Few automakers have proven as open to change as BMW. From the “NeueKlasse” sedans of the 1960s to large luxury cars in the 80s, and then sporty crossovers in the 2000s, the brand has repeatedly reinvented itself.
Now the company is molting before our eyes once again through Project i, its long-awaited sub-brand for the electric car. If there’s a difference this time around, it’s that BMW clearly has more to lose. Beyond the billions the automaker has invested in research and development, there’s the risk that these small green cars could compromise BMW’s upscale, high-performance image. The solution? An upscale, high-performance green car — the 2014 BMW i8.
“No customer of BMW would accept that we’d neglect driving characteristics,” says project director Carsten Breitfeld.
With the i8 set to launch in 2014, BMW invited us to its test facility in Miramas, France, for our first chance to find out if it has built the Ultimate Driving Hybrid or merely another Compromised Green Machine.
A lot going on beneath (and on) the surface
Parked at the edge of the test track, the 2014 BMW i8 immediately screams “different.” The shape looks organic, like something nature designed to slip through the air. Karlheinz Ebbinghaus, Project i’s leather-faced head of aerodynamics, assures us this has not, in fact, been the case. Rather, the car’s 0.26 coefficient of aerodynamic drag has resulted from hours of work in the wind tunnel, as his designers negotiated with the designers over every millimeter of change from the BMW i8 concept car that appeared in 2011. (The aero team once pretended to hack off the rear buttresses just to mess with the designers, Ebbinghaus notes with a delighted cackle.)
There’s a lot more going on under that skin. The carbon fiber structure (“life module,” in Project i jargon) requires an international effort. It’s been sourced from Japan, processed in the United States, and laid up in Germany. Whereas most carbon-fiber car parts are laid by hand into large, complicated molds, the i8’s safety cage bonds together many smaller panels. This process requires less labor and, BMW says, will save customers money on accident repairs.
But wait, it gets more complicated
All this wraps around a largely aluminum chassis and a plug-in hybrid powertrain. BMW has adapted the electric motor and lithium-ion batteries from the i3 with some critical differences. The motor is good for 129 hp in this application, and it sits up front and powers the front wheels through a two-speed transmission, whereas the i3 has a one-speed.
The motor connects with a smaller, lighter battery pack than that in the BMW i3, and this reduces the range of EV driving from 90 to about 20 miles. BMW says this will be more than enough juice for emissions-free around town driving.
For longer journeys, you’ll want to wake up the twin-turbo, 1.5-liter three-cylinder that resides behind the i8’s cramped rear seats. It can charge the batteries via a small motor-generator. In the most efficient touring mode, the i8 achieves better than 90 mpg on the European cycle (EPA numbers are typically lower). But when you floor the accelerator, the engine sends 228 hp of its own to the rear wheels through a six-speed transmission. And that’s where the fun begins.
A really, really fast lawnmower
In case you’ve lost track, there’s three power sources and two transmissions acting on two axles. So smoothly does the whole system go about its business that you might be fooled into thinking they’re all connected to the accelerator pedal by an old-fashioned throttle cable. The powerband is not unlike that from a powerful supercharged engine, as the electric motor’s 184 lb-ft of torque provides instant zip that completely masks any turbo lag from the three-cylinder engine, which then assumes more of the burden at higher rpm.
Powertrain engineer Patrick Müller rides shotgun with us as we take the wheel, and he points out slight imperfections he intends on fixing in the last year of development, like the occasional harsh shifts from the transmission and a lugging from the engine at idle rpm. Nevertheless, the i8 feels fantastic already. It sounds good, too — at least inside the cabin.
People outside the car, those who don’t benefit from carefully tweaked and inducted (some would say artificial) cabin noises, won’t share the joy. Standing near the i8 at idle, you think less of an Audi R8 or a Porsche 911 than a ride-on lawnmower. Something to work on for the convertible variant that we believe is certain to appear eventually.
In the meantime, a driver of the 2014 BMW i8 will have one more reason to engage EV mode when puttering around town. Until they pull up to a stoplight next to a Ford Mustang GT, when they’ll want sport mode, which provides the maximum punch. The i8 will hit 100 km/hr (62 mph) n less than 4.5 seconds and keep going up to 155 mph.
Teaching the hybrid to dance
BMW didn’t go through all the trouble of developing a carbon fiber production network just for the fun of it (although you never know with German engineers). Hybrids are typically extremely heavy, which not only takes away from their efficiency but also makes them handle poorly. The i8 weighs about the same as a BMW 3-Series with a four-cylinder engine and carries almost all of it between its front and rear wheels. Light, quick electric-assist power steering telegraphs its nimbleness, although we wish it telegraphed more of the road surface.
Due to weight and rolling resistance concerns, even the optional wider tires on this test car are like roller skates compared to what typically comes on high-performance sports cars. A smooth driver will be able to go very fast in this car. Your humble scribe, still deciphering the driving line on this track on the hot lap, hears the Bridgestone Potenzas howling even at lower cornering speeds. The only true letdown, though, is the brake pedal—spongy feel for extra energy is an acceptable trade off in a hybrid but not in a sports car.
The other clear trade off is interior room. Exotic styling, hybrid packaging, and mid-engine proportions all conspire against the cabin. The back seats are tiny. BMW says it will offer custom luggage for the i8’s rear compartment, which is a nice way of admitting that the trunk is small and oddly shaped. Slim front seats gain back some space and are actually more comfortable than BMW’s typical thickly bolstered chair, at least for this small, 140-pound human. We also hope the digital gauge cluster, which changes color depending on driving mode (sport, eco, EV, comfort), has another configuration with a larger readout. (And it very well might; there was no time to play around with vehicle settings).
BMW reinvents itself again
Make no mistake, BMW is not turning back. The company sees much tougher fuel-efficiency regulations as inevitable. To ignore this and continue producing only performance cars is to risk a fate like that of Kodak, which blithely focused on its profitable film business only to find one day there was no more film business.
“That’s what happens when you ignore the trends,” says i8 program manager Henrik Wenders.
Will sports car buyers follow BMW down this road by plonking $150,000 or so on a 2014 BMW i8? We’d have no definitive answer to this question after one hundred laps, let alone the three we managed on this drive of a pre-production example of this car. Wenders admits that some will look at an i8 and see only what it could have been: a better, more powerful sports car, a successor to the mid-engine BMW M1. (Of course, the M1 sold horribly in its day, a fact BMW project planners have likely never forgotten).
What we do see is an exciting, albeit imperfect, path forward for performance cars. The BMW i8 is light, it’s good looking, it’s fast, and best of all, it’s fun. If it indeed shows the way forward for BMW, we’re happy to come along for the ride.
2014 BMW i8
- On Sale: Spring 2014
- Price: $150,000 (est)
- Engine: 1.5-liter three cylinder, 228 hp, 236lb-ft; electric motor, 129hp, 184lb-ft (Total system power: 357 hp, 420 lb-ft)
- 0-60 mph: Less than 4.5 seconds (est)
- Top speed: 155 mph
- Fuel Economy: 95 mpg, combined (Est., European cycle)