Enter the i8
We’re about to have our first encounter with one of the most significant new cars of the new decade. Engulfed in blue smoke and accompanied by red laser effects, BMW’s new hybrid supercar enters the pitch-black stage. Wearing blue swirl-pattern camouflage, the white coupe marks the high end of BMW’s ambitious project i portfolio, and will likely be badged i8 when it comes to market in 2013. Together with a megacity vehicle, the i8 will kick off carbon-fiber revolution at BMW. Rear engined and initially available only as a hybrid, the i8 is the most efficient BMW sports car ever conceived.
Getting in to this futuristic BMW is not easy. At just a hair over four-feet high, it’s limbo dancer low, and the door opening is shaped like a mail slot. The man at the wheel helps out by reciting the correct entry sequence. Start with sliding the left leg in, then lift the bum over the sill, align and lower the torso, assume a ducked posture and then reel in the right foot. Once inside, we find legroom is as tight as in an olympic bobsled, the scalp duly leaves a grease mark on the tinted glass roof, and the right shoulder is wedged against the composite door, which has been pushed shut from the outside. The 2+2 configuration is largely fanciful. With the front seats in the rearmost position, the space for additional occupants shrinks to zero.
Out of the hall
We’re ready to go. As the light goes green, the hybrid test vehicle takes off with vigor but in near-total silence. All you hear is the momentary screeching of the rear tires on the painted concrete floor, the click-clack of some unidentified electro-mechanical elements and the hum of the electric motors, which sound like an accelerating streetcar. It is almost impossible to detect the source of propulsion. Is it only the rear-mounted motor, which delivers 81 hp (plus a brief 30-hp boost)? Is it the front motor that musters a more modest 52 hp? Or are both of them pooling the efforts, producing a combined 321 pound-feet? “The drivetrain is masterminded by the performance electronics,” claims my driver, Stefan Haller, who is in charge of the complex hardware and software interplay. That may be the case in the production version, but right now, the engineer is manually dialing in orders via the custom steering wheel.
The vast hall on the Leipzig fairgrounds is as slippery as an ice rink. One stab at the throttle,
and the coupe’s rear end squirms in protest; another dose of oomph, and the front wheels duly straighten out the line. As soon as the orange cat’s eye headlamps stop zig-zagging, Stefan floors the loud pedal. Very briefly, all four wheels spin, and as the car dives out into the cool starry night, the three-cylinder engine awakens. The 1.5-liter diesel brings the aggregate power output to 328 hp. The three hearts combined whip up a torque tsunami that peaks at 535 pound-feet. With all powerplants under full steam, acceleration from 0 to 62 mph is a claimed 4.8 seconds. On paper, that’s only one tenth quicker than an M3, but in real life, on an unlit narrow perimeter road, the tri-motor BMW feels as if it’s being pushed by a nitrous-oxide-fed afterburner. At the end of the brief straight, the brakes switch to maximum regeneration. Stefan swings the car round, points the LED headlamps at the main entrance, and once more the psychedelic flounder takes off. There is no doubt about it: those who claim hybrids are boring could not be more wrong.
Performance vs. efficiency
Three years from launch, there is still much more work to do. “For optimum smoothness and efficiency, the interaction between the two propulsion systems needs to be remastered,” says chief project engineer Jurgen Greil. “That’s why the electric motor dominates the take-off phase and the initial acceleration effort while the diesel typically joins in above 30 mph.” Before the i8 goes into production, the diesel will be replaced by a 1.5-liter three-cylinder gasoline unit rated at 190 hp. Dedicated fuel misers can expect to get up to 435 miles out of a 6.6-gallon tank and a fully charged set of lithium-ion batteries. In EV mode, however, the driving range is limited to 31 miles.
Environment friendliness is all very well — but what if I want this sports car to behave like one? What if I want to go flat-out on the new Munich-Stuttgart autobahn? Klaus Draeger, board member in charge of R&D, answers. “Like every hybrid, this one cannot run flat-out all day long. Although maximum performance is a finite quality, you can still cover over 125 miles at 250km/h or 156 mph. At these speeds, the engine has to do most of the work, but thanks to Connected Drive the car should benefit from various boost effects and brake energy regeneration efforts. The main precondition is of course a light, slippery and efficient vehicle concept.”
How much and how many
The i8 is expected over its six-year lifespan to find 25,000 takers, at a price of more than 120,000 Euro ($157,000) each. Additionally, there will be an i8M (twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8, 450-plus hp) that is likely to carry an even heftier, 175,000 Euro ($230,000) price tag. Production of the M edition will be limited to 5000 vehicles, sources say. The M version will be added later. Only the hybrid will be offered at launch.