- Built 2014-2020
- Available from £37,000+
- 1.5 litre turbocharged petrol three-pot plus eDrive electric motor
- 4.4sec 0-62 time with real-world 30-40mpg or better
- Lovely blend of sports car and GT
- Very reliable and largely problem-free
On January 1 1980, Time art critic Robert Hughes' book The Shock Of The New was published. It was a brilliant and scholarly account of the development of modern art through the 20th century. If, in a few years time, BMW decides to commission a book to document the story of its first 'i' vehicles, and the i8 in particular, Hughes' book title would do the job nicely.
The i8 was first spied at the 2009 Frankfurt show as a turbodiesel concept, and then again at Frankfurt two years later as a plug-in hybrid sports coupe. The finished article finally rolled into BMW dealerships in 2014 with a combination drivetrain of a turbocharged 1.5 litre petrol triple producing 228hp at 5,800rpm and 236lb ft of torque at 3,700rpm supplemented by an eDrive synchronous electric motor providing 129hp and 184lb ft of torque to the front wheels from zero rpm. In a 1,500kg car with a drag coefficient of 0.26, the hybrid powertrain gave it a 4.4sec 0-62mph time and an official fuel consumption of 157mpg.
That last number was theoretical, of course, but real-world mpg results in the high-30s or better weren't. Nor was the fact that the i8 was a fabulously styled mid-engined, rear-wheel drive (with electrically-driven fronts), Porsche 911-rivalling coupe heading up an exciting new range of futuristic, light and sporty BMWs. Well, that was the plan anyway.
Bring on the wavy lines as we pop back in time to the beginning. The i8 was shaped by Benoit Jacob, Design Director at BMW 'i' from 2010 and surely right up there in the league table of unsung designers. Benoit was a big fan of the great Italian concept cars that used to come out on what seemed like a weekly basis in the early 1970s, properly bonkers stuff like Pininfarina's Ferrari Modulo and Giugiaro's gorgeous Maserati Boomerang. A key role at BMW's FIZ research and innovation centre at the beginning of what looked like a fascinating new era in sustainable performance must have seemed like a dream ticket to Benoit at the time.
Clearly though there was a change in thinking about the whole i concept at BMW because Jacob's position as head of i design softened through the 2010s to 'advanced design' and then to design generally. He eventually left BMW in 2016 to work in Munich for Chinese startup Byton, whose electric M-Byte SUV with full-width dash screen is due out next year.
This Benoit Jacob stuff may seem like a bit of a diversion, and it's always dangerous to draw any conclusions about the future of design at BMW, but the 'i' picture has certainly changed quite a bit since 2014. As noted, the i8 was trumpeted in as the flagship for a whole new electrified vehicle range, but in 2020 i8 production stopped, arguably two years ahead of time if you count 2018's mild power hike to 369hp as a midlife refresh.
The big changes that the i8 seemed to be ushering in are now taking a back seat to commercial safety in the conventional shapes of upcoming i cars like the iX3, i4 and iNext. The only other car in the original 'i' range, the 2013 i3 electric hatchback (another Benoit Jacob work) now stands alone, tagged onto the end of the BMW product strip next to the i8 as a testament to what might have been, given the i3's continuing success.
That 2018 upgrade apart, the i8 received little developmental attention from its parent. It used the same 1.5-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engine plus electric motor drivetrain throughout its run and now seems to be going through a process of reinvention as a pioneering figurehead for plug-in hybrid BMW models, almost as if it was never a serious model in its own right. It was indeed a pioneer in carbon construction processes (many of which have since integrated into other 'regular' BMW models) and in the wider area of low-energy, high-performance motoring, but if it's only going to be remembered for its contribution to other BMWs, that would be a sad downgrading of its significance.
What went wrong? A high asking price - the last cars are currently listed at £115,000 for the coupe and £127,000 for the Roadster, although dealers are knocking more than £20k off to shift the last ones - combined with that absence of spec-based bragging rights made the i8 a challenging purchase for traditionally-minded sports car owners. Even now, in our supposedly more enlightened times, having to justify a supercar whose main form of propulsion is a 1.5 litre Mini Cooper engine is still too much of a stretch for the average buyer, even if that motor is basically a BMW 3.0-litre six cut in half.
i8 buyers weren't average. They were committed early adopters who weren't obsessed with cubic inches and who would have relished explaining the wisdom of the i8 to those who were. Those who did take the plunge were rewarded with a mid-engined 2+2 that was as brilliant to drive as it was to look at. Sure, it wasn't massively practical, but it was the clearest expression yet of BMW's 'efficient dynamics' philosophy.
20,000 i8s were built over a six-year lifecycle, which is actually a good number compared to the numbers of previous high-end BMWs that were sold. The M1, which was the last production mid-engined BMW prior to the i8, found 399 customers, and the later Z8 was limited to 5,000, but all these numbers are tiny for a company of BMW's size.
Looking ahead, there have been rumours of a reborn i8 to link BMW's Formula E programme with its road cars, and to that end the double-electric-motored 592hp Vision M NEXT concept that was shown at Frankfurt in 2019 came with talk of a 2021 release, but that car looked a long way off production and rumours sometimes turn out to be nothing more than spoilers to put off the opposition, which in this case would have been the second-generation Tesla Roadster and the Audi R8 e-tron. Even without the threat of a new i8, the new motoring landscape means it's far from certain that either of those rivals will ever be built. Without rivals, a new i8 could find itself just as isolated in the marketplace as the old one, so the i8's future is not clear.
What is clear however is that used examples starting from under £40,000 represent an interesting alternative to what you can pick up from BMW's new car range in 2020 for the same money, namely a 320i M Sport saloon with a couple of cheap extras fitted. Is it a clever alternative, though? Let's have a gander.
SPECIFICATION | BMW i8
Engine: 1,499cc turbocharged inline three + eDrive synchronous electric motor
Transmission: 6-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 228@5,800rpm + 129hp electric
Torque (lb ft): 236@3,700rpm + 184 electric
0-62mph: 4.4 secs
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
Weight: 1,500kg (Roadster 1,600kg, both approx figures)
MPG (official combined): 156.9, Roadster 141.2 (real world 35-40mpg)
Electric only range: 25 miles
CO2: 42g/km (Roadster 46g/km)
Wheels: 7x20 (f), 7.5x20 (r)
Tyres: 195/50 (f), 215/45 (r)
On sale: 2014 - 2020
Price new in 2014: £94,845
Price new in 2020: £115,105 (Coupe), £127,105 (Roadster)
Used price in 2020: from £37,000
Note for reference: car weight and power data is hard to pin down with absolute certainty. For consistency, we use the same source for all our guides. We hope the data we use is right more often than it's wrong. Our advice is to treat it as relative rather than definitive.
ENGINE & GEARBOX
The engine, as mentioned, is a transversely-mounted 1.5 Mini Cooper Valvetronic B38 triple (ie not the problematic Prince four-cylinder engine) that in non-turbocharged form also powered the X2, the 118i and a couple of other BMWs. With the turbo, the B38's per-litre output in the i8 was the highest of any BMW engine at 154hp. For comparison, the equivalent figure for the Ferrari 458 Italia was 125 hp/litre. A balance shaft (plus a transmission damper) kept the i8 drive smooth, with partially synthesised noise caressing the passengers' ears with a sound that was pleasantly reminiscent of a quietened Porsche six.
Driving the front wheels was a 131hp electric motor (143hp after the 2018 refresh) with its own integrated two-stage automatic transmission. The motor took its juice from a liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery pack (one of the i3's 7kWh units) which lived in an aluminium housing running down the centre of the car, keeping the car's weight evenly distributed.
There are three drive modes: Comfort and Eco Pro, either of which can be selected when the car is in drive, and Sport, which is accessed by moving the lever to the side. In Sport mode the petrol engine is always running, the suspension is firmed up, you can work the six-speed torque converter auto manually, and there's more energy regenerated back to the battery.
The headline fuel consumption figures are of course exactly that, headline figures designed to make you go 'wow'. If you only drove it for a maximum trip length of 22 miles and had recharging facilities at each end of your journey you'd have infinite miles per gallon as you'd never be using any petrol (72mph being available in electric-only mode). In the real world you're more likely to hit 35-40mpg, and some owners have claimed averages of over 55mpg, but drive it hard and you'll be down to 25mpg - still more than respectable for the performance on tap.
If you fall more into the latter category then it's very much worth finding out which size of petrol tank is in the car you're thinking of buying. New buyers who didn't want to be stuck with the silly 30-litre tank that came as standard had to specify the 42-litre option.
The i8 didn't do rapid DC or even medium-speed AC charging, but the smallish battery meant that you could 'fill 'er up' in under three hours from a standard wall box. Post-2018 cars' batteries had a larger storage capacity. They're on a standard 8 year/100,000 mile warranty, but total failures are rare.
The i8 drive is special not by dint of it having especially uproarious performance but because of the way in which it goes about its business. The ride is level and nicely damped. Tyre noise is low and steering feel is very good through front tyres that are narrower than the backs.
Early cut-in of the traction control systems can slightly blunt ultimate enjoyment at the limit, and hard drivers weren't always sure which side of neutrality the i8 would choose for itself when power was being applied out of a greasy bend. That slight schizophrenia was at least partly attributable to the way in which the ICE and electric motor dovetailed. 2018-on refresh cars received a thicker front anti-roll bar and newly calibrated front dampers), but overall all i8s delivered a very rewarding drive.
Hammering along at a furious pace isn't really what i8s are about, but you will be surprised how quickly you reach your destination without apparently having tried very hard. Tesla does better braking feel, but the i8's stoppers are fine given that you don't need to use them much.
The i8's structure - a carbon passenger cell cloaked in aluminium panels - was an elegant solution in every sense. It turned out to be a historic one too because BMW has since said it won't be building any more carbon-structured cars.
Few dislike gullwing doors, and most onlookers will gawp and try to engage you in a conversation about them, but the downside is that you do need to park thoughtfully so that you can always get back in if someone else doesn't park thoughtfully next to you.
The view out of an i8 (which is not a small car) isn't the best. It was a shame the production car didn't get to keep the concept's glass doors, but at least visibility to the rear is improved by cameras. An aerodynamic package was available consisting of a two-piece front splitter and a fairly subtle rear spoiler. If you're not a fan of the new monster grille look on BMWs you'll approve of the i8's more slender offering.
The Roadster has a three-layer cloth roof that is electrically operated (up or down in 15secs at up to 30mph) and very good at insulating occupants from noise. Even with the roof and windows down it's a refined way to travel.
Non-unlocking fuel cap doors have spoiled a few owners' days. This seems to happen more on hot days and/or when the fuel indicator reaches the 25 percent mark. Replacing the door alone didn't always rectify it: sometimes the fuel pressure sensor had to be replaced also, a job which required the tank to be dropped and the coolant lines that run beneath it disconnected. There's a backup cable release in the boot if it happens at an awkward moment.
Heater elements can fail in the rear glass, work that was normally done under warranty.
The i8 cabin is perhaps not as special a place as that of some of higher-profile cars, with accusations that it's a bit too like any other BMW's, but it's different enough to remind owners that they're not sheeple. In Sport mode the dials turn red, the Eco meter turns into a tachometer, and the brilliant head-up display that has been giving you navigation arrows up to that point switches into a secondary tacho with shift lights.
For those of a less than athletic nature, the biggest problem with i8 ownership was getting into it. You had to duck through the butterfly doors and then hop over a huge sill to plop into one of the fabulously snug, low-slung seats. How you got into the back seats was a mystery to those who weren't blessed with the skinny frame or prestidigitation talents of the street magician Dynamo. You'd look in vain for door-located pockets or cupholders, but the quality of the materials used in the cabin will make you feel special, especially if you've only paid £40k or so for the privilege.
Standard i8 spec amplified that feeling by including Harman Kardon audio, head-up display, connected navigation and LED headlights. One of the few options a new i8 buyer might want would be the industry-first 'laser diode' headlights which, at speeds of over 43mph, lit up the countryside for 600 metres on high beam, double that of normal LED lights. Unless you were recklessly minted however you would have to think about that one for a minute as ticking that box added £8,000 to your bill. Other i8 owners would know that you had them though because they added a second bar to the daytime running lights.
There's some room in the boot, and a bit less than some in the Roadster, but although you did lose space as a result of the open-top's more restrictive cargo options you got a little back through its rear seat delete and the addition of a soft bag shelf. Evidently you can get a baby seat in the back of a coupe and a stroller in the boot.
'The shock of the new' could work equally well as both the clarion call and the epitaph of the i8. Whatever the reasoning for its disappearance from the BMW range may be, its relative failure to connect with the market means only one thing: low prices.
Relative to something like a 911 Carrera 4 the i8 is a big depreciator. 2014 cars with around 70,000 miles are as little as £37,000, and 2017 specimens with the same sort of mileage are only £4,000 more than that. Swap age for miles and that same £41,000 will net you a 40,000-mile 2015 car.
Newer i8s are actually especially good value as they take such a big initial hit, particularly the Roadsters. The last 200 i8s (both coupes and Roadsters) were built under an 'Ultimate Sophisto Edition' banner. If you could handle that name being stamped on the sill covers and the centre console, not to mention the rather glitzy looking 'Sophisto Grey Brilliant Effect' and copper colour scheme, then fill your boots.
Bar the occasional electronic blip - and which modern cars don't have those? - i8s have a truly excellent reliability record. You could very probably manage without a warranty.
The powertrain is almost prosaic - six speed conventional auto, three-pot petrol motor, simple hybrid setup - but somehow an i8 manages to amount to a lot more than its parts would indicate. They're a great cross between a sports car and a GT, and they don't wind up other road users either. Annual servicing costs are in the low hundreds, and actual owners (as opposed to keyboard warriors) swear by them.
In the PH classifieds we found this first-year 'Pure Impulse' car (which according to BMW boasted 'all available optional features', but presumably not the £8,000 laser headlights). In Protonic Blue, its mileage exactly matches its price: 42,000. The most affordable 2018 power-upgrade car on PH is this 4,000-miler in white and black (which is quite an effective i8 look) at just under £64,000.
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