Ninety-eight years old, BMW did not earn its hallowed status as builder of the ultimate driving machine by resting on any proverbial keister. Constant innovation has been necessary to remain at the forefront, and in recent years that has meant painstaking development of hydrogen, pure electric, Active Hybrid and sophisticated gas powertrains.
And now there is i.
i - A new BMW brand
Destined to be sold independently from the company's BMW and Mini brands, the i-Series lineup is now two deep, having arrived with the i3 city car that was launched around the Los Angeles Auto Show in late 2013. The 2015 i8 is the production embodiment of the BMW Vision concept car of the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show.
BMW chose car-crazed Los Angeles, California, for its i8 introduction due to the green lifestyle the state tries to promote, and, we think, for the paparazzi. More on them later.
The BMW i8 is a two-door, 2+2 plug-in hybrid sports car that's powered by a complex powertrain, the first element of which is a rear-mounted 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine. Using TwinPower turbocharging, this little engine most certainly could and does, to the tune of 231 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque. With the ability to make 154-horsepower per liter, it features the highest output-per-liter of any engine made by BMW.
The gasoline engine sends its power to the pavement through an Aisin six-speed automatic transmission.
The secondary powertrain component is a giant slot car motor front-mounted "eDrive" electric motor, which is slightly modified from the unit found in the BMW i3 to power the front wheels. In this application, it's coupled to a two-speed automatic transmission and makes an almost instantaneous 129 horsepower along with 184 lb-ft of torque. While eDrive operates for the most part in second gear, the additional first gear allows for rapid acceleration off the line with the added benefit of helping to negate the effects of turbo-lag that come from waiting for the 1.5-liter's turbocharger to spool up. This process works along with the i8's high voltage starter motor generator. With both power sources sending energy to the ground, the engines are wired in parallel rather than in series.
The last main component of the powertrain is the core-mounted, sealed and cooled 7.1 kWh high-voltage battery that resides in a stressed-member central core between driver and passenger in the car. Power from the batteries can push the i8 in eDrive mode up to 75 mph for a distance of 22 miles. Other drive modes include Comfort mode, the default intelligent Hybrid mode, Sport mode (which keeps the gas engine fired up at all times) and finally, EcoPro mode, with reduced electric loads for climate and heat functions. Standard Dynamic Damper Control is at work in all modes.
The i8 is an all-wheel-drive vehicle with the characteristics of BMW's other xDrive models, but with no drive shaft.
Looks like a million bucks, for less than $200,000
Aerodynamics is key in the design of the new i8, and according to BMW officials this is a design in which form clearly follows function. A rolling wind tunnel has allowed BMW to channel and sculpt virtually every surface to within an inch of its life for efficiencies. As a result, there are typical styling cues but they first had to be functional or else they weren't included.
Because of this edict, i models will have distinctive looks with no Hofmeister kink. Yes, it's gone.
BMW's traditional kidney grill openings were included for cooling, and there's huge hood vent for exhaust. Radiators are fed under the bumper to cool electronics, the electric motor and of course the battery pack. Efficient Dynamics flaps open to cool but close when cooling is not needed. In the front, Air Curtain vents send air over and around the front wheels, while additional air is channeled into the rear-mounted engine through rocker panel intakes. Instead of a severe wing, the rear of the i8 incorporates an integral Stream Flow Wing, which ideally flows into the bodywork for added stability at high speed.
The i8 is underpinned by BMW's "LifeDrive" architecture, which is based upon a carbon fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) life module. Designed to provide a safe haven for its occupants, it forms the core safety cell, which is mounted onto the chassis. Front and rear axle modules, along with a core battery chamber, form the bulk of the drivetrain. Most damage-susceptible parts are made of plastic, with aluminum panels making up the rest of the body components.
Compared with the wild exterior, the i8's cabin is much more familiar. Though the dashboard is futuristic, if you were unable to see logos you would still know it's a BMW. iDrive infotainment is here along with the "sore thumb" shifter and presents a very cohesive appearance that is consistent with the other high-end offerings from the roundel folks outside of Munich. A flat-bottomed steering wheel made us feel right at home and was quickly followed by the well-bolstered and sculpted seats, which kept us relaxed during our full driving days in Los Angeles. All vehicles are included with the BMW Professional Audio and Navigation systems. Space-wise, it feels just a touch wider than a 6-series Coupe.
And the rear seats? Forget 'em, unless you are looking for a place to stash a couple of Yorkshire terriers.
Behind the wheel
The i8 provided sports car performance from its plug-in hybrid powertrain. When combining the output of its two powerplants, the 3,285-pound i8 produces 357 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque. While we didn't set out our stopwatches to it, BMW told us to expect 0-60 mph in 4.2-seconds. Based on our experience, we'd say their estimate is a little on the conservative side.
We found the acceleration blistering, especially when you consider it was a product of a tiny three-cylinder turbo and a high voltage electric motor. The key is the brand's overboost function, which responds to a stomp on the accelerator by activating a kickdown effect and instantaneous throttle response. The two-speed front transmission shifts to first gear for immediate power, even while the large turbocharger is spooling up. Steering from the electric power steering system offered a typically spot-on BMW setup that provided feedback as to steering efforts and road conditions simultaneously. During exercises on the twisties above Mulholland Drive, we could feel the effects of the torque split tightening the turning radius by moving the i8's torque forward or rearward at up to a 100-percent split.
EPA mileage numbers have yet to be revealed, but under the EU cycle, they have achieved 94 mpg. BMW officials have told us to expect about 310-miles per tank of fuel, so unlike some all-electric models that require a battery charge that will take 3.5-hours (110-volts) or one-and-a-half hours on a 240-volt circuit, all you need is more go-go juice to keep driving.
Taking the scenic route
Our route had us tooling through areas ranging from Santa Monica, and the pier, to Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive. Normally, exotic cars are a dime-a-dozen in So-Cal, what with more Lamborghinis, Rollers, Bentleys and Ferraris per capita than any other city in the country. So it was especially amusing to see Paparazzi, who were camped in front of designer Bijan's boutique on Rodeo Drive, fall over themselves, run across medians and into the street to get a glimpse and a shot of our i8.
Leftlane's Bottom Line:
BMW reinvents the sportscar once again, this time converting the Vision concept car into reality via the i8 plug-in hybrid. Along the way, buyers will get a car looking like no other, available in (most likely) limited quantities, and for the content included, surprisingly priced right. Early adopters are advised to contact dealers yesterday.
2015 BMW i8 base price, $135,925.
Photo by Mark Elias.