged battery at 330 miles. And it gives the coupe a rating of 76 MPGe when running electrically. (MPGe, or miles per gallon equivalent, measures the distance a car can travel on the amount of energy contained in one 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.
The BMW i8 starts at more than $140,000, putting it into a rarefied sector of pricey two-seat performance cars. Options can add another $10,000 or more, depending on how heavy-handed the buyer is on the specifications sheet. For 2016, BMW has received federal approval to offer the world's first laser headlights as an optional replacement for the standard LED headlights. They're stunningly good, giving as close to a daylight spread of distance vision as we've ever seen in a car.
It's entirely unclear whether more than a handful of six-figures sport coupe buyers care about fuel efficiency and sustainability. The innovative materials, advanced technology, and light weight of the BMW i8 have already made it a high-tech icon. It's more of a sports car that's comfortable as a touring car than an all-out track racer. Which is not to say that BMW doesn't have plans up its sleeve for even higher-performance models. Meanwhile, we suspect the company will sell every one of them it can make.