Amazing technology and feel-good ambience
Back to the i8, which in this broader context looks more and more like a halo vehicle that had to be made to prove a point. Most people need more practicality from their cars despite the 2+2 aspect of the i8 (the tiny back seats offering welcome extra storage, much as in a Porsche 911) so when it comes to spending money they’re going to increasingly turn to even newer but less flashy iPerformance BMWs.
Neither should we forget the city-brilliant and highway capable i3, perhaps the real bargain here for its combination of amazing technology and feel-good ambience.
The i8 stands above and apart from all such considerations because of the brightness of the solar orange externals and batmobile styling, but if anything it is better, at a deeper level, than those elements are liable to convey. So in the face of steep depreciation the i8 is already well on its way to becoming a used ‘bargain’. We didn’t anticipate saying that but there it is.
It’s better even than it looks but liable to be misunderstood for the same reasons. You know the Maserati marketing campaign currently doing the rounds, ‘the head says yes, the heart says, definitely, yes’? In our view that applies more than anything else we can think of to the BMW i8, because of the way it combines supercar panache with buttons running costs and taxes.
- P11D value: £106,255
- BIK rate: 9%
- 362hp electric + 1.5 petrol turbo/6-speed auto AWD
- CO2 emissions: 49g/km
- Performance: 4.4sec/155mph
- BIK rate: 9%
WE reviewed BMW’s wow-generating plug-in hybrid supercar, the i8, when it was spanking new in mid-2014, and did so on the basis of the briefest of driving acquaintances – the car being in such enormous demand – see our BMW i8 review.
Back then, there was a waiting list in the UK of over nine months and some cars were being flipped in the marketplace for tens of thousands of pounds over list.
Three years later, we’ve enjoyed the car over a whole week and settled our views about what it is, what is isn’t, and how it’s aging against the backdrop of an industry that’s evolving more rapidly than at any time since the dawn of the motorcar.
First of all, the hype has evaporated somewhat and the i8 has suffered its share of depreciation. Even since we began penning this review prices have come down a bit more, the cheapest for sale in the UK currently a 2015 model (so not the earliest) with 49,000 miles costing £57,990 – a £42k hit to list in just 18 months. There are well over 60 others on the block, some flagging ‘price reduced.’ We’ll come back to that.
Still fresh three years on
Our 2017 BMW i8 review car, which came in a ‘look-at-me’ shade of solar orange, got enormous levels of attention.
A gaggle of kids while it was backed down ramps from the spotless lorry that delivered it; thumbs up from white van man; questions about ‘what is it’ from motorists, during the sole fuel stop we made in a week’s heavy mileage.
In this regard the car not only seems completely fresh, but also rare and comparatively unknown. The dihedral doors, which are less obstructive in practice than critics said they might be, scream ‘supercar’ like Lamborghinis of old. In industry terms the car’s styling remains cutting edge, and even the best supercar makers are still catching up.
Check out the ‘double skin’ doors on McLaren’s just-revealed new 720S. That sort of styling made its earliest appearance on the BMW i8, with its fabulous trailing flying buttresses, the sort of exo-skeleton look that is rapidly becoming standard fare for hypercars at price points far above the i8.
Aside from the hype, what exactly is this car, or as my mechanic acquaintance asked more pertinently, who is it for?
When I drove away for the first proper drive, my sub-conscious fear was that it would seem too clinical or contrived to have a soul, looks and character not being quite the same thing.
But despite whirring away on pure electric power, much like a Toyota Prius, the dihedral doors and ambience of the i8 performed its own magic, and as other users have reported, this ‘stealth’ mode is highly addictive on its own terms – and generates its own exotic sounds, reminiscent of a faint jet engine.
Only long after we’d sipped coffee and schlepped carefully up the motorway on cruise, did I shove the gearlever left into Sport mode. At this moment the four internal speakers intensify a growl from the 3-cylinder, 1.5 litre turbocharged, mid-mounted petrol engine, while the cockpit screen goes red. Damper settings harden and the paddle shifters behind the steering wheel come alive.
The car feels like 0-62mph in 4.5 seconds – very fast in other words – and sounds brilliant even though you know that the sound is being ‘managed’. Better is to come, with down shifts accompanied by taut, brilliantly athletic throttle blips that flatter the driver and create real theatre.
Having showed all this off to some friends, one of whom has a deposit down on the forthcoming Tesla Model 3, I wondered if the initial fizz would flop (the friend is also considering whether to proceed with his Tesla, the time elapse from placing a deposit to taking delivery widening by the month) – leaving me with a relatively wide, microscopically-booted car and a sense that as a private owner of a BMW i8 I would be among others who part-ex it for something else after a short tenure.
That brings me back to my mechanic, who noted with characteristic bluntness that if he had £100k to spend on a posh car he wouldn’t be preoccupied with saving the planet. Perhaps he’d buy an Audi R8 or a Porsche 911, or indeed lots of competitors – at this price point the air is thinning out but there is no shortage of choice.
A car that grows on you
Oh, and another thing, he noted: it’s so stiff that ‘comfort mode’ doesn’t deliver. In this car you feel every single dimple in the road, faithfully transmitted back to driver and passenger alike via the carbon fibre tub in which you sit.
Yet, and this is the benefit of a long period of time with a car rather than one drive, the car grew on me.
I drove my mum across the Lambourn Downs at night, having been told categorically not to go fast. The laser headlamps are fantastic and cast a bluey light; the car is mesmerizingly precise and well-mannered at lower speeds, with harsh ridges and individual pot holes brilliantly absorbed despite the constant chatter of a British road. I found myself toggling between sport and auto settings, enjoying the control and sound of one and the electric-drive ‘peace-whoosh’ dividend of the other.
Like no other car this one has a Jekyll and Hyde split personality. It can be savage or it can be relaxing. The fact that it can so convincingly be both means that it could really be your principal car, the icing on the cake being that it need never be plugged in yet still return an average of 45mpg (ours did over nearly 400 miles).
Drive it in sport mode and the battery regenerates impressively from the capture of braking and coasting energy. We were able to go from almost-zero battery to an 11-mile electric-only range just by enjoying the sport setting for a while. This allows you to then drive gently in Eco-Pro mode, at which point fuel consumption is so vastly reduced that it’s impossible not to feel smug. We had to fill the (small) 42-litre tank with petrol just once despite a packed week of enthusiastic driving in and out of London.
In this regard, to come back to McLaren, BMW remains well ahead. McLaren’s new 720S (which costs more than twice as much as an i8) has no electric drivetrain element even though the company will increasingly move into electric propulsion.
BMW, by contrast, began intensive research into electric-drive and carbon fibre production two decades ago, with suppliers such as GKN and Dow Chemical, and the way they have achieved a management solution between the petrol engine and the two-speed, proprietary electric motor, speaks for itself in the real world. In our original review, we wrote:
“The i8 can do 50-70 mph in 3.3 seconds in fifth gear, something you’d be wringing the neck of the Porsche to achieve in second gear. In other words, it feels very fast, but also, crucially, differently fast.”
We were reminded of this throughout our week with the i8, and in the immediate afterglow of the Geneva Motorshow – see No future for diesel in electric revolution – where so many other car makers are now rushing into the same hybrid space, linking petrol and electric at the expense of diesel.
Frustrations of charging eco-system
The one thing unchanged in three years (in the UK at least, if not Norway) and an evident source of frustration to BMW is the charging eco-system. Despite having off-street parking in London, itself unusual, the regular plug cable we were supplied with wouldn’t stretch to a plug. And no, you don’t use a domestic extension lead.
Having psyched myself up to take the car over to the nearest charge point, pre-rush hour and a mile away, I found to my frustration that the fast charge connector fitted but the charge provider, SourceLondon, wasn’t part of the ChargeNow network BMW is affiliated to. All of this when there are vanishingly few charge points even in London. So in our whole week with the i8 it never got charged once. It’s just as well that the car helps itself with regenerative braking.
We spoke to BMW senior vice-president for product and brand, Hildegard Wortmann, and she reminded me that globally, the i8 out-sold Audi’s R8 by over a thousand units last year (a reminder perhaps that the UK is unusually Audi-tastic). We also talked about BMW’s recent news, that it has sold over 100,000 electric and plug-in hybrid cars since the i3 launched in very late 2013, and is on track to sell the same number in 2017.
Last year, BMW sold 29,000 i3s and i8s, but 33,000 iPerformance PHEV cars, which are ‘conventional’ BMW cars fitted out with hybrid drivetrains drawn essentially from the i8 – the iPerformance 2 Series Active Tourer, 3 Series/X5 and 7 Series.
Wortmann says they can’t make them fast enough, which rings true in the UK, where the SMMT reported EV and PHEV sales in Quarter 1 up 29.9% on the same period in 2016, with March recording a 31% uplift in alternatively fuelled cars.