Diving into the local McDonalds drive-through for a quick Quarter Pounder, I might as well have been Marty McFly with Doc Brown making a flux capacitor run in the “Back to the Future” DeLorean. Heads turned. The 2017 BMW i8 is that kind of car, in this case emptying out most of the Micky D’s kitchen staff to either brandish thumbs up or press noses against the drive-through-window glass for the burger and Coke handoff.
Which is understandable. In a sense, BMW is trying to jump the space-time continuum with the i8, and in the process prepare us mentally for the leap from fossil-fuel swizzling Ultimate Driving Machines to, well, more electrified ones. With BMW’s new i Series, the Bavarians embrace Efficient Dynamics, you know, for a more sustainable, albeit high-performance, future. Despite the i8’s low, wide stance, butterfly doors, 20-inch wheels, sleek airfoil bodywork and exotic supercar mid-engine proportions, at its core it’s a hybrid. A $141,695 plug-in hybrid, that is, that can scoot from 0-60 mph in as little as 4 seconds or if driven with less abandon and a full charge on its 7.1 kWh lithium-ion battery eek out an EPA-estimated 28 miles per gallon. It’s a supercar with dual personalities.
Driving Dynamics in Flux
It does all of this, of course, without the aid of the silver screen’s flux capacitors. Whereas a decade or two ago, BMW would have just shoved its biggest, fossil-fuel-depleting V-12 under a long hood behind that flaring twin-kidney grille and called it a day, the i8 blends the urgings of a turbocharged and intercooled midships-mounted 1.5-liter 3-cylinder gas engine and AC electric motor/starter/generator with a second, stronger AC traction motor in the nose. The gas engine and AC motor pairing generate a combined 228 horsepower and the front motor is good for another 129 hp. On paper, at least, that adds up to 357 horsepower. Not quite the stuff of wall-calendar supercars but way more squeeze than a Prius.
The i8 stretches those 357 ponies with an innovative lightweight body structure that makes extensive use of carbon-fiber-reinforced polyester, aluminum and magnesium. Even with the mass-intensive lithium-ion battery, curb weight drops to Camaro levels—a claimed 3455 pounds. The low weight combined with the immediate low-end grunt of two electric motors helps the i8 accelerate when called upon with the kind of immediacy its looks might suggest.
The Butterfly Maneuver
It’s just getting in the darn thing that takes some patience—and athleticism. Opening either of the incredibly lightweight butterfly doors is easy enough—just press the electric switch and lift. Making a dignified entrance, however, is nigh impossible. You can sort of crawl over the high sill head first, plunge in then twist yourself around once inside or slide in backwards butt first, sort of falling into the cockpit, legs in the air as you might scuba diving off a pleasure boat. Spoiler alert: for obvious reasons don’t even think of trying this wearing a skirt or kilt. Exiting requires another skill set involving lifting your outboard leg out, levering one elbow against the rear body side, then pivoting yourself out and up over the sill. You’ll be glad I reminded you not to stand up too fast and bonk your noggin on the opened door.
But once ensconced in the i8’s luxurious and well-sorted cabin, the ingress/egress heroics fade into the background. The i8’s butter-soft leather front seats are fabulous, comfortable and supportive as the day is long. Equally noteworthy is the excellent outward visibility to the front, uncommon in this class. An ergonomically pleasing all-digital control layout wraps around the driver in the best BMW tradition. Familiar territory is the shifter for the 6-speed automatic transmission, the same unit you’d find in any of BMW’s luxury sedans. iDrive infotainment’s onboard, of course, along with navigation, a backup camera and Surround View displayed on a free-standing dashtop monitor. There are vestigial rear seats too, but these are suitable for stashing a computer bag at best.
The i8’s varied personality is enabled by multiple driving modes. On startup the driver can access Comfort or EcoPro via a console switch, the former blending electric and gas propulsion for everyday driving, the latter skewing the mix for better fuel economy. Selecting Sport mode with the shifter switches to sequential gear control, sharpens throttle response, maxes out the electric motor boost and keeps the engine lit all the time. Sport also keeps the battery fully charged even if you forget to plug it in overnight. In Comfort, EcoPro and Sport, all four wheels are driven. Then there’s eDrive, with its own console switch, that can silently propel the front wheels of the i8 solely on the grunt of the front-mounted 129-hp AC motor for up to 15 miles and a maximum speed of 75 mph. The i8 works just fine as a regular hybrid if you don’t plug it in, but driving range will be shorter and overall fuel efficiency will drop. And while in eDrive mode, note that acceleration will be more Prius-like with 60 mph arriving in a skosh over 9 seconds.
Once underway, the i8 makes friends easily. It’s one of the most agreeable supercars to amble around in with no particular place to go. Steering is light, but precise and shock damping is spot-on with good body control and very little body roll. The i8’s ride is firm yet supple on its tall but narrow-for-this-class 215/45R20 front/245/40R20 rear Bridgestone Potenza S001 tires, which optimize fuel economy over max handling and braking. And there’s a learning curve with the response to brake pedal inputs–it’s a bit uneven transitioning from regenerative to friction braking. Efficient Dynamics takes some getting used to.
One aspect of the i8 you’ll absolutely love is the engine sound, a throaty, gritty intake-rich rumble complete with lift-throttle exhaust-pipe spits and crackles that sound like the business end of a big-inch V8 or V12. Or is it? Turns out the engine sound is straight from central casting, piped in surround-sound style via the car’s high-watt premium audio system. Remember, the i8’s engine is a 1.5-liter 3-cylinder which sounds more industrial than inspirational. Which may help explain why BMW doesn’t provide an engine-cover release that’s accessible to the owner. That honor is reserved for BMW dealer mechanics. So checking the oil, air filter or just ogling at all that technology with your buddies at some cars and coffee 20 years in the future is out of the question. Although it’s probably not a good idea to fiddle around with those bright orange 355-volt electrical cables anyway.
That said, how many of the folks at cars and coffee can say their ride has night-piercing illumination to outshine the i8’s brilliant-white $6300 laser high-beam headlamps? Freakin lasers. Not even Doc Brown’s DeLorean had those.
For more information, options, and pricing, please visit our 2017 BMW i8 page on AutoWeb’s search and configure site.
Photo Credit: © 2017 Autoweb /Ron Sessions