2017 BMW i8 Review: Space Oddity

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2017 BMW i8

5Series.net spends a week learning about the strange combination of hardware and characteristics that make up the 2017 BMW i8.

Back in the summer of 2006, I visited my uncle Shahab in Germany. My Persian was terrible and I didn’t know German. He spoke his adoptive country’s native tongue, but his English wasn’t that great. However, food was a language we both spoke fluently. As soon as I got off the plane, he treated me to a beer in the airport. A few days later, Shahab took me to a restaurant his friend owned. Ali appeared to be of Far Eastern descent, spoke Persian, and made pizza in Germany. My cultural horizons broadened the second I met him. The pie he pulled out of one of his ovens was topped with ingredients that stretched the bounds of my culinary experiences: large, thick slices of salami and rings of pepperoncini. When I first laid eyes on the milky white, blotchy red, and nuclear-waste green creation, I thought, This is going to be terrible.

I was wrong to think that and happy to be corrected. My pizza turned out to be delicious. The richness of the cured sausage balanced out the mildness of the mozzarella cheese and the peppers added a slight kick. I had a similar experience with the 2017 BMW i8.

2017 BMW I8

It certainly wasn’t because of the way it looked. I loved the i8 the second it arrived it front of my apartment. Visually, it was a stunner, an aluminum and carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) reason to believe that its beauty was not a subjective matter, but a universal truth. Its low nose made it look predatory, as if it was crouched and skulking through the undergrowth. The doors ascended as they opened, their window frames reaching toward each other as onlookers reached for their phones to take pictures and words other than “the Batmobile” to describe the i8. Lines swooped and swelled in all the right places, particularly where the wings flanking the back hatch and the rear pontoon fenders nearly converged.

2017 BMW I8

The thing about the i8 that brought my trip to Europe to mind was how it combined such seemingly disparate elements together in such a satisfying way. A glance at it – no matter how long it lasted or lustful it became – wasn’t enough to accurately tell me what to expect from it.

Based on the i8’s design alone, it’s reasonable to think it has a gazillion horsepower, makes timing equipment smoke with every shuttle-like takeoff, and tops out at just past the speed of light. The i8’s stats aren’t quite that exotic. In fact, its entire powertrain isn’t a mind-blowing, otherworldly combination of propulsion systems. No plutonium-fueled Y17. No 5-wheel drive. The eDrive electric motor generates 129 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque and uses that and a 2-speed automatic to power the front wheels. A turbocharged 1.5-liter 3-cylinder connected to a 6-speed auto and the back axle pumps out 228 horsepower and 236 lb-ft.

 

ALSO SEE: What Forum Members Have to Say About the BMW i8

 

When you do the math, total output comes out to 357 horses and 420 units of grunt. In other words, eight fewer ponies and the same amount of twist as the decidedly everyday 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 that Ford put in the last-generation F-150. Flat out, the i8 can get to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds and to a top speed of 155 mph. Off paper and in the real world, the i8 appears and feels faster than it is. I planted my right foot numerous times and expected to see the head-up display showing a speed aorta-crushingly higher than I should’ve been going. Instead, I typically saw a roughly 10-mph difference between what was on a black-and-white sign and what I would’ve been clocked doing.

2017 BMW i8

As wild as the i8 looked on the outside, its comfortable Giga World-trimmed interior was almost disappointingly conventional BMW. The architecture was special, but covered with the loot of a corporate parts bin raid. While I wasn’t blown away by the familiar switchgear and materials in a $150,000 butterfly-door, mid-engine automotive styling masterpiece with laser high beams, I understood BMW’s cost-saving decision to use them. What I found odd was BMW’s insistence on putting two rows of seats in such a vehicle. My girlfriend and I could’ve traveled across the country in complete physical bliss in the two front buckets, but I had a hard time imagining anyone but children being comfortable in the back seats for more than an hour.

2017 BMW i8 Back Seat

The i8’s 7.1-kWh lithium-ion battery pack can be charged using its 1.4-kW occasional use cable or 3.3-kW public charging stations, making it a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. That doesn’t make the i8 unique; many vehicles these days use a mix of dino juice and grid gas to get down the road. One of the things that makes the i8 unusual is the fact that, in terms of its exotic aesthetics and $143,400 starting price (only the M760i sedan has a higher price of entry; my tester had a sticker price of $152,695), it’s a flagship car…with an I3…that has lower numbers than the M-light M550i four-door…from a two-model BMW sub-brand.

2017 BMW i8 Start Button

Thankfully, the i8 is also a plug-in that doesn’t need to be plugged in to charge up. Setting its Driving Experience Control to ECO PRO (in either hybrid or pure-electric mode) conserves fossil fuel and/or electric power. In its all-electric eDRIVE setting, the i8 can travel up to 15 miles. You can use a cord to top off its battery pack in 2.5 hours or do what I did and just engage the i8’s Sport mode, which recovers energy during stopping and going to aggressively pump kWh into the batteries. After 20-30 minutes of spirited driving, the battery gauge showed a range that was five miles higher than it was before.

One particular time I spent charging the battery pack through Sport mode had just as energizing an effect on me. I was on City Park Road, an asphalt serpent that slithers through Austin, Texas. As I entered its mouth, I bumped the shifter to the left to activate Sport. The gauges lit up red, the mechanical voice of the 3-cylinder behind me grew louder and throatier. The left pedal scrubbed off speed smoothly and predictably, much like it did in the 530i I tested earlier this year. In every curve in the road, the weight of the i8’s electric steering changed from digital to tactile, into the scruff of an animal’s neck that I could grab and use to pitch the creature further and further along the winding path I was forcing it to lead me down. I may not have been going as fast as I would’ve been in a 488 GTB, but I was also unleashing a greater percentage of the i8’s power on a public road than I would’ve been able to in the Ferrari. I blasted through the turns with my eyes on the next curve instead of my mind on how much output I wasn’t enjoying. For all of its oddities, I loved driving the i8, not just being seen in it. I didn’t want the road to end.

2017 BMW i8 Wheel

Just like that pizza I tried 11 years ago in Germany, there was more to the 2017 BMW i8 than just its looks. It mixed together things that I never pictured being combined. It was a hybrid of gas and electric power, a fusion of the ordinary and the extraordinary, a union of exclusivity and accessibility. In both cases, eating my words tasted pretty damn good.

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