Hybrid (Noun) – A small hatchback automobile, powered by gasoline and electricity, best used at lower speeds in city traffic.
If that’s your definition, you need a new dictionary. Hybrids are far better than they’ve ever been, but there’s one coming that’s poised not just to shake up the hybrid segment, but the sports car one as well: the BMW i8.
“The i8 is a spectacular hoot”
On track, the i8 quickly showed its corner-killing tenacity
What’s the i8?
I drove a development model for a few laps at the company’s test facility in Miramas, France. It will be rare and costly, but has the potential for new plug-in hybrid driveline configurations in other models. And it spans an almost ridiculously wide spectrum of driving styles, cruising noiselessly on electricity alone on city streets, or accelerating from zero to 100 km/h in 4.5 seconds, en route to a top speed of 250 km/h when the road opens up.
It’s expected to go on sale in Canada in the first half of 2014, and while pricing and full specs have yet to be announced, a representative said it won’t be less than €100,000 or more than €150,000 in Europe. I’m guessing it’ll hover around the $160,000 to $180,000 mark over here. The production version will be unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show this September.
Inside, the production car should closely mirror the concept’s interior (above)
Tech a step beyond
Like the i3 electric car that BMW recently showed in production form, the i8 makes extensive use of lightweight materials. These include carbon fibre reinforced plastic, which forms its 2+2-configuration body cell and scissor-style door structures; an aluminum chassis and door skins; and thermal plastic body panels. With the driveline and lithium-ion battery thrown in, the car only weighs some 1,490 kilograms.
Starting at the front, the i8 uses an electric motor, borrowed from the i3, which powers only the front wheels. It produces 131 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. When the battery is fully charged, which takes about two hours on the available BMW-designed 220-volt home wall station, the motor can run the i8 on electricity only for some 35 kilometres, using a two-speed transmission mated to the motor, at speeds of up to 120 km/h.
At the back is a 1.5-litre three-cylinder gasoline engine with twin-scroll turbocharger, mated to a rear-mounted six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters. This combination solely drives the rear wheels. Essentially a six-cylinder cut in half, this makes 231 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque. It was a diesel engine in the i8 concept car that made the rounds of the auto shows, but BMW says it switched to petrol for greater worldwide market appeal (meaning it expects Americans to buy a few).
The i8 looks stunning, even naked (above) A cutaway illustration of the gasoline engine at the back (below)
Should the stored battery charge run down in electric-only mode, the i8 works like a conventional hybrid, augmenting it with gasoline power and recharging it through regenerative braking. But, of course, if you’d wanted a Prius, you would have bought a Prius. What you want is to pop it into Sport mode.
The combination of gas and electricity produces a total of 362 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque. Because it has a power source on each axle, the i8 is all-wheel drive, with computers monitoring the steering angle and throttle pressure, and adjusting output at each axle for torque vectoring.
But wait, you’re saying … what about that instant torque? And that did pose an issue, since the electric motor at the front makes its power immediately, while the gas engine at the back needs to rev up.
The solution is the car’s starter/generator, attached to the gasoline unit. This small, high-voltage electric motor cranks the engine, provides regeneration for the battery, and when required, boosts power to the rear axle to synchronize with the instant power at the front.
It will also kick in, for short periods, if you demand maximum acceleration.
And you will. The i8 is a spectacular hoot. It’s eerily silent on battery alone, and it has a gruff grumble as that little engine spools up. But knock it above 4,000 r.p.m. and it responds with a throaty roar. It feels featherweight and it’s eminently tossable; the motor and engine are tucked as closely to the passenger compartment as possible, and the engineers boast a perfect 50/50 weight distribution.
Like the concepts, we expect BMW to sell both coupe and convertible versions of the i8
There was a touch of oversteer on the tight turns, some of which may have been the tires; these were still development mules, and fine-tuning is still ongoing to the aim of neutral handling. The electric power steering had a couple of hard-core sports journalists complaining that they wanted more weight, but I was satisfied with it, and I think most owners will be, too.
Finally, an electric feel
What really impresses about the i8 is the transparency of the technology. I’m fascinated by futuristic machinery, but I want to feel like I’m driving a car, not a computer. For all the electronic decisions this car is making every second, it’s seamless. Unless you’re in the “E-Drive” mode, on battery alone, it simply feels like a fast, well-balanced sports car.
So why bother? It’s tempting to say, “Because they can,” but tightening fuel and emissions standards worldwide are going to eventually hit all cars, and BMW says it wants to be ready. It estimates an overall combined hybrid consumption of 2.9 L/100 km. Take it to the track, and you could be throwing it around for less than 10.0 L/100 km.
It’ll probably even account for some new bragging rights at the country club: “It’ll do two-fifty, and I can go to the cottage for five bucks!”
And it will certainly be redefining the hybrid. BMW has already reserved several other numbers in its “i” program – for “innovation” – and it’s likely that now that it’s shown a small hatchback and promised a slinky sports model, something new is on its way to bridge the difference.