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Crowds that gather around the BMW i8 are easily awed by the gullwing doors, but it’s the wizardry in the powertrain that should be dropping their jaws. The BMW i8 is a stunning supercar-looking coupe that gets some of its power from a cord. More comes out of the gas pump, with a turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder gas engine driving the rear wheels.
The i8 is unique. It’s been on a mission, for the three years it’s been around. BMW’s statement with the i8 is that energy efficiency and high performance can mix just fine.
The BMW i8 is three cars. Around town it’s an electric car, calm, quiet, smooth; on a road trip it’s a seamless hybrid; on country roads it’s a fast sports car.
The i8 can run on the electric motor at the front wheels up to 75 mph, the turbo engine at the rear wheels, or both at the same time for all-wheel drive. It easily alternates. Sport mode makes it real. BMW says 357 horsepower worth of real, with a zero-to-sixty time of 4.2 seconds.
Only the Porsche 918 Spyder, which costs eight times as much as the BMW i8, uses this type of hybrid powertrain, called through the road: The rear wheels are powered by the 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder gas engine, making 228 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, mated to a 6-speed automatic gearbox. Meanwhile, up front, a 96-kilowatt (130 hp) electric motor drives 184 pound-feet of torque into the front wheels through a two-speed transmission. Its spin is supplied by a liquid-cooled 5-kw lithium-ion battery pack, mounted in the tunnel between the front passengers.
The body and chassis structure is ambitious like the powertrain, using a carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) body shell on a crash-absorbing aluminum chassis.
The electric range of the i8 is rated at 15 miles by the Environmental Protection Agency. BMW says the Max E-Mode setting can give up to 22 miles. Either way, it’s not much. Not like the BMW i3’s range of 72 all-electric miles. But of course the i3 is a little hatchback. People see you in the i8 and think you’re a celebrity, they see you in the i3 and think you’re a geek. You want speed and sex appeal, you pay for it in efficiency.
The EPA rates the i8’s total combined range at 330 miles, using a full tank of gas for the hot little turbocharged motor and all the juice in the batteries. In all-electric mode, the EPA rates the i8 at 76 MPGe, or miles per gallon equivalent. It’s the distance a car can travel on the energy in a gallon of gas. By comparison, the i3 hatchback gets 124 MPGe.
With a bit of science and arithmetic, it comes down to this: When you run on both the gas engine and battery-powered motor in the i8, you’ll get about 28 miles per gallon. Not great for a hybrid, but pretty good for a sports car.
For 2016, BMW brings out the world’s first laser headlights, not standard but available. The standard headlamps are LED, suddenly no longer state of the art. The laser lamps are amazing.
Compared against the Audi R8 or Porsche 911, the BMW i8 hybrid cannot run anywhere near them, at least not after about 5 seconds. But it gets better fuel economy and generates lower emissions.