Currently reading: BMW i8: Why the bold BMW had to die
The BMW i8 was an inspired car ahead of its time, says Andrew Frankel, yet it ends its life without being replaced and will be classified as a failure. Why?
Andrew Frankel Autocar
News
7 mins read
10 April 2020

I first drove a BMW i8 in 2014. And when I was done, seeking to compare it to anything else that might remotely be considered a rival, I sat down and wrote: “It is the odd one out only because it is so demonstrably far ahead of its time. Others will react and may well do an even better job than the far from flawless i8, but for now it has the field to itself and its every success will be deserved.”

Well, I got that wrong. Others didn’t react. It was then and remains today the only car of its kind. Truly, I don’t think it occurred to me that it might fail, but fail it has: the fact that BMW has chosen not to replace it tells you that. As does losing half its value in its first year.

It takes a lot to make me sad at a car’s passing: these things we think we love are, after all, mere objects at our disposal and in this business there’s always some other interesting device to go and drive. But the i8, to me at least, is different. When I look back over all the long-term test cars I’ve run on this magazine, the McLaren 720S is obviously the one I miss most; but the i8 is next and not that far behind.

And I will miss it in two ways. Most simply, I’ll miss what it does. The quick adrenaline shot just upon seeing it first thing in the morning, coupled with the knowledge that it will make special everything from a cross-continental adventure to a trip to the village shop because you’ve run out of milk. It still looks incredible, the novelty of its lines having never worn off.

It has never received fair credit for the way it drives, either. I’m not terribly bothered whether it oversteers or understeers on the limit, because it’s not that kind of car. I care more about the fact that it’s light and beautifully damped, with accurate and pleasingly geared steering. I like the powertrain, too: it sounds terrific, has no lag, and if anyone sneers about the sound being synthesised, I’d refer them to almost any decent car on sale. They all have a synthesised soundtrack to some extent and in one way or another. I couldn’t care less.

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But the best thing about driving the i8 is how well matched the chassis is to the powertrain. It doesn’t feel overpowered so you’re not always on the brakes, spoiling the rhythm of the road. But nor does it feel like it could do with another 200bhp: its tyres are unfashionably slender, which is another reason it feels so good. It is baby bear’s porridge: not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

But then there’s this whole other way I’ll miss it and, in fact, it is this rather more cerebral fondness that makes its departure something truly to regret. For with the i8, BMW revealed to the world a way forward at least for a certain kind of car. A way where your car still gets to go hard and sound good. A way where it’s actually even better to drive because it is so damn light. A way where you can have your cake yet not get fat: a supercar that’ll do 40mpg almost however you drive it.

And the world’s response? “A BMW with a six-figure price and a three-cylinder engine from a Mini? You’re kidding, right?” I admire BMW so much for having the courage to do this car and that bravery deserved far better than this. I imagine the deep breaths taken around the boardroom table when the plan for this carbon-framed, aluminium-clad mid-engined masterpiece was signed off. It would have been hideously expensive to develop. They’d have known that, bar a convertible, there was no other car they’d be able to spin off the same platform. But they went ahead and did it anyway because it was the right car to do.

How were they to know that even by the 2020s, it would still be the wrong time to do it? Seems nuts, doesn’t it? If I were to sit down and specify a less unsustainable kind of long-distance driver’s car for our era, the only reason it wouldn’t look like this is because I’m not smart enough to have thought of it. Yet BMW is getting rid of it while, at the same time, launching the M8 Competition, another similarly priced 2+2 coupé but one that weighs nearly two tonnes and is powered by a twin-turbo V8 engine.

But you can’t blame BMW for the death of the i8. It had six years in the marketplace, so they gave it a decent run and it’s not their fault the world proved resistant to the sea change it represented.

Even so, the real source of my sadness is that if BMW did replace it, I think its successor would stand a very good chance indeed. We live in a completely different world from that into which the i8 was born and, in one more generation’s time, there will be no more two-tonne V8s. But there will be plenty of lightweight coupés with downsized hybrid powertrains because, with pure EVs, those are the only cars of this type that are going to survive the transition that is so swiftly coming our way.

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Sure, some issues would have needed to have been addressed – more luggage room and a more special interior among them – but these are relative details. With a few years’ development, a new i8 would have more power, go further on electrons alone and use less fuel. It’d be even more relevant and then the world would finally wake up to the wonders within.

But now it won’t get that chance. And what can we learn from this? That even producing one of the most advanced, interesting, attractive and effective cars of its time is no guarantee of success. The lesson of the i8 story is to try less hard, take fewer risks and do less well. And that’s what is saddest of all.

Buying an i8

The i8 seems to be an exceptionally robust car, with occasional electronic niggles reported and not much else. Remember that depreciation is vertiginous in the first year but flattens out rapidly after that, so a nearly new example is an even better bet than usual. Consider whether the roadster is really worth the extra premium – I’d have the coupé all day long – and remember the car’s flaws: minimal rear room, a tiny boot and doors that mean you always have to park in a space where no one can park too close next to you.

What about the BMW i3?

Although the i8 is dead, happily BMW’s ‘i’ adventure is not, but it seems that in future it will make only electric cars. First is the iX3, a Jaguar I-Pace and Audi E-tron rival coming this year, followed by an i4 next year, a car with Tesla’s Model 3 in its sights.

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For now, though, there is the trusty i3, launched before even the i8 and, for now at least and despite rumours of its imminent demise, apparently safe from the executioner’s axe. For while it has never been a strong seller – anything but, in fact – sales have increased every single year since it went on sale in 2013, helped by changing attitudes, increasingly tax-friendly legislation, a couple of well-timed technology upgrades and closely controlled pricing.

And if it can be made to fit your life and you don’t mind its highly alternative appearance, I think there remains a strong case for the i3. It’s quick, it’s fun and the interior still feels fresh and modern. Just remember that the range-extender model is no longer on sale so you’ll have to put up with either a pure EV or find a REX on the used market.

How much for an i8 today?

2015 i8 Coupe - £42,000, 38,000 miles: You could probably haggle your way into an i8 for less than £40k now, which makes an older car sound incredibly cheap. But the real value is in newer models.

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2019 i8 Coupe - £73,000, 100 miles: There are loads of delivery-miles i8s out there for this kind of money: brand-new cars for £50,000 off list, despite their deserved reliability reputation.

2019 i8 Roadster - £76,000, 5 miles: Proportionally, Roadsters lose even more money than coupés in their first year. The roof works well, but it spoils somewhat the lines of the car.

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Comments
33

10 April 2020
I too am surprised they didn't do better, I'd have expected it's high tech exotic build and drive train to be a huge draw, especially to those who drive in low emission zones. It does Seem a shame that a forward thinking design that is still technically ahead of its time can not continue.

I feel similarly for Honda's crz, here was a reliable and economical mild hybrid power train popped into a small coupe with a fantastic manual gearchange, it proved hybrids didn't have to be dull, no it wasn't the fastest and yes a diesel could be more economical, but it didn't produce the same emissions as a diesel and I think would do better now if launched than back when it was compared with diesels. A more modern iteration would also be more economical and quicker no doubt, but there won't be one.

10 April 2020

Reminds me of the original Honda NSX. When in production it was rather overlooked but then values began to rise. A styling icon of its period, like the i3. I wonder if early hybrids will also become collectable but range and spares limitations might count against them.

10 April 2020

As I can see prices rocketing for them as they did with the M1.

If I had £75k to spare I'd be snapping up a delivery milage coupe and putting it in auto mothball storage after enjoying it for 10,000 miles or so, at my age I don't think I'd get a good return on it, but think my grandchildren would.

10 April 2020
Seems the writer forgets that the i8 came with a government grant of £10k. Then as a company car had very low BIK, plus you could write the whole car off in year 1 saving around £20k in corporation tax.
So the year 1 devalue is taking those benefits into account. As some people bought and sold in year 1 some buying another for the next year.
I can also vouch for the cross continental capability having driven to Geneva in one go.
But the best part which not one single journalist mentions is the Pure Impulse club. BMW laid on events globally for i8 owners. From lake District trips, River cottage, factory tours, to culinary experiences. Again I know people who bought another three years just to get access to the club again.
I think BMW are making a big mistake. They had spent the money developing a process for carbon fibre reinforced plastic. Started adding carbon cores to reduce weight, and now seem to have gone back to the same old as every other manufacturer. Seems the change at board level have come in with no balls.

10 April 2020

Great looking cars too, the i3 and i8, a shame that BMW didn't carry that bravery over to its mainstream models

10 April 2020

I agree with you on the i8 - a great design; unusual in the detailing but keeping an elegant profile and not overtly outlandish.  You're right, if only it had influenced mainstream BMWs more, especially the grille!  Not so sure about the i3; it has no elegance at all in its shape, and I've never understood that oddly shaped waistline - different for difference's sake.  The interior is something else; if only that also had been translated to mainstream models!

wmb

10 April 2020

...will the Polstar 1 have the same outcome? Yes it has more power and a better looking interior (arguably), but more of the same concept: big dollars for a hybrid with small ICE engine (instead of a 3 cylinder shared with Mini, a 4 cylinder shared with Volvo/Geely)! I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

11 April 2020
wmb wrote:

...will the Polstar 1 have the same outcome? Yes it has more power and a better looking interior (arguably), but more of the same concept: big dollars for a hybrid with small ICE engine (instead of a 3 cylinder shared with Mini, a 4 cylinder shared with Volvo/Geely)! I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Most likely not, the Polestar 1 was never concieved as a production vehicle, it was a concept that was put into production in a limited run. It also has significantly more power, its had fantastic reviews, its suppossed to be great to drive and a brilliant all rounder.  The i8 needs a speaker in a fake exhaust to make it sound sporty. 

289

10 April 2020

I am afraid the i8 never did it for me. 

The car to my eyes looked a mess, covered in unecessary swage lines with 'electric'blue highlights......definitely not classy, a bit like Las Vegas on wheels!

I may have been a technical tour de force, but a weedy 3 cylinder engine in a car at this price level? .... I dont think the public bought into that for a moment and that was before your eyes settled on the weird skinny tyres (especially from the rear). No, this was a car for someone wanting to make a statement about his green credentials, which frankly, wasnt of interest to anyone else driving their 911's etc.

Brave try though, and I dont expect that this will be the end of it, as all cars will probably be this anodyne in the future with skinny low drag wheels and synthesised sound (God help us)..... it seems the only thing you can do with a boringly practicle/virtuous car is try to 'funk it up' with weird styling details.....hence the i3 which i also detest. Thr trouble with doing this is that you create 'marmite' cars (as Lexus has done with its family design cues), and we all know how devisive this can be when it comes to success or failure.

10 April 2020
Loved the batmobile looks from the moment I saw it . In the same way I always tinkered with taking a loan and buying a z8 when prices were lower as o guessed prices would only go 1 way, missed that boat!! My wife has the same drivetrain in her mini and its fab . I can only imagine what's it's like in a carbon fibre sports car . I just wonder at what point prices hit bottom ? I don't imagine getting spares will be a problem for the engine the chief benefit being it's now a generic engine thru the bmw range. Watching the market with interest.

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