While it’s great to be first, there’s limited satisfaction in finishing a race before anyone else has got out of the blocks. Yet that’s what the BMW i8 seems to have managed, BMW’s carbon-bodied plug-in sportscar remains as futuristic in 2020 as it was when it was launched in 2014, but is retiring without any significant price-point rivals. Proof that you can be too far ahead of the curve.
This isn’t going to be a hatchet job, or an invitation to a spot of grave-dancing, because the i8 is a great car. But it’s also a confused one, something that has likely both held it back and limited sales success. It was created with the twin missions of showcasing BMW’s early move towards electrification and acting as a range-topping halo model for the whole brand. There was some obvious overlap between those requirements, but also big contradictions, especially to anybody expecting to find a successor to the BMW M1 or something that would better an M6 on performance or thrills.
There has never been anything wrong with the i8’s styling, which seemed to channel the design team’s ambition to make a full-on supercar, the coupe even featuring ‘butterfly’ doors. Proving how much better BMWs look with compact radiator grilles - instead of chrome-plated manhole covers - it still looks both handsome and fresh as the car goes off sale. That’s even more remarkable when you remember the original EfficientDynamics concept which showed the recognisable fundamentals debuted as long ago as the 2009 Frankfurt motor show, with the near-production i8 concept shown at Geneva two years later. The first powertrain proposal was for a three-cylinder diesel engine at the back, but by the time of the Geneva unveiling that had been switched to the combination of a 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol turbo with an electric motor turning the front axle via a two-speed transmission.
It was very much the spirit of the age. The production i8 was launched just behind the McLaren P1, Ferrari LaFerrari and Porsche 918 Spyder, electrically assisted hypercars using different levels of hybrid assistance. While the BMW wasn’t in the same performance league it did draw a greater percentage of its ability from the high-voltage side of its powertrain. Yet, despite the hype around the i8’s electric credentials, much of it from BMW’s marketing department, it was definitely a hybrid rather than an EV, with a mere 23 miles of electric range. The three-cylinder petrol engine made 228hp and the e-motor could add up to 129hp, but as this assistance could only be delivered to the front axle it meant that, under anything other than the gentlest use, electricity was only ever making a minority contribution.
BMW had put a huge amount of engineering effort into the i8, especially paring back its weight. It was determined to offset the mass of battery packs and motors for both i8 and i3 through the extensive use of carbon fibre reinforced plastic, the company going to the trouble and expense of building a (hydro-electric) powered manufacturing facility in the U.S. to make this. Being made from CFRP, the i8’s passenger cell was both light and hugely strong. But the need to haul the mass of two different powertrains and the substantial 7.1 kWh lithium-ion battery pack that led down the car’s backbone more than offset the savings made by the carbon structure. At 1,535kg the coupe was impressively svelte for an all-wheel-driven hybrid, but still over 100kg more than the 991-generation 911.
The driving experience was different from what you’d find in almost any other competitor, too. The instant torque produced by the i8’s electric motor gave properly impressive low-down acceleration, the i8 hooking up like little else and launching hard enough to make its official 4.4-second 0-62mph seem unduly pessimistic (a point proved when one U.S. magazine recorded a 3.6-second 0-60mph time.) Under gentler use the advanced powertrain felt less resolved, especially with the digitally augmented soundtrack given to make the three-cylinder engine sound more butch. A lowish 6,500rpm rev limit also didn’t feel very sportscarish, nor the less-than-scintillating changes of the combustion engine’s six-speed torque converter auto. Slowing down was less good, too – certainly in early i8s, which always struggled to smoothly blend regenerative and friction braking.
The sort of handling precision that buyers of top-flight BMWs expected at the time – less so since – also tended to get a bit blurred under harder progress. Driven at a rapid everyday pace the i8 felt impressively together, turning accurately and riding well. But pushed harder it revealed both a front-heavy handling balance as the limits of lateral grip approached, and also some inconsistent habits thanks to the split between petrol and electric power. You were never quite sure what you’d get – sometimes it all came together seamlessly, sometimes the two sides of the powertrain would seem to disagree. The best sportscars get better when pushed harder, but the i8 always felt happiest somewhere between seven and nine tenths.
Not that such niggles stopped it from receiving an effusive welcome at launch. Limited by production capacity, BMW reckoned it produced the first 10,000 cars – half of total production – in the first two years. In the UK its appeal was sharpened by some impressive tax breaks for canny buyers, including the ability of those who owned their own company to benefit frwrite-downs that offset a substantial amount of the i8’s cost against tax. For a while it seemed to be the car most likely to be parked in the ‘boss spot’ next to the door of the sort of business keen to show progressive credentials.
But it didn’t last. Life is always tough for middle-aged sportscars in a part of the market that wants the newest, shiniest thing – but the i8 also fell into the trap that often claims clever new technology. After the first wave of early adopters had bought them, it started to struggle to find buyers among more traditional sportscar customers. Nor did it help when faster versions of the Tesla Model S proved it was possible to have a four-seat pure EV with performance to whup the BMW’s angular behind. BMW tried to sharpen its appeal with a modest increase in battery capacity and electric range in 2018, but the only significant change was the arrival of a roadster variant in the same year.
Beyond losing the coupe’s plus-two rear seating, while gaining the need to pay a substantial premium, the open-topped car immediately became the one to have, the core carbon structure meaning it didn’t lose any significant structural strength through decapitation. But it arrived too late to be much more than a footnote as sales continued to fall.
Did it need to die so soon? Arguably not – but BMW itself has changed considerably during the i8’s lifespan. It was launched as the product of a forward-looking company keen to lay the corporate bath towel on a bit of the future, and to get a big lead on rivals. Six years later the marque looks much less confident and much less adventurous as other premium makers pile in with EVs and PHEVs. None of these are as daring as the i8 was when it was launched – something that looks likely to win it a following in future years – but BMW’s admission it won’t be building any more cars with carbon structures looks like a step back. There will be plenty more electrified BMWs in the future, but none will be as radical as the i8.
SPECIFICATION | BMW i8
Engine: 1,499cc 3-cyl turbo plus lithium-ion battery pack and electric moto
Transmission: Six-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 362 (combustion engine 231@5,800rpm, electric motor 131@4,800rpm)
Torque (lb ft): 420 (combustion engine 236@3,700rpm, electric motor 184@0rpm)
0-62mph: 4.4 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
MPG: 134.5 (NEDC combined)