Anyone alive in 1985 knows the DeLorean DMC 12 was the obvious car of the future. Fast-forward 30 years and the futuristic car is the BMW i8, a plug-in hybrid that looks and feels in every way like it should have a flux capacitor and Doc Brown hidden somewhere within its gorgeous design.
This is a car that stops traffic and generates crowds of passionate, curious, camera-toting onlookers wherever it goes. After a week behind the wheel and a painful farewell to this rare vehicle, I’m already missing the thrill of the drive and the countless conversations with friends and strangers about what, exactly, the BMW i8 is and isn’t.
Let’s explore five reasons you should find some way to drive or ride in the BMW i8.
Reason #1: BMW i8 Stunning Design Draws Attention
I watched lots of people first encounter this i8, and it takes time to fully digest all the features that make this car so compelling and unique. Some people were most impressed by the scissor doors that lift and then turn upwards instead of outwards. There are no door handles on the i8. BMW, instead, has slots within the doors where you have to reach within the panel to find and push a button that releases the door, which lifts so easily it’s frankly surprising. Be warned, however, that while the doors look amazing, getting in and out of this low vehicle requires you channel your inner contortionist and doing so elegantly, particularly if you’re a woman in a skirt, is nearly impossible.
Other people liked the wide stance in front and back. The i8 sits low and menacing, a fact that reveals itself much more in person than in photos. The lights and metal wrap the vehicle tightly, but never in a straight line. In fact, there are really no straight lines on this car.
The 20-inch wheels are as big as they are bold, and BMW offers two choices of stylish alloy rims. LED headlights and accent lights look great and illuminate the road in its blueish color. At some point in the future, laser lights may replace the LEDs, but for now that technology remains for space aliens only.
Even the glass greenhouse makes a statement. Like the car, it’s sleek, rounded and provides an equally good view into and outside this futuristic ride. In a word, the i8 looks like nothing else on the road. And people like it. A lot.
Reason #2: It Looks and Feels Fast
The i8 is a plug-in-hybrid-supercar, and that’s a phrase you don’t hear or read often. The engine on this machine is a relatively small twin-turbocharged 1.5-liter 3-cylinder that makes only 228 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. That’s more than a BMW 320i and less than a BMW 335i. In other words, it’s a small engine that is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that powers the rear wheels only.
An electric motor that generates 129 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque powers the front wheels. That one’s mated to a two-speed transmission. Put it all together and the system translates to an all-wheel-drive vehicle that makes 357 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque. So, yes, it’s zippy, surprisingly so. At sea level, the i8 has managed a run from 0-60 in 3.8 seconds. Though I test cars in Utah at nearly 4,700 feet above sea level and never see speeds like that myself. But the i8 was plenty fast. In fact, when I took a Porsche-driving friend for a ride, he giggled like a little girl at the near-instantaneous burst of speed as we launched up a long freeway on-ramp. The top speed is an electronically limited 155 miles per hour. I never reached anywhere near that speed, but would happy to test the limits on a track some day.
Reason #3: It Drives 70+ MPH on Electric Power Only
One of the coolest things about the i8 is that you can drive it with that combination of engine and electric motors and zip quickly down the road with an impressive and resonant engine note in your ears. Even cooler is that you can press the eDrive button, which essentially transforms the i8 into an electric car that drives for up to 20 miles on electric power only. Plenty of hybrid cars let you drive under electric power for a certain distance. What makes the i8 truly exciting is that you can drive at speeds exceeding 70 mph on electric power only. That means that I could drive the i8 from home to work and back each day without ever using a drop of gasoline. Each night I would plug the vehicle into the BMW iWallbox that charges up to 80 percent of the battery in less than two hours and fully in just over three hours.
And it makes some great sounds. A sonorous whistle emerges from the background as you accelerate in electric mode. Place the shifter in Sport mode and you’ll enjoy a whoosh of turbocharged engine noise alongside that electric whistle. It’s all amazingly rewarding and captivating. And here’s the best part: when you drive the car in Sport mode, the engine sends energy to the battery so you build up your electric reserves while driving the car in its most engaging fashion. Does it get better than that?
BMW doesn’t publish fuel-economy scores for the i8, but the EPA claims that drivers should expect 28 mpg in combined driving using primarily the gas engine and 78 mpge with combined electric motors and gas engine.
Reason #4: The BMW i8 is Easy to Drive
Given the relative difficulty of entering the car through the scissor doors, it’s relieving to find a mostly familiar BMW layout inside. The gear shifter and steering wheel are the same. BMW’s iDrive system works as expected. Though the seats are different than a typical BMW 3, 4 or 5 series, the driving experience still feels like the BMW vehicles drivers have come to adore. Though the i8 has a particularly stiff and dynamic suspension.
Visibility is good out the front and side windows. Like any sports car, visibility is considerably worse out the back and rear windows. But the 10.2-inch full-color flat screen display presents a 360-degree view when you place the car in reverse. And a full-color heads-up display helps keep your eyes on the road and aware or your speed and the posted speed limit, lest you get lost in this turbo-electric moment.
The only challenge I faced was driving the car on wet roads following an early snowstorm. With summer tires on the wheels and damp asphalt below, I managed to kick out the rear of the car when I took a turn a bit too quickly. The stability control systems quickly mitigated the potential risk with some all-wheel-drive intelligence. But the experience instantly reminded me that this is a car best driven on dry roads on a sunny day.
One other practical item to note: the i8 trunk is tiny — just a mere 5.4 cubic-feet of space inside, which was enough to fit my laptop bag and not much else. By comparison, a BMW 4 Series offers 15.7 cubic-feet of space in its trunk. But it’s nowhere near as sexy to look at. And if you really must travel with luggage in your i8, you can purchase the four-piece Louis Vuitton luggage set that is custom-designed to fit perfectly inside an i8. It costs $20,000 and is lovely.
Reason #5: No One Has One
The starting price of a 2014 BMW i8 is $136,650. But you can upgrade the interior by another $10,800 to own an i8 that costs just under $150,000. You can buy a whole ‘lotta Porsche 911 for that price, and many drivers will. But no matter how nicely configured your Porsche is, it won’t draw the same kind of attention that an i8 will — at least for a few years.
That’s because most people have only seen the i8 in photos or Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol. That makes the car both more exotic and more familiar that most supercars and one week of driving this car revealed that people want to see, touch and snap photos of themselves with this car because no one they know has seen this car first-hand.
Here’s a good example of how compelling this car really is: I walked out of work on Thursday afternoon and found a hand-written note placed beneath the windshield wiper. It read, “Please stop by my restaurant on your way out of here. I want to check out your car more.” Justin, a valet at one of Salt Lake City’s nicest restaurant, proudly signed the note.
I drove the car over, of course, and pulled in front of the stand where Justin met me with a huge, wide-eyed grin. He was soon accompanied by camera-wielding food servers who said, “I don’t care if I get fired, I have to sit inside this car.” Evidently, on-duty food servers aren’t supposed to leave the restaurant and spend time with exotic car owners while working.
Justin confessed he had seen me drive by the two prior afternoons and went on a quest to find this car in one of five possible parking lots. He eventually found the i8 and then visited three more times that afternoon to snap photos and get to know the car better.
He told me, “As a valet, I drive everything. Porsche, Maserati, Ferrari, Bentley. But, in my opinion, this is the coolest car you can buy today.”
You can spend $500,000 or even $1 million on a car that will draw a crowd. But I can’t think of any vehicle besides the i8 that costs somewhere between $136 and $150,000 that will collect a similar, more enthusiastic crowd. If you seek attention, put your name on the i8 waiting list, which, at this point, is somewhere between 9 months and a year out.
A Car Worth Praying For
Ultimately, one story best represents the experience and feeling after sitting behind the wheel of the i8. I visited my 8-year-old nephew’s house to ensure this young car fan had a chance to check out the i8 in his driveway. He was wearing his pajamas and nearly ready for bed when I arrived and he sprinted, barefoot, from the house to the driveway and suddenly stopped in his tracks just two feet away from the car.
“That’s awesome,” he said reverently.
“Check this out,” I said as I unlocked the doors and the cabin was instantly bathed in a cool-blue hue.
“Whoa! Blue! More awesome.”
He sat in the front seat and then I encouraged him to press the brake pedal and push the Start/Stop button, which he happily did. When it made its trademark spaceship “whoosh” sound, he smiled and even more reverently said, “So awesome!”
After a few more minutes in the cabin, with the promise of a ride sometime over the weekend, he walked slowly back into his house, regularly looking over his shoulder for one last look at this car.
I pulled away from the house, content that I had given this young kid and my younger brother a delicious taste of the future when a text message from my brother arrived on my phone. It read: “Dear God, please let me ride in that BMW again.”
That was how my nephew started his evening prayer and if I’m honest, I feel exactly the same.
2014 BMW i8 photo copyright Waterdog Media, Inc.