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- Jaw-dropping design
- Remarkable fuel economy
- All-electric running capability
- Thundering Sport mode
- Pricey for the performance
- Interior straightforward, perhaps plain
- Owners may ignore plugging in
- Small battery gives small tax credit
The 2017 BMW i8 is a stunning coupe with gull-wing doors that hides a slew of advanced technology, though the design may render its energy-efficient plug-in hybrid powertrain all but irrelevant.
The 2017 BMW i8 two-seat coupe will draw crowds of gawkers for its exterior styling, which may obscure the importance of its plug-in hybrid powertrain and advanced structure. The onlookers taking selfies with its striking "bird wing" doors as they pivot up and away beyond the roof line ought to be equally admiring of BMW's technical wizardry. offered in three trim levels known as Mega World, Giga World, and Tera World, the i8 is a unique package of advanced technology and stunning design.
For 2017, the only change is the addition of a vivid Protonic Red edition, the first "hot" color added to the palette of white, grey, black, and other muted tones. This even-more-noticeable version of the i8 has accents in "Frozen Gray," specially polished silver wheels, and various trim embellishments that include red upholstery highlights, grey seat belts, and a few special-edition labels. For once, the "electrifying eye candy" phrase in the i8's marketing isn't much of a stretch.
It earns a 7.6 on our overall scale thanks to its stunning design and equally stunning fuel economy numbers. Comfort isn't the i8's first mission, and we're not in love with its sky-high price either. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
Styling and performance
From the front, the BMW i8's design has traditional twin-kidney grilles. But elements unique to the BMW "i" sub-brand provide most of its flair, including startling wing-esque fins at the rear, a distinct groove splitting the upper and lower rear bodywork, and bright blue trim accents in some colors. The 20-inch wheels and tires are a bit larger than most competitors, but give the i8 a taut look.
Inside, ultra-modern lines blend with more recognizable components and switches from other BMWs. Unusual materials include stylish reclaimed wood veneer and fabrics with recycled fiber content. Both front occupants sit low to the ground, with a floating instrument pod ahead of the driver; the two nominal rear seats are useless for anything but a backpack or two. We found the i8's highly contoured lightweight seats comfortable for most occupants, though the tall tunnel for the battery pack creates a large divider between them.
Design aside, it's the running gear and body construction that make the i8 unique. When's the last time such a stunning coupe came with a 3-cylinder engine? Or a charging cord to plug it into the wall? The stated mission is to respond to the world's need for "a new era of sustainable performance," BMW says. The most high-tech features may be the car's construction, in fact. The body shell is built of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic, and is attached to an aluminum rolling chassis that absorbs crash energy and carries the powertrain.
That powertrain comprises two separate pieces, one per axle. Up front, an electric motor powers the wheels, fed by a liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery pack with a usable energy capacity of about 5 kilowatt-hours. At the rear, a high-output turbocharged three-cylinder drives the rear wheels, making the i8 almost a mid-engine vehicle. It can 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.
BMW's 1.5-liter 3-cylinder engine is showing up in a variety of vehicles, mostly Minis, but the i8 had it first, and it still has the most powerful version. It's rated at 228 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, and it drives the rear wheels through a 6-speed automatic transmission. The front electric motor is rated at 96 kilowatts (131 hp) and 184 lb-ft of torque; it can power the car alone at speeds up to 75 mph.
The i8's all-electric range is among the lowest for plug-in hybrids, but while the EPA rates it at 15 miles, BMW says its Max E-Mode setting (which dials down the fun quotient) may provide up to 22 miles. On the other end of the scale, it provides a sort of boost that adds to engine torque in the high-performance Sport mode. Driving settings and modes abound, in fact: as well as three driving modesâ€”Max E-Mode, Comfort, and Sportâ€”an EcoPro function can be overlaid on the first two, raising energy efficiency and range by capping acceleration and other energy uses.
Comfort, safety, and features
The i8's default Comfort mode utilizes each powertrain individually or together in a more efficient manner, operating like a hybrid once the battery becomes depleted. When it runs as a gas-fueled hybrid, the i8 is rated at 28 mpg, which is good for a high-performance sporty coupe. The EPA says that the i8 scores 76 MPGe, the distance a vehicle can travel using the amount of energy in a single gallon of gasoline, when it's driven on purely electric power.
In day-to-day use, the i8 motors along quietly at urban speeds in all-electric mode. Head to the highway and, in Normal, it is an efficient hybrid. Select Sport mode and things get quicker and also louder as the i8 transforms into a proper sporting car capable of storming over hill s and around curves in a "supercar-light" fashion. It's best considered a touring car, though, and not a proper track car.
For 2017, the BMW i8 starts at over $140,000, including a mandatory $995 delivery and handling fee. That puts it into a rarefied sector of costly two-seat performance cars. Last year,BMW received full federal approval for its laser headlights, which are an extra-cost option over the standard LED units. They're stunningly effective and provide a nearly daylight-level illumination of the road ahead.
Do more than a small handful of buyers looking to drop six figures on a sporty car even care about fuel efficiency and sustainability? We think the BMW i8 would sell just as well if it were powered by coal. But its advanced technology, innovative materials, and light weight make it a high-tech icon. We suspect the company will sell every one of them it can make.