REVIEW: BMW i8 (Plug-in Hybrid)

REVIEW: BMW i8 (Plug-in Hybrid)

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At first glance, the BMW i8 is a futuristic car that begs belief it was ever built. Exterior appearances aside, if you factor in carbon fibre construction, brand new innovative engine design and huge power from its twin powertrain and you have the makings of a car that could understandably sit alongside the current crop of hybrid hypercars from McLaren, Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini. However, first appearances can be deceptive and although the i8 looks every bit as capable as the aforementioned hyper cars, it is in fact a very different beast altogether.

History has a habit of repeating itself and BMW are no stranger to this. Often, it works well in their favour with the repetition of the name 5-Series being stamped to great effect on today’s car that bears little in common with the four decades old original. BMW last attempted a flagship coupé in the 1990’s when their 8-Series wedge took to the streets and took the fight to the established Italian sports car manufacturers. Perhaps unfairly, the Italians won and the 8-Series can now be obtained for precious little at a nearby used car dealer, whereas Italian rivals still command top money by comparison. The 8-Series was not a bad car, but it lacked what you might call something special. Sure, it looked great on the exterior, but the interior revealed a bland spat of buttons all over the centre console and much was borrowed from other BMW’s. This is no bad thing. BMW make some fantastic cars and their quality throughout the range is highly commendable. From the cheapest to the most expensive, the fit, finish and function of all the interior switchgear is excellent. So why reinvent the wheel? Why go to the added expense of making new switchgear that may not bring much improvement to the car? The reason is simple. Exclusivity. It was with some surprise then, that stepping into the i8 – a technical marvel over high sills and through a gull-wing type door – was very underwhelming. There were no laser guided buttons or levitating switches and instead everything felt very familiar. While very swoopy (a technical term), the dashboard houses the same sort of radio buttons, gear-stick, satnav screen (and software) window switches and many other items, just like you’d find in a 3-Series. As we mentioned before, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, it left us yearning for more. It left us wanting something out of the ordinary. Something that could match the technical ability of the cars’ hidden talents, lurking somewhere underneath the incredibly well concealed carbon fibre cell, but it wasn’t there. Instead, the i8 is like driving any other BMW, albeit lower and faster.

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However, the way it drives is what the car is all about. Driving through a Cotswold town revealed just how much of a head turner it is. The throaty 1.5 litre, three-cylinder turbo makes a noise and backfire crackle more akin to an engine three times its capacity. There are some who will be quick to inform you that the engine sound is fake and broadcast to the driver via interior speakers. They’re wrong. The engine noise is real, only amplified via the speakers, rather than faked. Think acoustic rather than electric guitar.

Steering is precise and comfortable as are all the rest of the controls. Driving the car was not unnerving or unfamiliar as might be said of a first drive in BMW’s i3. Instead, the cabin was a perfectly pleasant place to be and completely refined. The car left me wondering whether it really added much over a 6-Series coupé: Similar performance, similar comfort and similar interior space plus, as it is also a BMW, the same switchgear too! However, what makes the i8 special is by seeing it for what you cannot see. It is a carbon fibre hybrid sports car that has the ability to devour a track yet equally cosset its occupants at every level. Whether driving hard or gently plodding around a town, producing zero emissions for up to 20 miles, the i8 can do it all. It is the ultimate compromise and in more ways than one several cars integrated into a single body. It is for those who want cake and want to eat it too. It is a glimpse of what the future holds, not just for BMW but for other marques too and, we dare say, it is inexpensive considering it really is a giant leap forward compared to its immediate competition. History may have repeated itself in respect to the interior design, but this doesn’t detract from the overall package. One thing is sure, BMW are taking the plug-in market seriously and with the i3 and i8 they’ve set the bar very high.

The i8 then, is a head-turning super car on the outside and a practical everyday usable tool on the inside. Long journeys would be no doubt effortless and town driving is serene. Although the word ‘future’ is often over used, it isn’t here. The car is on sale today, but it might just represent the future of automobiles.

Specs at a Glance

Price (from): £99,845
0-62mph: 4.4 seconds
Top Speed: 155mph (limited)
Economy (official): 134.5mpg
Electric Range: 23 miles
CO2: 49g/km
Engine: Turbo 1,500cc, in-line 3-cylinder – 357hp
Electric Motor: 129hp (96kW)
Battery: Lithium-ion 7.1kWh
Charge port: 7-pin Mennekes type
Kerb Weight: 1,485kg
This article was first published in AutoVolt November 2014. Digital and print editions are available here. AutoVolt November 2014


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