Way before the BMW i8 rolled into showrooms, it flew in from deep space straight into BMW’s headquarters, did the ‘Transformers’ disguise, and let the Bavarian engineer’s do the rest. Hmm, overkill? Well, for those who peek at the futuristic i8 for the first time, I reckon it does cross their minds. Jokes apart, BMW did a great job of making their plug-in hybrid sports car nothing short of electrifying (drag coefficient of just 0.26). You could call it anything you want – sports car of the future, the car from the Sci-fi movie, has the future arrived in style? Be it what it may, this distinctive low-slung sports car has quite the road presence than anything else on the road today.
Reality check. BMW’s LifeDrive platform (specifically designed for BMW ‘i’ vehicles) supports a passenger compartment that is made of carbon-fibre-reinforced-plastic (CFRP). The advantage? Despite similar rigidity than rivals, CFRP is 50 per cent lighter than steel and 30 per cent lighter than aluminium. This, combined with the aluminium-intense chassis, drive system technology (electric motor/IC engine) and battery-pack helps the i8 tip the scales at just 1490kg.
Our testers drove the i8 in the city and out on the highway for a few days, and here’s what you need to know.
Having dawned on our largely fossil-fuelled automotive horizon in 2013, the i8 stunned the market with its electrifying demeanour back then. Fast forward to the present date, and this ‘looker’ continues to captivate with curves that only Steven Spielberg could arguably conceive. Let’s be clear here - there is no car that I have driven till date that generates as much attraction as the i8. And how could it be any different? Especially with that stunning Sci-fi stance.
All that drama is stirred by an ultra-sleek nose with piercing LED headlights surrounded by artistic curves, and a characteristic BMW kidney grille that’s richly highlighted in electric blue. The low-slung sweeping design is met with some scintillating C-pillar aerodynamics before ultimately ending up with a bug-shaped rear, complete with unique gloss-black/electric blue trim. And if that weren’t enough, just flip the scissor doors open for a few seconds, and an army of smartphones get drawn out by overwhelmed spectators.
Although bedazzled by the doors, I was confronted by a rather challenging ingress position. Frankly speaking, it took me more than a few tries to get used to it. But after being seated, you’ll be attracted by the sensational wrap-around dashboard design with a free-standing 8.8-inch touchscreen display, and the unconventional but eye-catching twin air-con vents at the passenger’s side (single vent in the centre). Even the snazzy digital instrument cluster does a chameleon act by changing colours as per the driving mode selected.
While ergonomics are spot-on, there are lots of soft touch points for the occupants too. Plus, quality along with fit and finish are undeniably on par with what we’ve come to expect of BMW. If we had to be picky, it’s difficult to digest the fact that this 3 crore treat gets only manually adjustable tilt/telescopic steering (not electric), and non-adjustable lumbar/lateral/thigh support!
Speaking of front seats - they are firmly cushioned with lots of contours and an appropriate amount of thigh support. While knee and head room are more than adequate, there’s ample lateral support on both the backrest and the seat squab to hold you in place for those corner attacks. However, the rather upright rear seats with limited legroom are a totally different ball-game. Practically speaking, they can only be occupied by children, or essentially those shopping bags and accessories that can’t fit into the otherwise cramped 154-litre boot.
On the features front, the i8 gets auto LED head lamps with rain sensors, 20-inch wheels and dynamic damper control. Then, there’s the two-zone auto air-con, ambient lighting, heated front seats, Harman Kardon 11-speaker music player, iDrive touch with navigation, and cruise control with braking function. Other specials include parking sensors (front/rear), 4-side top and side view cameras with object recognition, head-up display, eight airbags, ABS, cornering brake control and dynamic stability control with dynamic traction control.
BMW needed a compact powertrain, and hence, tuned the hell out of its 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol (from the Mini Cooper) which makes 231bhp/320Nm, before shoving it behind the passenger compartment. Sure, these aren’t the kind of figures that set anything racing in your pulse, but the additional thrust from the electric motor brings the figure up by another 131bhp and 250Nm. I don’t blame the total power figure of 361bhp for not even wetting a taste bud, but incidentally, it’s the overall torque of 570Nm that now looks intimidating.
While the combustion engine is responsible for spinning the rear wheels through a six-speed transmission, it also powers the generator to shunt electric juice back into lithium-ion battery. One that can also be charged by an electric wall socket. Furthermore, the electric motor works in liaison with the lithium-ion battery to drive the front wheels via a unique two-stage automatic transmission. As a user, the electric motor’s ‘synchronous’ and ‘reluctance’ tech means that power delivery is presented in a seamless and linear fashion.
Interestingly, unlike regular EVs where electric propulsion is limited to assist while getting off the mark or at low speeds, the i8’s electric motor’s power-boosting support aids the petrol motor even at higher speeds! The on-board electronics precisely unites the output from both power sources, keeping you shatteringly ignorant of the true twin-propulsion that’s actually occurring behind the scenes. In essence, BMW claims that the i8 is capable of despatching the 0-100kmph run in 4.4 seconds using the petrol-electric combo.
Behind the wheel, there’s the characteristic noiseless thrust from standstill, but almost instantaneously you realise that you’re traversing the tarmac faster than you think. The only giveaway here is the outrageous tyre roar. As it crosses the 2500/3000rpm mark, you momentarily sense the motor play catch-up by smoothly matching the rpms and now thrumming as your grip over the accelerator pedal tightens. Once past 4000rpm, the speakers insincerely flush exhaust notes into the cabin to give you some fake goose bumps. Although you just can’t get away from the fact that the i8 is a quick car, it still lacks the sheer drama of a staggeringly large engine with a deafening soundtrack (read Audi R8).
The drive and suspension settings can be altered through modes such as Comfort, Eco Pro and Sport mode. There’s also an e-Drive mode for pure-electric driving (up to 120kmph/35km range) with the option of choosing Comfort or Eco Pro here too. In ‘Comfort’, the drive offers just about enough performance with a good balance of fuel efficiency too. The gearbox shifts appropriately and makes the best of the power on tap. In Eco Pro though, the focus is essentially on efficiency and the system proficiently uses the twin power sources to spin the wheels.
As soon as one backs off the accelerator, the on-board computer chooses (based on the circumstance) whether it needs to recharge with the braking energy or free-wheel. BMW claims that a fully charged battery coupled with a tankful of petrol on the i8 can help it generate a range of over 500km. And before we digress, if all you wanted was maximum performance, ‘Sport’ is the way to go. The united response from the electric and gasoline motors gets a dose of steroids, and go on to offer a thrilling power output. The instrumentation gets possessed, and you notice that the lower gears hold on to crack the 6500rpm rev-limiter for sharper boosts. Even though gearshifts are actuated much quicker now, we think that using the paddle shifters lend the feeling of being in total control.
Armed with ‘Dynamic Damper Control’, these electronically operated dampers change their damping characteristics based on the driving mode that’s been selected. While the overall ride quality undeniably tilts towards being stiff, even the smallest of road irregularities can be felt within the cabin at slow speeds. It’s a given also due to the large-diameter 20-inch run-flat tyres with low profile. Pick up the pace, and you’ll instantly be glad with the flatter ride. However, there’s no running away from the underlying stiffness and harsh bumps can at times be jarring. Of course, slotting into Comfort or Eco Pro modes helps soften the ride marginally, but if you’re planning to drive spiritedly, sticking to ‘Sport’ works.
The i8’s light steering is precise enough to offer an easy drive when slotted into Comfort and Eco Pro, especially within city limits. However, when we were out on the highway or while going around bends, we consciously chose to stick to Sport mode since it offered much quicker responses and also added some heft to the steering. Nevertheless, it came as a surprise that the i8 (with all its sporty intent) rolled more than we imagined on tight bends. At that moment, there’s a tendency for the front tyres (215-section) to lose grip quicker than the rear ones (245-section). Like Deja-Vu, it effectively struck us that the i8 felt more comfortable in straight-line motion than attacking corners. Plus, a word a caution, the low ground clearance needs special attention while traversing high obstacles.
|Fuel||Hybrid (petrol + electric)|
|Engine Capacity||1499cc + electric motor|
|Max. Power (bhp@rpm)||361|
|Max. torque (Nm@rpm)||570|
|Gears||Six-Speed Auto + 2 Stage Auto|
|Fuel Capacity (in litres)||42|
|Tyre size||215/45 R20 (F), 245/40 R20 (R)|
|20-inch alloys with 215/45-section rubber up-front and 245/40 section at the rear||Yes|
|LED head lamps||Yes|
|ABS with corner brake control||Yes|
|Dynamic Damper Control||Yes|
|Dynamic Stability Control with Dynamic Traction Control||Yes|
|Cruise control with braking function||Yes|
|4-side top view and side view cameras with object recognition||Yes|
|Harman Kardon 11-speaker music player||Yes|
Let’s put two and two together. What goes against the BMW i8 is that some switchgear appears to have been shared with cheaper models - something a buyer who spends 2.95 crores (on-road Mumbai) wouldn’t appreciate. Something unique would have made a huge difference. Then there’s the low ground clearance, a challenging ingress, rear seats that can, at best, hold light luggage, and the otherwise cramped boot. It could have also been blessed with lesser roll, more grip, and a more spectacular output and exhaust note from a notoriously high-capacity powertrain.
The i8 does, however, make up for everything lost through outright performance and sheer attraction. By-standers go berserk after catching a glance of the i8 (especially with doors open), making a visit to a shrink essential to set things straight! Plus, if you have 3 crores to spare for a sports car that offers such an attitude and extravagance, we admit that the previous paragraph simply disappears… into thin air.
Pictures By Kapil Angane