The weather hasn't been pleasant this spring in Eastern Canada, but we've finally seen the end of freezing surroundings and turned a corner with flowers, weeds and allergies blossoming. I had to go on a business road trip from Toronto to Ottawa, which doesn't seem like a long distance, but with plenty of stops planned and a chance to see bits and pieces of Ontario, the weather change couldn't have come at a better time.
If you're renting a vehicle or happen to be an automotive journalist, selecting your choice for a road trip becomes a difficult task. Naturally, there are the top sellers that blend in with the masses, but many will hope for one of two choices that are actually complete opposites: a green-focused car or a fancy sports or supercar. On one end, the green car helps not only the environment, but saves you money in the process thanks to low fuel economy ratings. The sports car end of the spectrum provides you a fun-filled weekend that will present you with more attention and possibly a bit of swagger.
But, what if you could combine both options to make one spectacular, futuristic vehicle that offers both? Well, that actually exists in the BMW i8, making it the perfect choice for this mission.
BMW is ahead of the curve on this one, offering up a plug-in hybrid that attracts a copious amount of attention. I've actually never seen this much attention, even when driving any other including a recent stint in the new Lamborghini Huracán.
With the i8, I had people following me into my routine stops, running over to take pictures with it; even rival dealership workers came out to see what this cool-looking blue car was all about. And that's really the glue that brought all of this attention—nobody knew what it was and that was before the gullwing doors opened that added a whole different dimension of excitement for my devotees. It's not like people came up and said, “Hey, cool i8!”
Instead, I got quotes such as “is that a car you can actually buy?” or “I typically know my cars, but I've never seen this one.” But my favourite of all, outside of a Tim Horton's in Brockville, Ontario, was “You're getting close to winning. You know, the guy with the nicest toy.”
To answer everyone's questions, let's take a closer look at what the BMW i8 is. It's a two-seat, plug-in hybrid coupe that combines sexy exterior design cuts and an entire passenger safety cell made of carbon fibre with electric charging capabilities. Yes, there are two tiny seats in the back, but minimal legroom is found, making those seats suited only for young children or babies, a pet or groceries. However, you will have a hard time getting anything in the back, especially something that's precious thanks to the futuristic angle cuts on this car. What may look good from the outside is not ideal for the inside, but more on that later.
The BMW i8 uses a rear-mounted 1.5-litre, turbocharged three-cylinder gasoline engine that produces 228 hp. When combined with the electric engine in the front that adds in 129 hp, the i8 total power output weighs in at 357 hp and 420 lb.-ft. of torque. The electric end uses a 7.1-kWh lithium-ion battery that's mounted between the seats for a pure electric range of 24 kilometres. The whole system utilizes a six-speed automatic transmission that works differently depending on which driving mode is used: Eco Pro, Comfort or Sport that can be activated via a shifter slide.
Clearly, Eco Pro mode allows you to maximize your fuel economy and you can further that by putting the car in “eDrive”—a button found below the gear shifter—that shuts off any additional power sources including air conditioning and makes regeneration a priority. Comfort mode scales that back for a smoother ride, but it's in Sport mode with its optional paddle shifters that the i8 turns from an eco-friendly wonder into a growling beast that's ready to rev.
However, Sport mode comes with a surprising catch—the hybrid workings get shut off in Sport, but during its off-time, the i8 charges up in approximately an hour to bring back your pure electric range, eliminating the constant need to charge up for a measly 24 km.
The i8 in Sport mode is fun and possesses speed, but its actual performance doesn't match the harsh acceleration that its outer appearance exudes. Don’t get me wrong; it's quick, with torque instantly coming from its electric motor, allowing it to rip though stretches on Highway 401 and the more picturesque Highway 2. It just does it in a more relaxed fashion.
The central battery allows the coupe to have a 50/50 weight distribution for perfect balance that helps out in the handling department. Overall, the handling is adequate, but not at the level of certain Lamborghinis or Porsches after a few incidents of understeer. Going through the picturesque roads of Prince Edward County, the i8 possessed sharp steering for an electric setup, as it was able to weave its way comfortably with minimal steering inputs.
The i8 sits low to the ground which could typically lend its passengers to experience some of the bumps. However, BMW has done a fine job in absorbing them and smoothing out the ride. In the end, the i8 is more a cruiser than a track car, and it shows by its fuel economy numbers that averaged 6.6 L/100 km over 1200 kilometres, with a 75/25 highway to city split. In pure electric mode, the i8 achieved 2.4 L/100 km.
It does take time to get used to the literal ins-and-outs of the i8. It might look cool from the outside, but getting in and out is not for everyone. I actually found getting in easier after you contort your body in a certain way and then slide into those comfortable bucket seats. Climbing out involves getting your feet out first and a pull upwards. Other issues would involve the seat belt never falling into its slit and becoming a burden to reach back and grab, as well as a navigational system that's part of the BMW's iDrive entertainment unit that can be initially confusing before adjusting to it.
If you're looking for something with storage, the i8 isn't the car for you. My two bags barely fit in the back, while another piece of luggage had to find its way into the back seat. The good news is that it all fit!
At a base price of $150,000, it doesn't come cheap, but for the stares the i8 gets, you would think it's well over the $200K mark. The BMW i8 is simply something to behold with a split-wing design, sleek LED lights and a drool-dropping designed gap between the trunk and rear fender.
It's not the fault of onlookers that they don't know what it is, there's not too many on the road and by the sultry, sexy looks of it, it seems ahead of its time and more a concept than one actually in production. It won't win awards for the fastest or most agile car out there, but it makes a spectacular statement for what hybrid cars can achieve and look like.
As a road trip vehicle, the BMW i8 sure garners more attention than any car I've ever driven whether you're in Toronto, Ottawa, or in between. It may not possess a large pure electric range, but the environmentally-friendly technologies that it does possess pave a path for BMW as one of the leaders in the green automotive movement with nowhere to go but up.