THUNDER AND LIGHTNING: BMW i8 REVIEW

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The BMW i8 is a $150,000 talisman of absurdity: when you’re driving it, ridiculousness happens all around you. For example, on occasion, Australian actor and bona fide motorsports aficionado Eric Bana approaches you in a deserted sliver of Boston, alone and wearing a backpack. He asks when it comes out, how it performs. Then he wanders off into the golden rays of the mid-morning horizon, destination unknown.

In fairness, I can’t say with certainty that it was Eric Bana. (I tried bribing him, to no avail.) But I do know that people have a fascination with this car that’s unrivaled by any road-going object I’ve ever been around.

Effectively explaining the i8 in a few words can be a challenge. For lack of a better description, it’s BMW’s exclamation point: an unapologetic, outrageous supercar that looks unlike anything else the auto industry has ever made. In that regard it echoes unmistakable BMW icons like the 507 and M1, but the i8 is more than just a unique car — it’s an over-the-top expression of BMW’s vision for the future of the automobile.

It’s a mess of beautiful contradictions. It’s an exotic with just 357 total horsepower; it’s an electric car with a gasoline engine; it’s one of the most expensive cars BMW makes, yet has one of the lowest fuel costs.

I spent three days driving this four-wheeled, carbon fiber-wrapped cluster of insanity through the spectacular New England fall. Eric Bana, eat your heart out.

BMW i8

Elegance, an acquired skill

My journey in the i8, which took me 960 miles from our New York City office to Maine’s Acadia National Park and back, started inconspicuously enough in a Manhattan parking garage. Actually, that’s a lie: not a single thing about the i8 is inconspicuous.

Just getting into this car is a spectacle. One does not simply "get into the i8," you see. You need a plan. If you don’t have a plan, your reckless nonchalance imperils your dignity as you flop helplessly between the pavement, the i8’s deeply recessed passenger compartment, and the tall, wide sill of fancy carbon-reinforced plastic that separates the two. Everyone looks the same the first time they try to get into the car: a hesitant approach, followed by a tentative duck, as if they’re about to leap headfirst into the cabin and worry about the legs later. That doomed tactic is quickly abandoned and followed by a leg-first technique, which eventually succeeds with wildly varying levels of elegance. The entire time, you’re at risk of bumping your skull against the open door, which rests just overhead.

Just getting into this car is a spectacle

Door anxiety was gripping me, rushing through my mind as I headed to the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea to pick the car up. I handed the parking attendant my paperwork, proving that I’d somehow convinced BMW to lend me a car worth more than my last several cars put together. His eyes grew wide. "This is the one with the suicide doors, right?" I briefly considered explaining the difference between suicide doors (which open rearward) and the i8’s scissor doors, but I knew what he meant; more importantly, they’re both conspicuous methods of egress designed to call attention to yourself as you step out of your whip and onto the set of Miami Vice. Cast in that light, I figure all crazy doors are suicide doors.

The garage was small, working stiffs’ rides stacked two high on the tail end of a Friday afternoon. After a few minutes spent searching for the i8 among the steel towers, the valet pulled it out onto the curb from an adjacent building. It was the first time in my journey that the car got special treatment, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last. The valet handed me the key and smiled. "Enjoy it."

Easier said than done. I still had to come to grips with the challenge of getting into the i8, and my chances of looking cool getting into a fancy car in the heart of Chelsea, surrounded by trendy Manhattanites, were practically nil. That’s a shame, because a sloppy entrance doesn’t do the i8 justice. It’s not just striking in the standard, gaze upon this meticulously designed supercar sort of way, the way you might stare at a Ferrari 458 or a Porsche 918. The i8 looks like an artifact from Tron fell out of the heavens somewhere near Munich and was given a once-over by some of the most fanatical automotive engineers in the world.

It’s not particularly common to see a supercar delivered from the factory with a multicolor paint scheme — monochromatic often works best, because the cars’ lines speak for themselves — but the i8 is a rare exception. My test car was silver and black with a touch of blue, and all three serve an important function: silver is the primary color, while black helps conceal the substantial vent on the hood and causes the science-fiction taillights to stand out from the remainder of the rear. Streaks of blue and a matching ring around the BMW roundel subtly identified the electric powertrain. It sounds ostentatious, but it just kind of works. I’m actually not sure a monochrome i8 would look very good.

After a couple walkarounds, I realized I was just distracting myself from the very real task of climbing into the car, so I did. It wasn’t pretty, but I got in. I fiddled with the transmission joystick until I figured out how to pop it into drive, and shuttled off.

BMW i8

Piloting the i8 on public roads is about the closest you can get to feeling like Bruce Wayne without literally being Batman. You’re low to the ground, practically sitting on the pavement, next to slivers of windows that don’t even roll down all the way (forget trying to look 5 percent cooler by throwing your elbow over the sill). The effect is enhanced at night by a series of beautiful light pipes on the dashboard and doors. They glow a rich blue by default, but can be reconfigured to glow orange or white depending on your mood and whether your Tron character is good or evil. You can also turn them off, but you don’t own this car to drive it with the light pipes disabled. That would be crazy.

The closest you can get to feeling like Bruce Wayne without literally being Batman

I drove the i8 with two white-knuckled fists on the steering wheel and my head on a swivel, partly because it wasn’t mine, but also because it has the old sports car curse of limited visibility. Your rear view is through two panes of glass — one separating you from the engine compartment (ostensibly to cut noise) and the actual rear window, which is a deeply slanted hexagon. Blind spots are a challenge, too, but the car is outfitted with a bunch of tools to help: the side mirrors have built-in convex sections to cover the blind spots, and there are a bunch of cameras and sensors all over the place that identify obstacles. If you’re dangerously close to something, a computer-generated overhead view of the car on the iDrive display helps negotiate tight spaces.

The i8 evokes strong, instant reactions everywhere it goes. It takes a truly enormous event to draw the attention of Manhattanites who spend their entire lives in a state of sensory overload, yet I couldn’t travel more than a block without pedestrians grinning from ear to ear and whipping out their phones to take pictures. Some stood directly next to the car and indulged in a selfie. A garbage truck operator honked and gave me a thumbs-up. In the few fleeting seconds waiting for each red light to turn green, fellow drivers all wanted to know the same thing: What is it? How much power does it have? Is it electric? How much does it cost?

"Hey!" a limo driver shouted from my left side. "You want to trade, you let me know." He went on to summon my attention three different times as we traveled in adjacent lanes up 10th Avenue, his New York accent thick and genuine, asking the usual questions about the car and fondly recalling the memory of his Mercedes-Benz CLS 500. "I had the first one in all of Manhattan," he beamed, proudly proclaiming that the swoopy four-door coupe elicited similar reactions when it first came out that the i8 was getting now.

In Queens’ Astoria Park, the first of our many stops to shoot the car, drivers were quite literally coming to a full stop in the middle of the street to gawk. "You made me do a U-turn," said one in a late-model BMW 3-Series that was full of twentysomethings looking for trouble on a Friday night. I felt like I was walking the world’s cutest dog through Central Park, except instead of a dog it was a six-figure testament to German insanity, and instead of Central Park it was the entirety of New England.

Once we got on the expressway, Boston-bound, I was finally able to start taking in the car in earnest — its sights, its sounds, its features. (I was also finally starting to get the hang of ingress and egress, which was a big confidence-builder when we were stopping for food or bio breaks.) With the drivetrain in Comfort mode — the default, which lightens the steering and takes some fire out of the engine’s belly — the i8 is nearly silent. The mode saves a bit on gas. I don’t know why you’d ever use this; hell, even the porter who’d delivered the car to me told me to just leave it in Sport for the entire drive. You don’t buy a car that looks like this for silence. And while you might buy it to save on gas on principle, you’re not buying it to save money. (For what it’s worth, I got between 29 and 35 mpg on our trip, depending on how hard I was driving it. I suspect I could’ve done considerably better if I’d babied the throttle and stayed in Eco Pro mode, which is even more miserly than Comfort.)

BMW i8

In Sport mode, the car makes a symphony of wonderful sounds both high-tech and low. There’s a Jetsons-esque whistle from the electric motor, another whistle of forced air from the turbo, and a thunderous growl from the… 3-cylinder engine. It’s completely incongruous for an engine this small to make this much noise. It’s accomplished in part with exhaust tuning, and in part by artificially enhancing the engine sound through the i8’s speaker system. Yes, the noise is fake. No, I don’t care. It sounds great, it sounds like a sports car is supposed to sound. It’s music to the ears, and if you didn’t know what was going on, you’d swear it was the genuine article. There will come a day in a decade or three when adults are accustomed to fast, silent sports cars, but until that day comes, BMW has carte blanche to make this gas sipper sound like a guzzler, as far as I’m concerned.

There’s also a mode that BMW calls "eDrive," selected by pressing a button next to the ignition, which tries really hard (but doesn’t promise) to run the car on electric power alone. The i8 reminds me of other gas-dependent plug-in hybrids in that it’s not really intended to run in an electric-only mode for an extended period of time; it cuts over to gas if you go above 75 miles per hour (which, to be fair, will cover your legal activities on the overwhelming majority of American roads). More to the point, BMW quotes a maximum electric range of just 22 miles, and I never saw the range gauge go above 11, which isn’t going to get you very far unless you use your German exotic exclusively for tragically slow, short jaunts around the isle of Manhattan. I couldn’t fully test the i8’s chops as an EV — the company supplied me with a European-spec model and warned me not to plug it in, if for no other reason than the fact that the supplied charger had a euro plug on it. Sport and Comfort mode both partially recharge the batteries automatically while you drive, but I was never able to fully replenish the pack. (If I had, it would’ve happened in about an hour and a half on a standard Level 2 charger, according to BMW’s literature.)

BMW has carte blanche to make this gas sipper sound like a guzzler, as far as I’m concerned

In Sport mode, BMW claims a 0-60 run in 4.2 seconds, which feels about right; even eDrive, which doesn’t benefit from the gas engine’s extra punch, feels fast. Acceleration isn’t instantaneous, though. I’d mash on the pedal expecting to be immediately glued to the back of my seat, only to be let down; it was almost as if the car was saying "wait for it…" before lighting the afterburners. I imagine it’s a side effect of an extraordinarily complex drivetrain that needs to coordinate power from two completely different systems — a two-speed, 129-horsepower motor in front and a six-speed engine with 228 horsepower in back — but there are lots of cars on the road, many at the $100,000 mark or below, that could smoke the i8. It’s easy to get cocky in a car that looks like this, but it’s not recommended.

It does handle well, which doesn’t really come as a surprise: it’s a low-slung supercar, after all. There’s also BMW’s fanatical demand for 50:50 weight distribution, putting a nearly identical amount of mass fore and aft. It’s not particularly light — curb weight is listed at 3,455 pounds — but it would’ve been even heavier had the company used a traditional construction technique instead of the carbon fiber-reinforced plastic that comprises the entire frame. You can see bits of it in the door sills and around the trunk; it’s not as beautiful or as meticulously laid as a traditional carbon fiber weave, but it still looks different and cool.

BMW i8
BMW i8
BMW i8

Bring a chase car

Over the next day and a half, we finished our drive to Boston before eventually reaching Maine’s beautiful Acadia National Park in search of the perfect backdrops for our shoot. Along the way, we were stopped by two extremely friendly and awesome Massachusetts State Police officers, a throng of curious onlookers, and one possible Eric Bana.

That kind of road trip requires luggage. It’s a lucky thing I had a chase car following me, because the i8 has the least storage space of any car I’ve driven since my microscopic Lotus Elise: the rear glass pops open to reveal a trunk that would be generously described as a "nook," or perhaps a "cranny." That’s the peril of a mid-engine car — the three-banger is concealed beneath a black carpeted box that consumes the overwhelming majority of the rear space.

The rear glass pops open to reveal a trunk that would be generously described as a "nook," or perhaps a "cranny"

Some rear-engined cars — Porsche 911s, for instance — make up for the indiscretion with a front bonnet that can hold a couple bags. Not the i8, though: that’s where the electric motor is. In fact, the front of the car can’t even be opened at all without some trouble. The space of last resort, then, is the area occupied by the rear seats — but they’re deeply bucketed, which can make placing luggage a challenge (as I discovered). A few bags of groceries wouldn’t be a problem, but road trips in an i8 are best enjoyed with a support vehicle, which you can probably afford if you’re driving a $150,000 car.

BMW i8

For all the high-design futurism of the exterior, the interior is a bit bland. It’s not ugly by any stretch, it’s just not much nicer than BMWs that cost half as much. The trimmings are basically the same as the ones you’d find in a 3- or 5-series: there’s an iDrive controller in the center that maps to a widescreen display resting atop the center console, which is how you control navigation, entertainment, and an almost endless array of vehicle settings. The gear selector, which is basically a joystick, is also raided from the company-wide parts bin. The wide tunnel separating the driver from the front passenger is certainly cool and supercar-ish, but the two storage compartments in it are barely an inch or two deep, and there’s only a single cupholder to share between you and your driving partner. Two more cupholders at the back of the tunnel service the rear passengers, which is funny, because the rear seats are the punchline to a six-figure joke: there’s absolutely no reason for them to exist. It’s possible you could stow a toddler back there, but really, you’re not buying an i8 to haul three or four people around. BMW should’ve just chucked the rear accommodations, saved the weight, and made this a genuine two-seater.

Of course, it’s sacrilege to judge a car like this by its storage options or its cupholders — who drinks in an i8, like a heathen? — but when you’re trying to make it to Maine and back in the span of a couple days, willfully excessive caffeination is an inevitability.

The heads-up display (HUD) on the i8, which is similar to the system found on other BMWs, is really good. I really never looked at the instrument cluster while driving, actually, which is a testament to the HUD’s usability. I’ve used heads-up systems extensively, and I really do believe that good ones have a material impact on safety by keeping your eyes up on the road where they belong. This one does the job: I always felt like my current speed was somehow being beamed directly into my brain, which is what a good HUD does for you — it just becomes an ambient nexus of information, not something you need to concentrate on. The instrument cluster is less impressive: the surround looked weirdly plain to me, as if engineers had taken a tablet, masked off part of the display with paint, and glued the resulting Frankencluster to the dash. It’s just not fitting for a car that looks and feels like this. BMW does make nice instrument clusters for sports cars — just look at the M4 and M6 — but those are digital-analog hybrids, incorporating both dials and displays. For the i-Series, it seems, BMW is sticking with digital displays alone, and those are harder to dress up. (It’s no surprise, then, that the i3 also uses a plain-looking LCD for the cluster — albeit a smaller one.)

The actual graphics on the instrument cluster are, to be fair, appropriately cool. The 8.8-inch slab of glass is dominated by a pair of sharply rendered arcs that indicate speed and power distribution — basically, whether you’re being propelled by batteries, gas, or a combination of both. Toggling the drivetrain’s Sport mode changes the color scheme from blue to red, a non-verbal way of communicating that you’ve summoned all the power that the i8’s two sources of propulsion can muster.

BMW i8

The long goodbye

There are faster vehicles you can buy for the price of the i8, vehicles with better pedigrees and more legitimate sports car credentials. But you don’t buy the i8 for any of that: you buy it because it’s a tightly-wound bundle of technology and forward design. You buy it because it’s the closest thing to a road-going concept car. You buy it because it’s kind of weird. You buy it because it’s a conversation starter, even among hardened NYPD street cops working the graveyard shift.

You also buy it because you have a lot of money to spare.

We lingered far too long in Maine just taking in the car, enjoying it, sharing it with countless passersby, and shooting it from every conceivable angle. We didn’t get back into New York City until early the next morning, just hours before BMW was scheduled to pick it up. One of our final moments with the car took us through a deserted Times Square, which seemed fitting: electricity meeting electricity, spectacle meeting spectacle.

You buy it because it’s the closest thing to a road-going concept car; you buy it because it’s kind of weird

As I searched for a Manhattan garage that seemed trustworthy enough to hand the i8’s keys at 3 in the morning, an NYPD cruiser lit me up. Drowsy from 16 hours of driving and filming, I briefly considered that a high-speed chase through the Big Apple would be the perfect end to this story; I came to my senses about a third of a second later and drifted off to the side of 29th Street. The officer approached my window, flashlight shining directly in my eyes. I’d turned right on a red, which is illegal here, it turns out.

After a stern talking-to, the conversation inevitably turned to the car. "I asked my partner, what is that, a Lambo?" I explained that it was not, in fact, a Lambo. I showed him the scissor doors, the carbon fiber; I described the unusual engine configuration. He smiled and told me to be safe; I told him to visit The Verge.

Video: Jordan Oplinger and Tom Connors
Photography: Sean O'Kane