Preview: BMW i8 hybrid is fast and fun, but it won't be cheap

Early test drive suggests gas-electric i8 will be truly impressive

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

MIRAMAS, FRANCE?Three cylinders. Two electric motors. Two transmissions. Gas power for the back wheels, battery power for the front ones. And it plugs into the wall.

This is a sports car?

Oh, yes.

Having just revealed the production version of its i3 electric city car, BMW has now given a glimpse of the second model in the ?i? (for ?innovation?) program: the i8 hybrid.

Toronto Star Wheels received a special invitation to briefly drive the i8 on the company?s test track in France, using masked cars that are still in development. The car will be officially unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show next month, with Canadian sales expected to start in the first half of 2014.

Given the estimates mentioned, I?m guessing it will be priced between $150,000 and $200,000. It?s hard to compare that to other sports cars you may be considering because, at least for now, its powertrain and construction are unique.

It?s fast, but frugal at the pumps, and you?ll spend much of your time just explaining to your friends exactly how it works.

Essentially, it?s a plug-in hybrid. Charge it up and, for moderate city driving, you can cruise almost silently for 35 kilometres on battery power alone. But once the road opens up, so does the i8, blending internal combustion and electricity that can take you from zero to 100 km/h in 4.5 seconds, with a top speed of 250 km/h.

The i8 concept car used a diesel engine, but the production model will use gasoline, since BMW intends to sell the i8 worldwide and says diesel can be a tough sell in some countries (meaning the U.S., basically).

Essentially a 3.0-L six-cylinder cut in half, the 1.5-L gasoline engine is boosted with a twin-scroll turbocharger, and produces 231 horsepower. It?s mounted in the rear, as close as possible to the passenger compartment for ideal weight distribution. Hooked to a six-speed automatic transmission, its job is to power the rear wheels.

There?s no stick shift available, the engineers say, because of the complicated gas-and-electric system. However, there is a manual mode, where you swap gears through the shift lever or wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

The engine?s liquid cooling system is up front, where you?ll also find a 131-hp electric motor borrowed from the i3. It exclusively powers the front wheels.

In electric-only mode, the car uses a two-speed transmission mated to the electric motor and is front-wheel drive, with a top speed of 120 km/h. The driver selects electric-only with a button, but if the battery isn?t sufficiently charged, the gasoline engine will supplement it, as a conventional hybrid does.

The electric drive system is also tucked in close to the cabin, for an even weight distribution of 50:50. The lithium-ion battery sits lengthwise between the seats, giving the car a low centre of gravity. Charging takes about two hours with a 220-volt outlet, and you?ll be able to buy a BMW-designed home station that mimics the shape of the car?s roof.

But it?s when the gas and electricity work together ? especially if you pop over to the Sport setting, instead of Comfort or the ultra-efficient Eco-Pro ? that the real magic begins.

The combination makes 362 horsepower and 420 lb.-ft. of torque. And the car only weighs 1,490 kilograms.

The combination of electrically-driven front wheels and gas-driven rear ones could potentially be problematic, given that electric motors make their power right away, while the engine and turbo have to rev up.

That issue is solved with a small, high-voltage electric motor at the back. It starts the gasoline engine and uses regeneration to recharge the battery, and can immediately augment the power to the rear axle to overcome any discrepancy between the instant-torque motor on the front wheels, and the slight lag on the rear ones.

If you really want to show off, all three will work together for short periods of maximum acceleration.

And this thing does accelerate, producing a wonderfully throaty growl as the engine hits its higher revs. The electric power steering isn?t as weighted as, say, the M6, but it responds immediately, and the car feels light and lithe when tossed around.

The variable torque split between front and rear is achieved by concentrating more on electric or gasoline power as needed, and the car ?reads? the steering angle and provides more rear bias going into turns.

My car exhibited a bit of understeer (some of which might have been the tires), and made an odd clunk when powering out of one turn. But the car is still in development and the engineers are dialling in the suspension for neutral handling.

Like the i3 city car, the i8 is made almost entirely of lightweight materials, including an aluminum chassis, carbon-fibre reinforced plastic body, aluminum door skins, and thermal plastic body panels.

The acoustic divider between cabin and cargo is made of flexible, chemically-hardened glass, the type used on smartphones, and while the dual-curve hatch is conventional glass, BMW is trying to see if it can eventually use the high-tech type as well.

I?m glad I didn?t wear a skirt: the doors open scissor-style, and you have to manoeuvre over a wide sill and fall into the deep-set seat. The swing-up door design was more practical given the car?s structure. But, more importantly, that?s what the futuristic i8 concept car had, and the designers wanted it to look as much like it as possible.

Everything?s about aerodynamics, from air flow that cools the brakes without tumbling around the wheel wells, to deep grooves in the rear flanks for downforce, to mirrors that slough off raindrops.

Final figures are a long way off, but BMW anticipates an overall combined hybrid consumption of 2.9 L/100 km, and track-style driving that should come in at less than 10 L/100 km.

Of course, if you?re paying that much for something that goes that fast, do you really care about fuel economy?

Some might, but I expect the greater satisfaction will be bragging rights, as owners show off a car that can run with the big boys and hey, look at the fuel figures!

There?s always a danger that too many bells and whistles can overwhelm the driving experience. The i8 certainly has enough stuffed into it. But BMW seems to have achieved its goal: on a first drive, this car is truly impressive. The future may be fuel-efficient, but it can also be fun.

Transportation for freelance writer Jil McIntosh was provided by the manufacturer. Email:

  • Preview: BMW i8 hybrid is fast and fun, but it won't be cheap BMW i8 masked development car on the company's test track in Miramas, France - photo courtesy BMW
  • Preview: BMW i8 hybrid is fast and fun, but it won't be cheap The BMW i8, as a masked development vehicle, at the company's test track in Miramas, France - photo courtesy BMW

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