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When car geeks encounter a rare automobile, they say they’ve seen a unicorn. The BMW i8, however, is a different animal. With its otherworldly design, wing-like doors and cutting-edge technology, we’d say this plug-in hybrid is a Pegasus, with bits of Tron and the Terminator thrown in for good measure.
The BMW i8 is like nothing else on the road, inside or out. It catches the attention of everyone it passes, with its low, wide stance, heavily sculpted lines and contrasting color schemes. Beneath its skin of aluminum, carbon fiber and thermoplastic is a lightweight passenger compartment made of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP), bolted to an aluminum shell that houses the i8’s plug-in hybrid architecture.
Powering the BMW i8 is a unique hybrid system. In front, there’s a 129-horsepower electric motor, the same used in BMW’s i3 electric car. Power is sent through the front wheels via a two-stage automatic transmission. In back, there’s a 1.5-liter, three-cylinder gasoline turbocharged engine powering the rear wheels that makes 228 hp and 236 lb.-ft. of torque, mated to a 6-speed automatic. A second, 11-hp electric motor in the rear helps acceleration off the line, with instant torque that compensates for the gas engine’s turbo lag. These work together for a total output of 357 horsepower and a hearty 420 pound-feet of torque. A long, 7.1-kWh lithium-ion battery pack runs down the center of the car, in the space where a drive shaft would normally be.
The BMW i8 can dash from 0-60 mph in just 4.2 seconds, which might not sound like much compared to newer gasoline-sucking speed machines, but it’s quite impressive considering the hybrid powertrain. That’s just one-tenth of a second shy of BMW’s estimated 0-60 mph time for the newest M3 and M4 sports cars, and considerably quicker than the all-electric Tesla Model S, with its 0-60 mph time of 5.4 seconds.
But the BMW i8 is not a track car. Rather, it’s a versatile sports car that excels as a daily commuter or a weekend canyon carver. Three drive modes produce three distinct driving characteristics: Eco Pro maximizes efficiency and energy recovery; Comfort mode favors electric power at lower speeds and uses the gasoline engine at higher speeds and revs; Sport mode is for maximum power and performance with an electric e-Boost function, more athletic steering and quicker shifts.
In electric mode, the BMW i8 can go up to 22 miles without using the gas engine, at speeds of up to 75 mph. Though, as with all electrified cars, range can vary greatly depending on driving style, and air conditioning uses up the battery much faster: We got 9.2 miles of electric range with the A/C set at 73 degrees and the fan on the lowest setting. Total range for the BMW i8 is an estimated 310 miles combined with a full charge and a full tank of gas. Charging time is about 3.5 hours using a 110-volt household outlet, or about 1.5 hours using a 240-volt fast charger. Fuel economy for the 2014 BMW i8 is an estimated 94 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe), whatever that means.
Though it’s technically a body-on-frame design (like trucks and old-school SUVs), there’s no disconnected feeling on the road. On the contrary, the i8’s stiff carbon fiber frame, low center of gravity and 50/50 weight distribution give it amazing road manners. The i8 hugs every curve with a firm, planted feel. And although the narrow tires are designed for efficiency and wrapped around giant 20-inch wheels, we found plenty of grip and very little noise. BMW’s so-called Intelligent all-wheel-drive system continuously adjusts the torque ratio between the front and rear wheels for maximum traction, whether around a tight corner or driving in the rain.
In the cabin, the BMW i8 design is both avant-garde and elegant. Silky-soft leather, tanned with olive leaf extract instead of more commonly used toxic chemicals, sweeps across the expansive dash. The TFT instrument cluster is pleasing to the eye, and changes color depending on the driving mode. The center stack comes with BMW’s widescreen display, along with the iDrive interface. The i8 is technically a 2+2 sports car, but the back seats are only habitable by people less than five feet tall.
The BMW i8 might be short on practicality, as cargo space and storage compartments are small and cramped, but this isn’t a road-trip car, unless your butler follows behind in an X5 with your wheeled suitcases. For quick weekend getaways, there’s always the matching, compact Louis Vuitton luggage made specifically for the i8’s trunk, which will set you back more than $20,000 and is made from carbon fiber.
With its starting price of $135,700, there are many amazing cars that rival the BMW i8 for the money. These include the all-new Maserati Gran Turismo MC, the classic Maserati Quattroporte, the gorgeous Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG roadster, the uber-luxe Mercedes-Benz S-Class S63 AMG and the track-ready Porsche 911 GT-3. But the BMW i8 has no true competitors. While it may not be as fast or as powerful, it is indeed a different animal with its electrified powertrain, broad range of driving capabilities and breathtakingly cool looks.