In the upper reaches of automotive performance, the hybrid sports car is becoming a real thing. Witness the Ferrari LaFerrari, Porsche 918Spyder, and McLaren P1. Those examples seem like efforts to maintain the relevance of high-end performance in an oil-starved world.
But BMW may just be cracking the code with its i8.
Unlike the competition, which tend toward evolutionary changes built from existing models, BMW designed the i8 as a wholly new car, constructed from the ground on up to exemplify performance and minimal fossil fuel consumption. And deviating from the i3 model, its sibling in BMW’s new i brand, the i8 actually looks good.
Low-slung with an elegant roofline, the i8’s body looks futuristic. Rather than the flowing contours of metal construction, the body panels reflect their carbon fiber origins, looking more like individual pieces brought together in a cohesive yet segmented whole. The doors slice upward and twist out, an opening mechanism made possible by their lightweight design.
The design looks like a future classic, a progenitor of many sport cars to come.
The i8 weighs only 3,285 pounds, a veritable feather among modern cars. That low weight comes from aluminum suspension elements and a carbon fiber body structure. As with the i3 model, BMW went to great lengths developing and sourcing the carbon fiber for this car. In a worldwide supply chain, the base material comes from Asia, undergoes processing into carbon fibers at a new plant in Washington state that benefits from abundant hydropower, then gets formed into body panels in Germany.
Using this material, BMW will get an early advantage working with carbon fiber in mass-production cars.
The hybrid drivetrain, called eDrive, shows BMW has bent its engineering expertise to the technology. A turbocharged direct-injection 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine drives the rear wheels, and BMW has managed to draw 231 horsepower from this tiny mill. Accentuating the power is a 96-kilowatt electric motor turning the front wheels. BMW writes that total drive system output comes out as 362 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque.
Along with a six-speed automatic transmission for the gas engine, BMW specifies what it calls a two-stage automatic transmission for the electric motor. With different power sources at each axle, the i8 will need some impressive computer control balancing the load. On the other hand, when mixing power from both sources, it gets all-wheel drive, which should aid handling.
BMW cites performance figures of 4.4 seconds to 62 mph and 94 mpg under the EU test cycle. The lithium ion battery pack gives the i8 a pure electric range of 22 miles and a top speed of 75 mph under electric power. Owners will be able to charge the battery pack from the grid, meaning gasoline-free weeks when dealing with short commutes. Total range is noted as 310 miles.
Drivers will be able to choose between electric, hybrid, and sport operation, that last maximizing drive system output.
Those drive modes include Sport, Comfort, and Eco Pro, names with which drivers of current BMW cars will be familiar. Similarly, the dashboard of the i8 shows some familiar territory for the BMW faithful. The steering wheel, shifter, iDrive controls, and center LCD look like those found in other BMW cars.
BMW has a few other advanced technologies ready for the i8. Laser-based headlights have been in the works for a few years, and BMW says that feature will be available in markets that allow it. Another option will be carbon fiber wheels, which should significantly reduce weight over the aluminum alloy standard wheels.
The idea of an advanced, plug-in hybrid with BMW’s legendary driving performance is a juicy one, and will be tangible next year. However, coming in at $135,700, the 2015 i8 will also be the most expensive car in the lineup. Think of it as a potential rare collector car, like the M1, Z8, or 507.
Given the pricing and performance characteristics, BMW may have trouble competing with the Tesla Model S, which offers similar total range without using a drop of gasoline. However, BMW may end up teaching Tesla something about carbon fiber construction.