THIS shapely, scissor-winged, plug-in hybrid coupe was the most divisive Wheels C OTY 2016 contender of all. There were judges who loved the way the i8 drove every bit as much as its concept-car looks. And there were some unconvinced by the BMW, arguing that its performance and handling failed to keep the promise made by its sensational styling.
Few cars have made the journey from show stand to showroom so successfully as the i8. There are countless detail differences between the Vision Efficient Dynamics concept unveiled in Frankfurt in 2009 and the production-ready i8 revealed in the same place four years later, but the visual drama was little diluted in the process.
BMW also remained reasonably faithful to the broad technical detail of the Vision concept. Its centre section is a carbonfibre cell, with aluminium subframes bolted on fore and aft to serve as mounting points for the suspension and steering, and to cradle drivetrain components. Behind the passenger compartment is a three-cylinder 1.5-litre turbo. It’s from BMW’s modular engine family, but boosted to produce a hefty 170kW. It drives the rear wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission.
Up front, and driving the front wheels, is a 96kW electric motor. This is identical to that used in last year’s COTY-winning i3, save for a reduction in power and the addition of a two-speed transmission.
The i8 can run in three different driverselectable modes. In eDrive it’s a front-drive electric car, drawing on energy stored in a 5kWh usable-capacity lithium-ion battery pack located in the cabin’s central tunnel. Once this is used up – around 35km is the claimed range – the i8 switches to Comfort mode, an odd name for what is effectively hybrid operation, where internal combustion and electric power are blended.
Nudging the gear lever to the left engages Sport mode, where the internal-combustion engine runs full-time and performance is maximised.
Judges who tried it were impressed by eDrive.
Low gear in the electric motor’s two-speeder is automatically selected in this mode. There’s strong acceleration, but top speed is limited to 120km/h, making it well suited for city and suburban driving.
But from this point, opinions diverge… Some judges were critical of the way the i8 launched from rest in Sport mode. The slight delay in response to wide-open throttle wasn’t acceptable.
The same judges were equally harsh in their dismissal of the BMW’s performance as inadequate.
There were also grumbles over the finesse of transitions between engine and electric power in so-called Comfort mode.
Other judges were smitten by the sound of the turbo triple when working hard in Sport mode.
They also liked the flavour of the i8’s performance in this mode, with the hybrid system’s full 266kW and 570Nm on tap. Several praised the surprising strength of the BMW’s electric-boosted uphill acceleration in sixth gear. Driven with verve during the road loops, which meant no time to replenish the battery between times, the 9.5L/100km consumption of the i8 highlighted the efficiency.
There was something approaching consensus on the i8’s dynamics. The BMW’s ride impressed most judges. This would-be supercar is more supple than the X1 or the 2 Series Active Tourer. While the i8 has no handling vices, it lacks on-limit adjustability.
It’s either neutral, or understeering. Though accurate and consistently weighted, the steering’s lightness also annoyed.
While the driving position is excellent, getting there isn’t easy. The broad sills of the carbonfibre passenger cell are an obstacle and those scissor doors add theatre, but could be hard to live with.
The i8’s interior also lacks the eco-emphasising finishes and flair of the much less expensive i3.
Plus, the pair of rear seats are almost useless and the cargo compartment is tiny.
The exotic core of the i8 goes some way to justifying its sky-high price. But the car also lacks equipment that $300,000 should buy. Although the BMW is fitted with sufficient passive safety – six airbags, for example – it lacks an autonomous emergency braking system. When sub-$20,000 cars are including this tech as standard, this is a startling omission in a star car from a premium brand. On this point, at least, there was agreement.
The way the i8 split the judging panel on key points like function, practicality and value was fatal. Without broad support it’s simply impossible for a car to make it to COTY’s closing stage.
Type 2-door coupe, 2+2 seats Boot capacity 154 litres Weight 1560kg
Layout mid-engine (east-west) + front-mounted electric motor, AWD Engine 1499cc 3cyl turbo (170kW/320Nm) Motor Hybrid synchronous (96kW/250Nm) Combined system outputs 266kW/570Nm Transmission 6-speed automatic
Tyres 215/45R20 (f), 245/40R20 (r) ADR81 fuel consumption 2.1L/100km CO2 emissions 49g/km Collision mitigation .
Crash rating not tested Price $299,000
The i8 is assembled in the same Leipzig plant as the i3 (and several conventional BMW 1 and 2 Series models), but it’s something of an international effort. Its turbocharged three-cylinder engine is manufactured by BMW-owned Mini in the UK, the carbon fibres used to make its central cell are produced in the USA, while Korean company Samsung supplies the cells for its battery pack. But the plug-in hybrid’s electric motor, which is almost identical to that used in the i3, is all BMW’s own work.