The BMW i8 is the German manufacturer’s attempt at a supercar for the energy-conscious age. Instead of augmenting a large, heavy powertrain with electric motors for jaw-dropping performance, the i8 takes a more integrated and subtle approach, using the latest weight-saving technologies and a fairly pedestrian engine. It’s fuel-efficient when you want, and a performer when you don’t. The i8 is the second vehicle to come out of BMW’s “i” sub-brand, following the i3 city car to market.
But the i8 coupe appeals to a different audience than that of the i3–those who want fast performance in a light car without the bulk and fuel consumption of a V-8 or V-10 engine.
First unveiled as the Vision EfficientDynamics concept car at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show, the i8 sports coupe is fitted with two entirely separate powertrains. Up front, an electric motor draws energy from a battery pack to drive the front wheels; a turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine powers the rear wheels.
Two years later, the car had evolved into the BMW i8 Concept, which appeared at the 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show. The company has also shown an i8 Concept Spyder, indicating that the i8 may be offered both as a fixed-roof coupe and an open-air convertible.
For the 2011 car, which was much closer to the production version, the original concept’s diesel engine had been replaced by a gasoline engine. That is BMW’s new 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine–which is used in the new generation of MINI Coopers and pegged for a new front-wheel-drive BMW model.
The i8 uses a 7.1-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, which is located in a tunnel that’s placed low in the car and runs between the two seats. At low speeds, the i8 can travel for as many as 20 miles on its electric charge, with a 131-horsepower motor driving the front wheels. Once the pace picks up, and in certain modes, the three-cylinder engine sends 231 hp and 236 pound-feet of torque to the rear wheels. When the two power sources combine, total output reaches 362 hp, and the i8 is able to accelerate to 60 mph in a claimed 4.4 seconds.
For maximum acceleration and output, both powertrains can operate in concert, making the i8 an all-wheel-drive coupe that some have called a “supercar.” In this mode, the i8 becomes what engineers call a “through-the-road” hybrid, meaning that each powertrain operates a different set of wheels. Though the powertrains don’t share an axle, the electric motor is tuned to make up the power lost during the gasoline engine’s gear changes, ensuring a smooth and continuous flow of power.
The i8 is a very different take on a two-door sports car, and its looks are easily as groundbreaking as the power concept. There is design language and some specific elements shared with the i3 EV that’s launching alongside it, but the two are strikingly different. Where the i3 five-door is tall and large inside, with a stubby footprint, the i8 is low, sleek, and sexy, with beautiful flowing details along its flanks that culminate in a cantilevered wave over the rear haunches. The i3, on the other hand, is meant to move people and stuff in comfort throughout urban areas, packing an underfloor battery that will allow 80 to 100 miles of EV driving per charge.
Both cars are built in two parts: an aluminum platform holds the battery, electric motor, and other powertrain components, while a body shell made of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) sits on top. The combination is light, durable, and cutting-edge, with BMW about to become the world’s leading automaker in the use of carbon fiber in mass production. The total weight of the BMW i8 is expected to be about 3,000 pounds, perhaps slightly more.
The result is a light and fast coupe that BMW has said will accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in less than 5 seconds, and reach a top speed of more than 150 mph.
To go along with the nonstandard powertrain, BMW offers the i8 in different “worlds” instead of trim levels. Basically design-and-options packages, the worlds act like curated paths for the buyer to follow. At the top, the Pure Impulse world includes all of the optional features, with a final MSRP just north of $150,000. The 2015 model has a base price of $137,450.