Effectively explaining the i8 in a few words can be a challenge. For lack of a better description, it’s BMW’s exclamation point: an unapologetic, outrageous supercar that looks unlike anything else the auto industry has ever made. In that regard it echoes unmistakable BMW icons like the 507 and M1, but the i8 is more than just a unique car — it’s an over-the-top expression of BMW’s vision for the future of the automobile.
It’s a mess of beautiful contradictions. It’s an exotic with just 357 total horsepower; it’s an electric car with a gasoline engine; it’s one of the most expensive cars BMW makes, yet has one of the lowest fuel costs.
I spent three days driving this four-wheeled, carbon fiber-wrapped cluster of insanity through the spectacular New England fall. Eric Bana, eat your heart out.
ELEGANCE, AN ACQUIRED SKILL
Just getting into this car is a spectacle. One does not simply "get into the i8," you see. You need a plan. If you don’t have a plan, your reckless nonchalance imperils your dignity as you flop helplessly between the pavement, the i8’s deeply recessed passenger compartment, and the tall, wide sill of fancy carbon-reinforced plastic that separates the two. Everyone looks the same the first time they try to get into the car: a hesitant approach, followed by a tentative duck, as if they’re about to leap headfirst into the cabin and worry about the legs later. That doomed tactic is quickly abandoned and followed by a leg-first technique, which eventually succeeds with wildly varying levels of elegance. The entire time, you’re at risk of bumping your skull against the open door, which rests just overhead.
JUST GETTING INTO THIS CAR IS A SPECTACLE
Easier said than done. I still had to come to grips with the challenge of getting into the i8, and my chances of looking cool getting into a fancy car in the heart of Chelsea, surrounded by trendy Manhattanites, were practically nil. That’s a shame, because a sloppy entrance doesn’t do the i8 justice. It’s not just striking in the standard, gaze upon this meticulously designed supercar sort of way, the way you might stare at a Ferrari 458 or a Porsche 918. The i8 looks like an artifact from Tron fell out of the heavens somewhere near Munich and was given a once-over by some of the most fanatical automotive engineers in the world.
It’s not particularly common to see a supercar delivered from the factory with a multicolor paint scheme — monochromatic often works best, because the cars’ lines speak for themselves — but the i8 is a rare exception. My test car was silver and black with a touch of blue, and all three serve an important function: silver is the primary color, while black helps conceal the substantial vent on the hood and causes the science-fiction taillights to stand out from the remainder of the rear. Streaks of blue and a matching ring around the BMW roundel subtly identified the electric powertrain. It sounds ostentatious, but it just kind of works. I’m actually not sure a monochrome i8 would look very good.
After a couple walkarounds, I realized I was just distracting myself from the very real task of climbing into the car, so I did. It wasn’t pretty, but I got in. I fiddled with the transmission joystick until I figured out how to pop it into drive, and shuttled off.
THE CLOSEST YOU CAN GET TO FEELING LIKE BRUCE WAYNE WITHOUT LITERALLY BEING BATMAN
"Hey!" a limo driver shouted from my left side. "You want to trade, you let me know." He went on to summon my attention three different times as we traveled in adjacent lanes up 10th Avenue, his New York accent thick and genuine, asking the usual questions about the car and fondly recalling the memory of his Mercedes-Benz CLS 500. "I had the first one in all of Manhattan," he beamed, proudly proclaiming that the swoopy four-door coupe elicited similar reactions when it first came out that the i8 was getting now.
In Queens’ Astoria Park, the first of our many stops to shoot the car, drivers were quite literally coming to a full stop in the middle of the street to gawk. "You made me do a U-turn," said one in a late-model BMW 3-Series that was full of twentysomethings looking for trouble on a Friday night. I felt like I was walking the world’s cutest dog through Central Park, except instead of a dog it was a six-figure testament to German insanity, and instead of Central Park it was the entirety of New England.
Once we got on the expressway, Boston-bound, I was finally able to start taking in the car in earnest — its sights, its sounds, its features. (I was also finally starting to get the hang of ingress and egress, which was a big confidence-builder when we were stopping for food or bio breaks.) With the drivetrain in Comfort mode — the default, which lightens the steering and takes some fire out of the engine’s belly — the i8 is nearly silent. The mode saves a bit on gas. I don’t know why you’d ever use this; hell, even the porter who’d delivered the car to me told me to just leave it in Sport for the entire drive. You don’t buy a car that looks like this for silence. And while you might buy it to save on gas on principle, you’re not buying it to save money. (For what it’s worth, I got between 29 and 35 mpg on our trip, depending on how hard I was driving it. I suspect I could’ve done considerably better if I’d babied the throttle and stayed in Eco Pro mode, which is even more miserly than Comfort.)
There’s also a mode that BMW calls "eDrive," selected by pressing a button next to the ignition, which tries really hard (but doesn’t promise) to run the car on electric power alone. The i8 reminds me of other gas-dependent plug-in hybrids in that it’s not really intended to run in an electric-only mode for an extended period of time; it cuts over to gas if you go above 75 miles per hour (which, to be fair, will cover your legal activities on the overwhelming majority of American roads). More to the point, BMW quotes a maximum electric range of just 22 miles, and I never saw the range gauge go above 11, which isn’t going to get you very far unless you use your German exotic exclusively for tragically slow, short jaunts around the isle of Manhattan. I couldn’t fully test the i8’s chops as an EV — the company supplied me with a European-spec model and warned me not to plug it in, if for no other reason than the fact that the supplied charger had a euro plug on it. Sport and Comfort mode both partially recharge the batteries automatically while you drive, but I was never able to fully replenish the pack. (If I had, it would’ve happened in about an hour and a half on a standard Level 2 charger, according to BMW’s literature.)
BMW HAS CARTE BLANCHE TO MAKE THIS GAS SIPPER SOUND LIKE A GUZZLER, AS FAR AS I’M CONCERNED
It does handle well, which doesn’t really come as a surprise: it’s a low-slung supercar, after all. There’s also BMW’s fanatical demand for 50:50 weight distribution, putting a nearly identical amount of mass fore and aft. It’s not particularly light — curb weight is listed at 3,455 pounds — but it would’ve been even heavier had the company used a traditional construction technique instead of the carbon fiber-reinforced plastic that comprises the entire frame. You can see bits of it in the door sills and around the trunk; it’s not as beautiful or as meticulously laid as a traditional carbon fiber weave, but it still looks different and cool.
BRING A CHASE CAR
That kind of road trip requires luggage. It’s a lucky thing I had a chase car following me, because the i8 has the least storage space of any car I’ve driven since my microscopic Lotus Elise: the rear glass pops open to reveal a trunk that would be generously described as a "nook," or perhaps a "cranny." That’s the peril of a mid-engine car — the three-banger is concealed beneath a black carpeted box that consumes the overwhelming majority of the rear space.
THE REAR GLASS POPS OPEN TO REVEAL A TRUNK THAT WOULD BE GENEROUSLY DESCRIBED AS A "NOOK," OR PERHAPS A "CRANNY"
The heads-up display (HUD) on the i8, which is similar to the system found on other BMWs, is really good. I really never looked at the instrument cluster while driving, actually, which is a testament to the HUD’s usability. I’ve used heads-up systems extensively, and I really do believe that good ones have a material impact on safety by keeping your eyes up on the road where they belong. This one does the job: I always felt like my current speed was somehow being beamed directly into my brain, which is what a good HUD does for you — it just becomes an ambient nexus of information, not something you need to concentrate on. The instrument cluster is less impressive: the surround looked weirdly plain to me, as if engineers had taken a tablet, masked off part of the display with paint, and glued the resulting Frankencluster to the dash. It’s just not fitting for a car that looks and feels like this. BMW does make nice instrument clusters for sports cars — just look at the M4 and M6 — but those are digital-analog hybrids, incorporating both dials and displays. For the i-Series, it seems, BMW is sticking with digital displays alone, and those are harder to dress up. (It’s no surprise, then, that the i3 also uses a plain-looking LCD for the cluster — albeit a smaller one.)
The actual graphics on the instrument cluster are, to be fair, appropriately cool. The 8.8-inch slab of glass is dominated by a pair of sharply rendered arcs that indicate speed and power distribution — basically, whether you’re being propelled by batteries, gas, or a combination of both. Toggling the drivetrain’s Sport mode changes the color scheme from blue to red, a non-verbal way of communicating that you’ve summoned all the power that the i8’s two sources of propulsion can muster.
THE LONG GOODBYE
You also buy it because you have a lot of money to spare.
We lingered far too long in Maine just taking in the car, enjoying it, sharing it with countless passersby, and shooting it from every conceivable angle. We didn’t get back into New York City until early the next morning, just hours before BMW was scheduled to pick it up. One of our final moments with the car took us through a deserted Times Square, which seemed fitting: electricity meeting electricity, spectacle meeting spectacle.
YOU BUY IT BECAUSE IT’S THE CLOSEST THING TO A ROAD-GOING CONCEPT CAR; YOU BUY IT BECAUSE IT’S KIND OF WEIRD
After a stern talking-to, the conversation inevitably turned to the car. "I asked my partner, what is that, a Lambo?" I explained that it was not, in fact, a Lambo. I showed him the scissor doors, the carbon fiber; I described the unusual engine configuration. He smiled and told me to be safe; I told him to visit The Verge.