Take one turbocharged engine, add two electric motors and you have a performance car that's a hella lot of fun.
The world first got a glimpse of the BMW i8 at the 2013 Frankfurt Motor Show and the plug-in hybrid performance car hasn't changed much since then. The i8 was never meant to be a high-volume car, but demand was so high that in 2015 the company doubled their daily production numbers to twenty units to meet demand. Today there are fewer than 5,000 of them on the road, so consider yourself lucky if you see one. Consider yourself even luckier if you get to drive one.
BMW's first foray into a performance hybrid sports car has all the trappings of a brutally fun ride: gorgeous exterior, three power sources and a chassis willing to dive into turns. However, it also comes with an exorbitant price tag and a powerplant that only kicks into fun long after the driver requests it.
A mid-mounted 1.5-liter three cylinder turbocharged engine puts 228 horsepower to the rear wheels, while two electric motors, one mounted near the engine, one living up front, throws power to the front. Combined, the powertrain kicks out 357 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque to all four wheels. Extra go-go juice is stored in a 7.1-kWh battery, good for 15 miles of all-electric range. Total driving range is 330 miles and the EPA gives the i8 an MPGe rating of 76 in hybrid mode or 28 miles per gallon combined using just the gasoline engine.
The good news here is that you never have to plug in the i8 or visit a public charging station if you don't want to. The gas engine can function as an on-board generator, while regenerative braking captures energy as well. However, you can recharge in two and a half hours from a level 2 charging station or four and a half hours from a standard 110-volt outlet.
Behind the wheel, the i8 is both ridiculously fun and a tad bit frustrating, all at the same time. As with many performance cars these days, there are multiple driving modes. Comfort is great for toddling around town or you can go all-electric in eDrive. Eco Pro allows for the gas engine to kick in, but limits electrical features like HVAC output to save as much juice as possible.
The frustration lies in the i8's lack of off-the-line thrills. Sure, Sport mode tightens up the throttle response and operates the electric motors at maximum boost, but the i8 has a relatively slow 0-60 miles per hour time of 4.2 seconds, especially when compared to the Acura NSX, which can do it in three seconds.
However, once you get the thing going, it's a blast. The electric motors offer all the mid-range torque I could possibly want, and the 50/50 weight distribution makes short work of twisty roads. Sport mode allows for manual operation of the six-speed automatic transmission from the paddle shifters, but the car does a good job of shifting on its own. When prompted by a heavy right foot, the gas engine engages quickly with a great-sounding, exhaust note getting pumped into the cabin through the audio system.
The i8 is right in line with competitors like the Acura NSX and Audi R8 when it comes to driver's aids, which essentially means there aren't too many. The thing looks like it was designed by someone living in 2032, yet the only help you'll get behind the wheel is forward collision warning and a gauge cluster that puts your speed front and center. There is no adaptive cruise control on offer or any kind of blind spot monitoring or lane departure warning. While that might be par for the course in for a performance hybrid, I was hoping for more.
I was impressed by the navigation system in the i8. I could input addresses by voice, on the screen using the control dial or by drawing each letter on the handwriting-sensitive pad on top of the control dial. The voice recognition understood the oddly-pronounced Los Angeles street Cahuenga Boulevard, (said cow-ANG-a) and while a bit hesitant, the handwriting recognition was accurate. The iDrive infotainment system has a lot going for it, including third-party apps, but it doesn't offer Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.
In the end, it's the freaking laser headlights that stand out the most. The i8 is the first US car equipped with the pure-white light high beams, which are 1,000 times more intense than LEDs while being more energy efficient. They only can only be activated when going faster than 43 miles per hour and do a phenomenal job at cutting the dark when out on the proverbial dark desert highway.
Inside you'll find a pretty comfy ride for two people and very few of their belongings. Though the i8 has a backseat, it's really just that in name only. Nobody should be forced to sit back there, not even kids. Visibility is compromised, especially when looking left due to the steeply raked windshield and thick A-pillar. Storage is next to nil and even finding a place for my phone was a challenge.
The scissor doors are a cool touch, but I was glad I had some yoga classes under my belt as getting in and out is not the easiest. There is a wide sill that I used to plant my butt before twisting my body up and out. Getting in meant sitting on the sill first, sliding into the seat and then swinging my legs in. Those wearing skirts, be advised.
There aren't many options available on the i8, so you have no choice but to keep it simple. The laser headlights are a standout, but $6,300 is a steep price. There are three different interior choices, called "worlds," but the base Mega World is just fine and dandy. The mid-trim Giga World adds larger wheels and wood trim while the fancy Tera World goes further with an exclusive interior color and a leather engine cover. Save your money and just stick with the basics.
The 2017 BMW i8 starts at $143,400 but with the 20-inch wheels and the $6,300 laser headlights the full price is $152,695. The Acura NSX starts at $156,000 and puts out 573 horsepower from a hybrid powertrain and is a much quicker car. A Tesla Model S, while not exactly a direct competitor, can provide instant, all-electric torque thrills or you can stick to the old-fashioned internal combustion engine and get a base Porsche 911 Carrera model with a similar 0-60 time and save enough money to buy a Ford Focus ST, a Mazda Miata and still have $2,000 left over for a roadtrip.
The 2017 BMW i8 can be an incredibly enjoyable and engaging drive and it's sexy as all get out, but for a car that costs three times my graduate-level education, I want it to have it all. I want it quick and engaging. The i8 just gets me halfway there.