The BMW i8 is comfortable in its own amazing skin. It needs to be. It looks like a buttressed spaceship trimmed with extraterrestrial blue and black. If the wheels were spat-covered, it’d be easy to convince people it’s actually levitating on the pride of Munich. Every person who catches a glimpse locks eyes on it, and you needn’t be clairvoyant to read pedestrians’ thoughts, which mostly boil down to, “What the . . . ?”
Bending in and under the dihedral doors is an event, every time. Before you fall into the car, you must first hoist yourself over the tall, wide side sills. Graceful entries and exits are not an option, and after a weekend of running routine errands, we found this raises questions about daily drivability. But then, like a hat worn to the Kentucky Derby, this car is about making statements. For some, announcing one’s arrival is a priority that overshadows any thought of inconvenience. And this plug-in hybrid makes a greener statement than any Audi R8, McLaren 570S, or Porsche 911. Tesla owners nod in approval and Prius owners . . . ah, who are we kidding? Prius owners don’t see other cars.
Making America i8
This is the first time we’ve driven and tested a U.S.-spec i8. (The car BMW loaned us was a 2016 model, but nothing significant changes for 2017 except the addition of a Protonic Red Edition; it swaps the cool blue/black color scheme on our test car to an even more visible, Columbus, Ohio–friendly red/gray combo.) Our previous stories, including an instrumented test and a feature, have been based on drives in European cars.
The i8’s three sources of power—a mid-mounted 228-hp turbo inline-three and AC motor and a stronger 129-hp AC motor up front—are the same as in the European car, but this federalized i8 weighed 3484 pounds, about 100 more than either of the other previously tested cars. Thus, it wasn’t quite as quick, with launch control enabling a zero-to-60-mph time of 4.0 seconds (compared with 3.6 and 3.8 for the European examples) and the car dusting off a quarter-mile in 12.5 seconds (down from 12.1 and 12.4). Regardless, the thing accelerates like a solid-fuel rocket when eBoost mode is engaged by pressing the accelerator pedal through the kickdown switch. It delivers the kind of sustained acceleration we’ve experienced in Porsche 911 Turbos.
Calm Star Cruiser
Driven without aggression, the i8 can feel appliancelike, which we mean with no disrespect—few cars that perform this well are so amenable to gentle cruising. The i8 is capable of meandering through traffic like an ordinary family sedan, at least to the extent that those gaping at it allow. There’s great visibility outward, considering how low the car is, so maneuvering around the gawkers is easy.
There are four seats, but the rears are just laughable pads more suited to cushion a football-stadium bench than to transport guests in a $150,000 car, and the space is itself hospitable only for small children. The front seats, however, are extremely comfortable, firm, and supportive in all the right spots to allow long days in the saddle, although they lack the bolstering to complement the 0.95 g that the car can generate in corners.
As with many other BMWs of late, the steering feels light and the pizza-cutter front tires are quick to turn, but we’re gluttons for steering feel—we want a lot more. Chevrolet (Camaro), Cadillac (ATS, CTS), and Porsche (every one of them) have found life in electrically assisted power steering; there is no reason BMW can’t do it. Couple the light steering with brakes that made it a struggle to make smooth stops, particularly in slower city traffic, and it’s tough to rank the plug-in i8 against traditional sports cars—among alternatives, only the faster, costlier Acura NSX offers hybrid power, and it has a much smaller battery and no plug-in recharging option.