In order for BMW’s i8 to succeed it needs to make an emotional connection with buyers, after all this isn’t some urban runabout, it’s a sports car and as such a discretionary purchase for those of us who might otherwise buy an Audi R8 or Porsche 911.
Of course, the i8 has an ace up its sleeve – it’s the first mass-produced plug-in hybrid electric sports car and as such offers something the R8, 911 or Mercedes SL cannot – 113mpg average fuel consumption and C02 emissions of just 59 g/km. It can travel at speeds of up to 75mph on electric power alone, with a zero emissions range of 22 miles (although clearly ‘not’ when driven at full speed), hence this is an urban-only option.
So, is it a sports car which puts a Prius to shame? Or a technological ‘experiment’ which will soon be consigned to the towering edifice known as BMW Welt?
The first hurdle BMW had to climb was setting its market price. In the UK the i8 will retail at £99,845. That’s mid-way between Audi’s V8-engine R8 (£92,710) and the R8 V10 (£113,810), and perhaps more importantly the most expensive model in its range – second only to the £120,000 E92 M3 GTS in BMW’s all-time price list.
Interest in both the i3 and i8 has been considerable, so at least BMW won’t have trouble getting ‘bums on seats’ to experience the new e-drive technology, because the i8 requires a shift in our perceptions of what’s considered a high-performance car.
Power, by conventional perspectives, seems modest – with a combined output of 357bhp, delivered by its 228bhp 1.5-litre 3-cylinder TwinPower turbo petrol engine and 129bhp eDrive hybrid synchronous motor. Torque is more impressive though – 420 lb-ft (570Nm) with 236 lb-ft delivered by the engine and 184 lb-ft from the eDrive motor.
Performance is adequate on paper with zero to 62mph acceleration in 4.4 seconds, 50-75mph in 4.5 seconds and a top speed of 155mph.
The other method by which we judge our supercars is in the width of their tyres, and in this regard the i8 yet again defies the norm. Tyres are just 195/50 at the front and 215/45 on the rear, mounted on 20-inch alloy wheels, so the question this immediately raises is whether the i8 corners with the grip and determination of its conventional rivals.
BMW have said from the outset that the i8 is ‘not’ their response to the Audi R8. True enough they were wrong-footed by Audi’s supercar contender, but rather than compete, they chose to tackle a very different challenge – to produce the world’s most forward-looking sports car.
One of the ways in which they (seem) to have achieved this is by starting from scratch. Where Audi’s R8 adopts a high-strength aluminium space frame, the i8’s passenger cell is made entirely from carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP). The end results seem close, with the R8 V8 tipping the scales at 1,592kg compared to the i8’s 1,490kg, and a power-to-weight ratio of 266bhp/ton versus 240bhp/ton. But then of course the R8 consumes more than six-times as much fuel.
As you can see, they’re very different kinds of sports car, and yet they’re competing for the hearts and minds of the same buyers.
The i8 is longer but otherwise similar in size to an R8, with a length of 4,689mm (25cm longer), width of 1,942mm (+1.3cm) and height of 1,298mm (+4.6cm), plus a 2,800 wheelbase (+15cm longer than the R8).
Despite the relative narrowness of its tyres, the i8 has a wider track than the R8 – 1,644 millimetres at the front (+0.6cm) and 1,715 millimetres at the rear (+12cm) which will aid its dynamic stance, as will its sculpted rear wheel arches.
But compared to the R8 its design seems overly fussy, almost as if BMW cannot decide between showing off its new ‘i’ styling cues (the ice blue trim accentuating the front kidneys, side sills and rear) or making a smooth, flowing and beautiful car.
BMW call it ‘layering’ which “allows aerodynamic forms to be wrapped up in a progressively styled package,” to these eyes it just looks messy and even harder to like.
The paintwork on the BMW i8 can be specified in a choice of ‘only’ four colours, three of which have been created exclusively for BMW i. The options include Protonic Blue with Frozen Grey accent, Sophisto Grey with Frozen Grey accent, Sophisto Grey with BMW i Blue accent, Ionic Silver with BMW i Blue accent, Crystal White pearl effect with Frozen Grey accent and Crystal White pearl effect with BMW i Blue accent.
Unfortunately (whether you like the layering design or not) they’ve all been chosen to deliberately contrast with the black belt extending from the bonnet back over the roof into the rear section of the car, where it frames the centre section of the rear bumper.
Throughout the cockpit there are exposed sections of the CFRP passenger cell, visible around the entry apertures and when the doors are opened. As standard the interior colours and trims are offer to provide a contrast between different sections of the dashboard, but you can choose between three design aesthetics – Neso interior world, Carpo interior world and Halo interior world.
These offer a choice between black with light carum grey leather, ivory white or amido black leather, or dark dalbergia tan and light carum grey leather with BMW i blue contrast stitching.
Intellectually I am intrigued by the i8, however emotionally it leaves me cold. BMW needs to break through this ambivalence and convince people like me that our weekend fun car should also be the most sensible car in our driveway. That’s quite a shift in mindset, but maybe it’s time for a change.