Review and road test of the BMW i8 Coupe (2014 - 2020)
THE I'S HAVE IT
By Jonathan Crouch
Forget everything you know about what a top sportscar should be - and start again. This is, after all, exactly what BMW did with this i8, which sold between 2014 and 2020. It's a plug-in petrol/electric hybrid supercar that runs silently on its battery in the morning commute, yet transforms itself into something like a Porsche 911 when you're in the mood. It also looks sensational, feels special and will slash your running costs to the bone.
In its period, BMW's revolutionary i8 was arguably the most interesting car of any on sale, possibly the cleverest and probably one of the most significant, not least in the way it democratised exclusive technology in its segment. Until the i8 arrived in mid-2014, plug-in petrol/electric hybrid sportscar motoring required the billionaires' budget needed for ownership of hypercars like the Porsche 918 Spyder, the La Ferrari and the mighty Mclaren P1. At a stroke, this BMW changed all of that, delivering an equally sophisticated taste of the future, but doing so for realistic Porsche 911 money.
The i8 set out to do nothing less than deliver the speed of a supercar with the running costs of a supermini thanks to a technological CV that even embarrassed the exotic models we've just mentioned. Under the skin lie two gearboxes, three electric motors and a sophisticated three cylinder turbo petrol engine, this boosted by a 200kg bank of hi-tech lithium-ion batteries and transmitting torque to the tarmac via a four wheel drive system. It's all clothed in a lightweight body fashioned from aluminium and the kind of carbon fibre-reinforced plastic you'd find in a Formula One racer. Here, in other words, is a machine that makes existing top petrol-powered sportscars look about as cutting edge as a video cassette recorder.
This was the second of the Bavarian maker's new-generation i-branded models and at launch, seemed at first glance more of a motorshow concept than a production reality. Indeed, for several years, that's exactly what it was, this design originally introduced badged as a 'Vision EfficientDynamics' prototype in 2009, before evolving into road-ready form and being displayed to the crowds at Frankfurt in 2011 just as a purpose-built Leipzig production line was being readied for an exclusive manufacturing run. The development care was crucial given the boundaries being broken here. This, after all, was the first car BMW had ever developed with Plug-in hybrid technology. The i8's mid-engined configuration was almost unique for the brand too, the company's M1 supercar from the late Seventies being the only other model the marque had ever made with such a layout. This then, was Munich's miracle, the Coupe model we're going to look at here joined by an open-topped Roadster body style in 2018. The i8 sold until 2020 - and wasn't replaced.
What You Get
It seems appropriate that such unique engineering should be so uniquely fashioned. Clearly futuristic, the i8 is every inch a BMW - and every inch a sportscar with its long wheelbase, short overhangs and solid stance. Even standing still, there's a sense of theatre here, with a riot of complex surface treatments, contrasting colours, sharp creases and scalloped sills.
Setting this coupe i8 apart from the equally arresting open-topped Spyder version of this design is the so-called 'stream flow' contour of the side window styling. It's intended to reflect the path of airflow between the falling roofline and the distinctive character crease that rises across the muscular wheelarch towards the lip of the rear spoiler. It's the doors you'll be talking about most though. Dihedral doors are rare enough in automotive design but these ones (only fitted to a Coupe i8) are particularly unique, fashioned from aluminium, carbonfibre and thermoplastic and so light and easy to use.
In the cabin, you'll find the styling as futuristic as it was outside, the curved, layered dash made up of overlapping three-dimensional segments and complemented by contrasting colours. You sit low on slender leather sports seats cocooned in a driver-focused cockpit dominated by two 8.8-inch screens. One of these should at least be familiar to the BMW faithful, a central iDrive infotainment display that rises from the centre of the dash and deals with all the things that don't directly concern the performance experience - like Navigation, the stereo system and the many 'ConnectedDrive' technology features this car borrows from its more conventional brand stablemates.
More arresting though, is the display you view through the grippy three-spoke wheel, a sci-fi-style layout which delivers range readings for fuel and battery power below two circular digital dials that change in colour depending on the driving mode you select. Of more importance perhaps, is the news that all-round visibility is much better than some rival sportscars provide, helped by a wide rear screen. Talking of the rear, the 2+2 cabin layout in the coupe means that, as in a 911 but in contrast to, say, an Aston Martin V8 Vantage or a Jaguar F-TYPE R, you get a couple of extra useful but rather upright chairs. And you may need them because, as with most mid-engined cars, the boot is pretty restricted in size - and can also get quite hot due to the proximity of the engine. The Coupe model's trunk is 154-litres in size - just about big enough for an airline carry-on bag and not much else.
What to Look For
Our owner survey did reveal one i8 owner with serious issues relating to drivetrain and overheating, probably related to a problem with the central controller (which is expensive to replace). Basically, if you have any sort of issue, it's likely to be expensive, so inspect carefully and obviously, insist on a fully stamped-up service history.
Apparently the fuel pressure sensor will fail in time, which is pricey to fix, but won't actually stop you driving. One owner's i8 had been at his dealer's for a lot for minor stuff, like fuel pressure sender, struts, wipers, and software - and the petrol motor blew up. One owner had to replace the fuel filler cap door; another had a 'coolant low warning' issue when there was plenty of coolant (traced to a sensor issue). Another owner got a 'Drivetrain cannot restart' error message and his car had to visit his dealer for four high voltage battery modules. If you're getting an older i8, try to get a warranty. The electric portion of the hybrid system electric motor, electronics and high voltage batteries was from new covered for 8 years/100k miles from BMW. Otherwise, it's just the usual things. Look for signs of interior damage and check the alloys for scratches and scuffs.
[based on a 2017 model i8 Coupe auto] Parts prices for an i8 can be expensive if it's a major mechanical item, so buy carefully. Consumables are OK though. For instance, we found front brake pads at around £193 for a set (and rear pads for around £60); and an oil filter would cost around £17.
On the Road
So, what's it like? It's hard to know exactly what to expect when you raise the dihedral driver's door, ease across the wide sill of the carbon-fibre passenger cell and settle yourself into the low, snug cockpit. You'll probably be expecting the drive experience to be rather different, a perception confirmed by the silence that follows a press of the start button. Instead of the V8 or flat six roar you expect from a super-sportscar of this kind, you're merely treated to a series of sci-fi-style bleeps and a distant whirr from the electric motor up-front. Star Trek-style graphics spring into life on the virtual instrument screen ahead of you and strange enviro-conscious jargon references 'eBoost', 'eDrive' and 'Charge' functionality.
Here, a tiny 1.5-litre three cylinder petrol powerplant borrowed from the MINI Cooper sits in mid-engined format behind the back seats, turbocharged to push its output up to 231bhp and there to drive the rear wheels via a 6-speed auto gearbox. Ahead of you meanwhile, a tiny 131bhp electric motor is there to work in concert with old fashioned fossil fuel, drawing charge from a high voltage lithium-ion battery to power the front wheels through its own dedicated two-speed auto transmission. Together, the two power sources develop a combined output of 362bhp and though that's a little less than the class norm, the hefty 570Nm torque output is more than enough to take up any slack, should you want to go 911 or Maserati-chasing.
Which you might well do. Snick the auto gearlever to its left hand 'Sport' setting and, as the dashboard graphics flash orange, the engine fires up if it hasn't already, chiming in with power to the rear wheels that supplants the torque already being developed by the electric motor for those at the front. The result is 4WD traction and some serious pep, 62mph from rest achievable in just 4.4s on the way to a maximum speed that must be reined in at 155mph. At the same time, that 'Sport' setting firms up the damping, weights up the steering and carefully tweaks the torque split for maximum entertainment. There's even an artificial roar that's piped in through the speakers - and actually sounds rather good.
Not quite so good is the steering. As we've said, it gets heavier when you switch to the 'Sport' setting, but even here there's less feel than you'd ideally want. That's a pity but it is at least appropriate for the other driving modes this car can offer. Click on the 'Drive Performance Control' rocker switch you'll find on top of the high centre console that houses all those battery cells and you'll be able to flip out of 'Sport' into either the laid-back 'Comfort' setting this car always starts off with or conceivably into a enviro-conscious 'ECO PRO' mode. To fix the car in permanent electric mode for as long as the cells hold out, you've to click on the provided 'eDrive' button, in which case pure electric driving is theoretically possible for up to 23 miles at speeds of up to 75mph.
Is this i8 as quick, as responsive or as ultimately satisfying as, say, an equivalent Porsche 911 or Mercedes-AMG GT? No it isn't. But it got closer to that benchmark than we ever thought it would. Closer than a car ever should that's more than twice as frugal and so much cleaner in emissions that it costs a fraction of the usual rate to tax. Here, BMW created what its customers wanted and showed the rest of the industry just how far behind it was in delivering the future of the sportscar.
Hybrid power may ultimately be the wrong direction for all our automotive futures, but like it or not, we've gone there, so let's have some fun on the way. The i8 brought us that - and much more besides. Nothing else we can think of in this segment from the 2014-2020 era is so striking, surprising and sensational as an i8 Coupe, yet this BMW is so ultimately sensible in what it sets out to offer. It was a landmark car: nothing more, nothing less. And an incredible achievement.
BMW i8 Coupe (2014 - 2020) review by Jonathan Crouch