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Can BMW's baby hypercar blow the lid off performance convention?

Its maker would have you believe that the new BMW i8 is the sports car of the future – and it’s a believable claim of a car that is daring, exotic and state of the art in just about every way you might judge it.

But the i8 also marks BMW’s return to a part of the market that it has flirted with in years gone by, and rather memorably so. The Z8 and M1 have a successor in this car – and they are some daunting acts to follow.

The BMW i8 can sprint from 0-60mph in 4.5sec and is electronically limited to 155mph

There are parallels to be drawn between BMW’s M1 and the i8. The M1 is the only other mid-engined production machine in Munich’s history, and was on sale from 1978 to 1981. But neither the M1, nor the Z8, had a start in life quite like the i8's. The i8 was conceived to redefine sports car conventions rather than abide by them.

The i8 began with the 2009 Vision EfficientDynamics concept, which reintroduced the idea of a mid-engined BMW flagship and drew power from two electric motors and a three-cylinder turbodiesel engine. That became the plug-in hybrid i8 concept at Frankfurt two years later, swapping the diesel for a petrol turbo.

Now, the production version has arrived. It is made from the lightest, strongest materials using the most advanced techniques that BMW could apply, and it’s driven by a revolutionary petrol-electric plug-in hybrid, all-wheel drive powertrain. This is Munich’s little miracle: a modern hypercar done for a fraction of the price. And it looks sensational.

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But does all of that technological sophistication deliver the type of drive that no class-leading sports car can be without? Or are there limitations to all of this cutting-edge complexity?


BMW i8 rear
The i8 costs £99,845 including the £5000 government grant

The BMW LifeDrive platform is the genius behind the i8. It combines a passenger cell and doors made of resin-injected carbonfibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP) with front and rear subframes and crash structures in aluminium to create a super-lightweight body. The CFRP tub is 50 per cent lighter than if it had been made of steel and 30 per cent lighter than had it been aluminium.

Inside hides the normally punitive mass of a combustion engine, an electric motor and a lithium ion battery pack, but the overall weight is 1560kg as claimed, or 1575kg on our scales – which is quite something. The last Porsche 911 we weighed – a Targa 4S – was also 1575kg, while a V6 Jaguar F-Type tops 1700kg.

'Hybrid synchronous' electric motor makes greater high-range power and torque thanks to magnetic reluctance

Power comes primarily from a reworked version of the 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol triple you’ll find in a Mini Cooper.

Here, though, special internals and new induction technology conjure 228bhp and 236lb ft from that modest swept volume. The engine drives not only the rear wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission but also a high-output starter-generator electric motor, which shuffles power back into the 7.1kWh lithium ion battery under the cabin floor.

Up front, there’s a 129bhp, 184lb ft ‘hybrid synchronous’ electric motor, which drives the front wheels. It is of BMW’s own design and gives a more balanced delivery of torque than a simpler traction motor. It is also ground-breaking because it drives through a multi-speed automatic gearbox.

BMW’s ‘hybrid synchronous’ electric motor is due a big chunk of the credit for the i8’s performance. Munich’s own proprietary tech is ostensibly a permanently excited synchronous motor (the kind used widely in EVs) with an asymmetrical rotor.

This creates what’s known as reluctance torque as it spins, in addition to the normal electromagnetic torque delivered by the alternating current. That extra torque delivers more power at higher rotational speeds than most electric motors can manage and therefore more electric boost for the i8 at higher road speeds.

The motor wouldn’t add so viscerally to the i8’s motorway pace without a second key bit of powertrain technology: a two-speed automatic transmission dedicated to that front-mounted electric motor. This gearbox, which is manufactured by GKN Driveline, is controlled in harmony with the primary engine and gearbox and shifts ratios seamlessly. It allows the electric motor to chime in with all of its 184lb ft at much higher road speeds than would otherwise be possible.

Combined outputs for the i8 are 357bhp and 420lb ft – the former a bit meagre for a £100k sports car, the latter promising to make up for the deficit. Meanwhile, design conversation pieces include narrow, aerodynamically profiled 20in alloys, ding and corrosion-proof thermoplastic panels, super-distinctive architectural surfacing and a particularly wide rear track.

The BMW's driving position is excellent, with fine front seats

Open an i8’s doors and you’re greeted by a cabin that is at once extremely beautiful yet, if you’re used to seeing inside BMWs, reassuringly familiar. Just as it should be, then: special yet also entirely usable.

Pleasingly finished, high-grade materials are presented in an interesting, slightly futuristic fashion. Blue – the motor industry’s eco colour of choice – features here and there, but for the most part BMW’s traditional materials abound. One of our photographers thought it a pity that the bold material choices of the BMW i3’s interior hadn’t been continued here, but by and large our testers felt it spot on.

The BMW's headlights are super-strong on either beam

The driving position and controls are sited entirely as you’d expect them to be on a BMW sports car or GT. You can sit long and low, with a good wheel extending out towards you and backed with classy paddles.

The front passenger fares equally well. The window line is high, so it’s snug and secure rather than airy. The BMW i8 also joins the Lotus Evora as being the only cars on sale that are both mid-engined with +2 rear seats. It’s unusual because there’s only so much space in the wheelbase behind the front seats, but BMW has done a decent job. You can fit nippers back there, but really it’s a three-seater, as a tall adult driving all but eliminates rear legroom on that side. Behind all of that lies a 154-litre boot, nine litres larger than a Porsche 911’s.

Standard equipment is comprehensive and includes climate control, cruise control with a braking function, DAB radio, a heads-up display, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, typre pressure monitoring, variable damper control, electrically adjusted and heated front seats, front and rear parking sensors and an 8.8-inch media system display.

BMW's latest-generation iDrive underpins the way the entertainment and information systems work in the i8 but, as with the i3, there are a few additional features to work around. Fortunately the system is so intuitive that you don't have to churn through the handbook to fathom it – once you're used to where a few mission-critical screens lie, that is.

One of our preferred ones shows the current level of battery charge, but there are myriad ways of seeing what the powertrain is up to. BMW's navigation remains best in class for telling you where traffic queues are and by how much you'll be delayed.

The 1.5-litre triple is transversely mounted in the rear and drives the rear wheels

The i8 is absolutely on the pace in terms of raw speed, way ahead of it on quality of delivery and unequalled on fuel economy. The sporting service this car provides in the real world is nothing short of excellent. Incredible, in fact, when you think it’s all coming from a three-cylinder petrol engine and some mains electricity.

There’s little compromise on acceleration. Our i8 was quicker than both a Porsche 911 3.4 and a Jaguar F-Type V6 S to both 60mph and 100mph. There are quicker cars on which you could spend £100k, but a departure point like that shouldn’t be hard for anyone to stomach.

The i8 completed the 0-60mph sprint in 4.5sec, according to our timing gear; 50-70mph took 2.3sec in third gear

It’s easier still when you consider how flexible the i8 is and how muscular it feels the instant you move the accelerator. Select Sport mode and the car will hold a gear at high revs. Chase the red line and the engine feels willing and powerful, but never more so than when you’re simply squirting along in a high gear on a motorway or picking off an unhurried overtake.

Locked in fifth gear, the i8 will get from 50-70mph in a brawny 3.3sec. The aforementioned 911 needs to be in second to sprint more quickly than that, while even the supercharged Jag needs fourth.

That immense flexibility makes the i8 a brilliant grand tourer. The low-profile tyres and super-stiff structure combine to create a bit of road roar, and you’ll wish there was a way to turn down BMW’s speaker-conveyed, frequency-augmented engine noise in Sport mode, but you can cover long distances at effortless high speeds in this car, while being as involved with the i8’s powertrain as takes your fancy.

And when you do, it’s remarkable how economical the i8 can be. Our touring test, driven partly on electric power, coaxed a whisker under 50mpg from the i8. But out on the road, you can be as brutish as you like with the loud pedal and seldom get less than 40mpg, while rivals would be struggling towards the high 20s. In town, meanwhile, the electric-only range proved to be about 16 miles after a full charge.

A flexible powertrain and stable chassis makes the i8 a fine GT

What’s important with the i8 is to manage your expectations. Come at it hoping for a straight rival to a Porsche 911 or an Audi R8 and you’re likely to come away if not disappointed, then at least slightly bemused. Expect it to be closer to BMW’s own 6-series or another grand tourer and the i8 is perhaps more likely to fulfil your remit.

The steering, for one, is definitely more that of a tourer than sports car. It’s responsive and accurate, no question, but lighter than we’d expected, and with little discernible increase in torque effort off the straight-ahead to replicate the feeling of cornering force transferring to the rim. Instead, it retains its consistent, oily slickness at all speeds. It’s far from unpleasant but less connected than you might have expected.

High sills, mid engine, 2+2 seating... I spend a lot of time thinking about the Lotus Evora when driving the i8. If only the Lotus looked and felt as special

The chassis, too, feels more tuned for dabbling in straight-line demolitions than it is for consuming corners. There’s a spot of fidgeting around town, but that clears on the open road and, given that it has excellent straight-line stability, the i8 makes a superb cruising companion. Where the i8 is slightly less convincing is if you ask it to do the things you’d normally ask of a £100k sports car. It’s not that it’s incapable; it wouldn’t record a lateral g figure of 1.03 if it were.

No, it’s just that the balance isn’t quite suited to outright sportiness. The i8 feels at some stages agile and at others hampered both by the roles it’s meant to play and by its mechanical layout.

It’s quick to turn, and the steering’s consistency, if not its feel, is pleasingly reassuring. It quickly falls on to its outside front tyre, which, at just 215mm wide, is bound to give up grip before the 245mm-wide rears. At least, that’s the case in the dry.

In the dry, you drive up to where the front lets go and then manage things; in the wet, it’s a slightly different story. The front end lets go first on a steady throttle, but it’s possible to push through that and unstick the rear, which is, of course, driven by the three-pot Mini engine. Even with the stability control apparently disengaged, from then on the i8 doesn’t behave like you might expect.

The throttle pedal induces little but lag, and when power does arrive, it’s frequently biased to the front electric motors, which clumsily drag the i8 straight again. It can be quite quick, but it’s not always wildly entertaining.

We have no qualms with the brakes, though. They stopped the i8 in short order, repeatedly, and with excellent feel.

BMW i8
The BMW i8 joins the i3 as part of the firm's 'i' range of vehicles

A plug-in hybrid’s appeal can often be boiled down to what appears in this section – cheapness to run being, after all, most of the point.

For now, the i8 is so obviously innovative that its running costs and asking price are perhaps less immediately consequential to buyers than the Philip K Dick-style cool radiating from the concept (although BMW’s Park Lane showroom in Mayfair reports that even very well heeled buyers are keen to avoid London’s congestion charge).

You'll save £997 a month as a 40 per cent taxpayer running the i8 as a company car over the 911 Targa we tested in June

Either way, the i8’s near six-figure price ensures that this is as rarefied an option as an Audi Audi R8 or a Porsche Porsche 911 – more so, in fact, given that this year’s UK allocation has already sold out and the waiting list extends well into next year. Its efficiency, therefore, must be considered in the proper context.

But unlike the R8 or 911, the i8 is exempt from road tax and qualifies for just five per cent benefit-in-kind tax until 2016, thanks to its 49g/km CO2 emissions. It’s also eligible for the government’s plug-in car subsidy, and clearly no conventional rival can compete with its 134.5mpg combined claim – or, of course, the 23-mile electric range.

These numbers are, of course, mitigated somewhat by real-world use, but given the exclusive segment in which it sits, that doesn’t prevent the i8 from garnering as many stars in this section as it does elsewhere – a unique advantage that makes it every bit the trailblazing prospect that BMW intended.

The i8's most profligate add-on is the £12,000 Pure Impulse Design package, which, among additional kit, includes access to BMW's bespoke Experience Programme, offering "ideas and opportunities tailored to your interests." Here's one: buy and build a Caterham 160 for your £12k instead.


Compelling, alluring and, at times, entertaining. Almost all it needs to be.

Is there a more interesting car on sale today? That’s the question we found ourselves asking each other during our time with the BMW i8. And we couldn’t find ourselves answering with a negative.

The i8 is one of the most compelling cars we’ve tested in years, not only because of its fascinating powertrain and unusual but appealing dynamics but also because of how exquisitely finished it feels as a product – both inside and outside – and how easy it would be to live with.

A prodigy. Good in places where the others are brilliant; brilliant where its rivals are nowhere

That its dynamics fall short of the best we’d expect of a sports car (the balance is even a touch off for a GT car) is ultimately a minor drawback. The i8 will pinch sales from the Porsche 911, no doubt, but the Porsche remains far better to drive.

There’s the slight inconvenience of its eyebrow-raising purchase price, too. But at any cost, this is a thoroughly desirable car.


Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

BMW i8 2014-2020 First drives