BMW i8: The Wraps Come Off (But Not the Camouflage Paint)

By · August 09, 2013

BMW i8 in Camouflage

The i8 was put through its paces on a racetrack in France. It retains the scissor doors. (BMW photo)

BMW is being a bit schizophrenic with its electric cars. It debuted the 2014 i3 with simultaneous gala launches in London, New York and Beijing. I was there in New York but they didn’t let anyone drive the darned thing—we were offered around-the-blocks in the ActiveE (with the same drivetrain) instead.

Some journalists have now driven the i3. But recently BMW let a horde of journalists briefly drive three camouflaged prototypes of the later and more exclusive i8 plug-in hybrid on a racetrack in southern France. And the company also lifted the hood for a closer look at the production drivetrain.

The reports from behind the wheel of this super-niche car—expected to retail for around $120,000—are mostly positive. Complaints centered around the hard-to-read-in-sun dash display, programming for the six-speed auto that doesn’t allow high-revving, and overly neutral handling at the limit.

Master of Disguise

The exotic paint job is aimed at disguising the lines, but the i8 (with aluminum and carbon fiber construction similar to the i3) looks somewhat more conventional and less extreme than earlier design iterations, though the up-swinging scissor doors remain.

BMW i8 in Camouflage

The i8 can reach 155 mph in all-out Sport mode. (BMW photo)

It’s a complex package, with a 95 mpg estimate overall and 50-50 weight distribution. The gas engine is a mid-mounted and turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder, which is also headed for the next Mini. It generates 231 horsepower, and drives the rear wheels. Up front, and powering the front axle, is the same electric motor as in the i3, paired to a two-speed gearbox separate from the six-speed stirring the gas power.

No Barn Burner as an EV

In electric mode, BMW is guessing 22 miles of range are possible, which is almost double the Plug-In Prius and half the Chevy Volt. The top speed in eMode is just 75 mph, so it won’t be white-knuckling anybody as a battery car. The electric motor (connected to a 7.2-kilowatt-hour battery pack that can recharge from 240 volts in two hours) generates 131 horsepower and 184 foot pounds of torque.

With all of this working together, the i8 is all-wheel-drive, and in full-commitment Sport mode will produce 362 horsepower and 420 foot pounds of torque, with a 4.5 second zero to 60 time and a 155-mph top speed.

The electric BMWs are weight obsessives, and that’s one reason the rear window in the i8 will be made of the same toughened Gorilla Glass that’s commonly seen in cellphones and tablets. Considering all that drivetrain hardware, the projected 3,300-pound weight is reasonable. Weight killed the 5,300-pound Fisker Karma, but this BMW weighs in slightly heavier than the Porsche 911.

Elon Musk: Skeptic

The 2015 i8 is scheduled to arrive in late 2014, with deposits taken early next year. Not everyone will love it. On the Tesla Motors earnings call earlier this week, Elon Musk was caught in the act of being underwhelmed by the debut of the i8’s little brother. “There is room to improve upon the i3, and I hope they do,” he said, clearly holding himself back from a more detailed critique.

It’s the i8 that more of a competitor with the Model S supercar, though they’re very different. The Tesla’s sedan layout and general utility is one factor helping move it, despite that very high price. The i8 looks less like an everyday driver, though some may treat it that way. BMW’s job is to start generating some buzz on the i8 so it too can grace the front covers of every car magazine and webpage in the world.

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