BMW i8 Coupé review (2017): A 21st-century supercar powered by hybrid tech

When you think of a hybrid vehicle, two distinct types of car come to mind. First, you have sensible, environmentally friendly cars that aim for efficiency; on the other, there are supercars that use petrol and electricity to, well, go as fast as possible.

In 2017, the latter group is actually larger that you might think. There's the reborn Honda NSX, the crazy McLaren P1 and sophisticated Porsche 918, plus the bonkers Ferrari Enzo – but the idea of a hybrid supercar was made truly popular by the BMW i8.

Designed to reverse the boring image created by vehicles like the Toyota Prius, the i8 project was meant to change our perception of hybrids and it’s still a halo product for the technology. 

But just how good is the i8 as an actual car to drive on real roads? Is it a marketing and engineering project, or is it a supercar with the same flair and emotion as something like a Porsche or a Ferrari? To find out, I drove a 2017 BMW i8 from London to Cheshire and Ascot, encountering motorways as well as country roads on the way. 

BMW i8 review: Design 

Even if you’re not a petrolhead, there are cars that’ll stay with you. Supercars such as the Ferrari Testarossa, Porsche 959 and Lamborghini Countach have always occupied a special place in my childhood memories, and the BMW i8 is the latest addition to that list. Simply put: it’s stunning.

With its shark-like nose, huge cooling vents, swept-back windscreen and a side profile straight from the designer’s sketchbook, the i8 looks like a concept car made real. The rear of the car has incredibly futuristic-looking lights and, when combined with enormous 20in alloy rims and its striking black and white colour scheme, it’s an arresting sight.

Parked beside normal cars, the BMW i8 looks as if it’s arrived from the future, and that’s even more impressive when you realise its rough design was first unveiled way back in 2009.

But it’s intricate, too. Every time you look at the car you’ll notice new details, from the carbon fibre around the door seals, to the aerodynamic channels that scythe through the bodywork and run into the rear lights. Also, the i8 has butterfly doors, which open out and upwards. It's so dramatic, so futuristic, that for the car's mid-cycle "LCI" facelift, unveiled in late 2017 BMW felt the need to change very little. A new air shutter on the bonnet, slightly squarer bulbs within the headlights and new wheels were all that were introduced, leaving the car's supercar looks firmly in place. The new E-Copper colour, though, is very fetching indeed.

BMW i8 review: Interior

The i8 might look like a Blade Runner prop from the outside but open the butterfly doors to get in and it’s a bit, well, boring. The i8 might be bespoke and handcrafted on the outside, but parts of the i8’s interior seem like a list of BMW's greatest hits, with a lot of the switchgear looking as if it’s been borrowed from elsewhere in the range. Saying that, at night, the interior is bathed in a gorgeous electric blue glow, which does make it feel a bit like something out of Star Trek.

The BMW i8’s infotainment system was beginning to show its age, but with the new ID6 system in the facelifted model, it's greatly improved. There’s still no touchscreen here but the new tile-based UI is much better than before and there's Apple CarPlay integration as well.

Because the i8 is a hybrid, it also has a ridiculously complex key that lets you check, remotely, everything from the range to door status. Not only does it have a small LCD screen, but you also have to charge it every so often, too. I hardly ever used it and, although it came in handy once or twice, I’d have thought a smartphone app would be a much simpler alternative.

How does the BMW i8 work?

The i8 isn’t just known for its looks, it’s also famous for the unique way it’s powered. The BMW i8 is a plug-in hybrid, which means it uses both electric and petrol power sources, and the batteries can be charged at most EV charging stations.

For a supercar, the i8 has a pretty disappointing engine. Sure, it’s turbocharged and mounted in the middle of the car but it’s also a 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine, only capable of delivering 220hp to the rear wheels. That doesn't sound like much, and that’s because it really isn’t; it’s the sort of engine you’d expect to see in a fairly speedy hatchback, not a car with supercar pretensions.

But because the i8 is a hybrid, its combustion engine is only half of the equation. Just above the front axle, BMW has also shoehorned a 96kW electric motor capable of producing 129hp. Powered by a 7.1kWh lithium-ion battery that runs down the middle of the car, the electric motor powers the front wheels, and usually works in conjunction with the petrol engine.

 

Press the EV mode only button and you can use electric power alone if you really want, but you won’t get very far; its range in this mode is a mere 33 miles in the facelifted i8, which is a notable improvement on the original's 23 miles. That's still not much, but it does cover a wider range of commuting scenarios.

However, it’s the relationship between the petrol engine and motor that’s most interesting. The i8 is always working behind the scenes, managing the power produced by the combustion engine and electric motor so that it’s efficient when you’re driving around town and puts the power down when you’re out on the open road. If you’re distrustful of letting the car make these kinds of decisions for you, though, you can always switch the car into Sport mode and the engine’s 231hp (374bhp in combination with the electric motor) will always be at your disposal.

There are other things going on here as well. When you coast, the electric motor becomes a generator that charges the i8’s batteries and, when you brake, the i8 reclaims wasted energy then, too. There’s also the option of charging it by plugging in at the wall, of course, but it’s really not worth the hassle. Fast-charging for 30 minutes only boosted battery capacity by 25%; it’s much easier to put the car in Sport mode as this uses the engine to charge the battery as you drive.

BMW i8 review: Drive

When a car is so famous for its technology, it’s easy to dismiss the feel or general excitement of it. There are hundreds of paragraphs about how this car works all over the internet and, before I drove the i8, I feared it might not be as exhilarating or involving as other supercars. Happily, I was miles off.

As soon as you get in the car, pull the door down and fire it up, all technical details about energy recovery and hybrid technology fade away and you realise you’re in a thoroughbred sports car. The BMW i8 can hit 62mph in just 4.4 seconds, it tops 155mph and, because it uses a high-torque electric motor and petrol engine together, it gets there like nothing else on the road. When both powerplants are engaged, the i8 is basically a four-wheel-drive car and the traction on launch is ridiculous. 

But it’s not just fast in a straight line – it handles incredibly well, too. When you’re in Sport mode with both power sources engaged, the bucket seats hold you in, and the steering is accurate and responsive. The car just does whatever you want it to.

The car’s athletic stance and nimble handling make you feel connected to the tarmac like you’re in a go-kart, and the car’s energy-use dials and HUD make the i8 feel like a fighter jet for the road. 

Yes, some of the engine noise is artificial but it’s the other whines and whistles that make the i8 special. You hear the electric motor whirring when you dive into corners, you hear it whining when you brake hard, and you see the energy being recovered on the dials in front of you. You’re aware of the car’s regenerative systems pulling the car back slightly when you lift off the power, and you can see the heat-haze from the vent that cools the i8’s electric motor.

Yet on the motorway, the i8 transforms and it’s pretty eventful – in a good way. I drove the car from London to Ascot, Cheshire and back again and, after engaging the cruise control and the efficiency-focused Eco Pro mode, driving wasn’t particularly involved or stressful – and the ride was almost comfortable. Of course, the power was still there when I wanted to overtake, but the i8 was like any other road car, just lower to the ground and more expensive.

BMW i8 review: Verdict

There are rumours BMW makes a huge loss for every i8 it sells, and after driving the car for myself I can believe that. There’s no way something this complicated or precise is “just” £112,735 to make, so why is BMW making it at all?

It’s not even all that practical: the fuel tank is too small, the boot is ridiculous, and there’s no real need to charge the i8 anyway. Somehow, though, the BMW i8 makes sense. Simply put, it’s an astonishing argument for hybrid technology and it fulfils BMW’s mission: to show how exciting it can be.

You expect a car this advanced to be soulless, but the whine and roar of the i8’s hybrid powertrain make the i8 feel more alive, vibrant and connected to you than a conventional supercar. And when that cutting-edge tech is combined with space-age styling and precise handling, the result is one of the most impressive vehicles on the road.

BMW i8 review: Pricing

Since this review was written, a new model has been added to the BMW i8 range - the i8 Roadster - the pricing has changed and the Coupe has been facelifted very slightly, too. The BMW i8 Coupe is now available from £112,735, has a bigger battery and updated infotainment system, while the i8 Roadster will set you back £124,000. Carpo trim is included as standard, but there are two additional trims to choose from Halo and Accaro.

The Halo option costs a further £2,150 and features tan leather and a brown steering wheel, while Accaro, which is characterised by its loud "E-Copper" leather, is priced at £2,750. With both Halo and Accro, you also get Anthracite headlining, albeit only on the Coupe model. If you want a carbon fibre dashboard inlay, central console, and door handles, this an additional option and costs a further £1,600.

 

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