BMW i8 — Hybrid supercar

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The BMW i8 puts the company's advanced hybrid technology on public display in a drop-dead gorgeous supercar that has onlookers marveling at its beauty. The i8, indeed, puts a new and exotic spin on the hybrid vehicle with its swooping lines, protruding quarter panels, a buttress that forms behind the C-pillar, and the so-called scissor-wing doors that swing up and out from the A-pillars.

But on paper the plug-in hybrid i8 may have you questioning its supercar designation — it's rear drive powered by a 1.5-liter turbocharged 3-cylinder gas engine (yes, you read that right); and placed forward providing power for the front wheels is a 96-kW electric motor that draws from a water-cooled 5.0-kWh lithium-ion battery pack lying low in the chassis. This is not the stuff top-line10-and-12 cylinder supercars are made of, yet the i8 could well be the future of supercars.
Working in harmony, they produce a prodigious 357 horsepower and 420 lb.-ft. of torque — 228 horsepower from the gas engine and 129 horsepower from the electric motor.

Much like a traditional hybrid, a high-voltage starter/generator attached to the gas engine does double duty by feeding power back into the batteries. Two transmissions work together seamlessly to make the car's high performance work smoothly — a conventional six-speed automatic is hooked to the rear wheels and a two-speed transmission pushes the front. Mileage is rated at 76 MPGe with a combination of electricity and gas, and 28 mpg combined on the gas engine alone.

There are two basic settings — Comfort and EcoPro. Comfort is the default, while EcoPro stretches the battery charge a bit by using less energy for air conditioning and heating systems. We found the Comfort works quite well as the default. While the power distribution is constantly shuffled between the axles, you can plan on strictly EV operation only when the batteries have a full charge up to 75 miles-per-hour. Step into it and you’ll hear the gas engine come to life. You can also manually engage EV-mode. The government rates the range at about 22 miles. After you've used that up you've got about a 300- mile range remaining on the hybrid drivetrain.

If you want to get the true supercar feeling slide the shifter to the left and enter Sport mode, then use the paddle shifters to manually go through the gears. After our initial orientation into the world of cutting-edge hybrid technology, we just automatically shifted into Sport mode on every trip. That's where the fun is.

You get the best of both world's in Sport. BMW claims that when in Sport mode, every mile you drive adds one mile of EV-range. And driving in Sport mode with pedal to the metal, results in a 0-to-60 run in a scant 4.2 seconds. You can have your fun and recharge the batteries at the same time.

The i8 handles like a supercar on the road, holding the line on curves like a slot car due to the car's balanced weight and low center of gravity. And the sensation of speed is perhaps amplified because of the extremely low seating position. Unlike many hybrids, braking is predictable without an artificial feel.

Inside, it has a rotary dial for most of the controls, a rear-view camera, and blind spot monitors, which are extremely necessary because of the huge back pillar. The list of standard electronics includes a head-up instrument display, navigation, BMW's iDrive electronics interface (with an 8.8-inch central display screen), Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, and an 11-speaker Harman Kardon audio system with a USB port, satellite radio and HD radio.

There is a back seat, but it's not for human habitation. Luckily it's there for storage as the rear trunk is severely limited at 5.4 cubic feet. The front end belongs to the electric motor and a sign inside the car indicates the hood can only be opened by a trained BMW technician.

The big problem with the i8 is getting in and out. Because of the scissor doors and high sill, it can be a challenge. For those of advanced age, beware! We accomplished the chore by sitting on the sill and swinging in the right leg then falling into the seat, and then pull the left leg into the car, all while ducking under the bottom edge of the door.

Like all supercars, the i8 does comes with a rather steep price. Base is $144,395. There are options available and our test car came with 20-inch light alloy wheels, laser lights — which are considerably brighter than all other available headlights — and special wood trim raising the bottom line to $152,695.

Base price: $144,395; as driven, $152,695
Engine: 1.5-liter turbocharged, 3-cylinder; electric motor
Horsepower:  357 @ 5,800 rpm
Torque: 420 pound-feet
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: all-wheel
Seating: 2/2
Wheelbase: 110.2 inches
Length: 184.9 inches
Curb weight: 3,455 pounds
Turning circle: 40.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 4.7 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 11.1 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: MPGe, 28 mpg gas
0-60: 4.2 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Acura NSX, Audi R8

The Good
• Head-turning design
• Exceptional sports car fuel economy
• Fun to drive

The Bad
• Gracefully entering and exiting not an option

The Ugly
• Futuristic pricing