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Munich's tech-laden electrified streak can now be had from £30k - here's how it stacks up

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When it arrived in 2014, the BMW i8 arrived like a bolt from the blue.

When it went off sale in 2021 it left us open-mouthed and still reeling from the shock, unable to work out if this butterfly-doored, low-slung and extravagantly constructed plug-in hybrid sports car was the Great Leap Forward or a slightly underwhelming Porsche 911 rival, with its six-figure price tag and the engine from a Mini Cooper.

The BMW i8 can sprint from 0-60mph in 4.5sec and is electronically limited to 155mph

Where it unquestionably succeeded, though, is with its Blade Runner-aping design. The i8 remained recognisably a BMW, but it didn’t look a lot like any other cooking BMW.

It looked (and still looks) terrific, and time and depreciation being what they are, you can now put one on your driveway for not much more than £30,000 – and you’re very unlikely to see its price go lower. So it’s an exotic investment, then?

Could be… Underneath its extravagant exterior, the i8 mixed a combustion engine, an electric motor and a lithium ion battery pack. It could run, in the earlier cars, for up to 23 miles on electric-only power (postfacelift models upped this to 34 miles) and claimed an official NEDC fuel consumption figure of 135mpg.

At its heart, that engine is, as mentioned, a reworked version of the 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol triple you will find in a Mini Cooper, but special internals and clever induction technology conjure 228bhp and 236lb ft.

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The transversely mounted mid-engined powerplant drives not only the rear wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission but also a high-output starter-generator electric motor, which shuffles power back into the 7.1kWh battery under the floor. Up front, there’s a 129bhp, 184lb ft electric motor driving the front wheels.

Peaked combined outputs are 357bhp and 420lb ft. The weight of the i8 was initially a claimed 1560kg, which is about the same as a contemporary 911 and noticeably less than a Jaguar E-Type.

Performance was listed at 0-62mph 4.4sec and with a top speed of 155mph. The powertrain is willing and flexible, too. The low-profile yet relatively narrow tyres and super-stiff structure create a bit of roar, but you can still cover long distances at effortlessly high speeds in this car.

And when you do, it’s remarkable how economical the i8 can be: out on the open road you will seldom get less than 40mpg, and should see more if you plug it in regularly and your journeys are short.

Of course, if you approach the i8 hoping for a shrapnel-spitting rival to the likes of a Porsche 911 or Audi R8, you’re likely to come away disappointed.

In essence, it’s really a grand tourer and as such feels more like BMW’s own 6 Series coupé range, with steering that is light, responsive and accurate without the drama of some of its sportier rivals.

The chassis, too, is beautifully damped, and it’s supremely well matched to the powertrain - the i8 really is a lovely thing to drive.

Some complained that it didn’t have enough character, but it is not for a car to have character, but for its driver to have it. Punt it down your favourite road and you will find the i8 is an immensely and easily enjoyable thing and a surprisingly south car - unlike many of its rivals.

BMW i8 2014-2020 common problems

Engine: The engine is based on the 1.5-litre unit in the Mini Cooper. So it’s reliable and the six-speed automatic gearbox is robust. There have been issues with the fuel pressure sensor, which is prone to failure. One or two owners have reported engine failure, but the vast majority noted excellent reliability. Warnings of a low coolant level when the levels are correct suggest a sensor issue. There have also been reports of problems with overheating and a few complaints about the central controller.

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Brakes: Most parts prices for an i8 can be expensive, but consumables are generally okay. For instance, front brake pads should cost you no more than those for a 3 Series.

Body: As a sports car with a six-figure price when new, the i8 is the kind of model that owners tend to cherish. Even so, it’s worth checking the wheels for scrapes and scratches, looking for bodywork damage (particularly around the doors, which require a lot of space to open) and ensuring the tyres are in good condition.

Many owners find the butterfly doors can be a pain. The door struts have been known to fail and cost a lot of money to repair, so check carefully when buying. Some fuel tank covers have been sticky too, refusing to open.

Electrics: While some owners have had to return their i8s to dealers to address warning lights, it tends to be for isolated cases rather than faults that are common to i8s. Software issues are not uncommon, though, so check the service and MOT history carefully.

Recalls: There have been five recalls. Cars built in 2014 had a possible fuel leak; i8s built in 2015 had a faulty sensor that could cause stability issues; cars built in late 2016 could have an airbag fault; i8s were recalled in 2019 to replace a faulty printed circuit board; and in 2020 an issue with impurities in the high-voltage batteries was addressed.

DESIGN & STYLING

BMW i8 rear

The BMW LifeDrive platform is the genius behind the i8. It combines a passenger cell and doors made of resin-injected carbonfibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP) with front and rear subframes and crash structures in aluminium to create a super-lightweight body. The CFRP tub is 50 per cent lighter than if it had been made of steel and 30 per cent lighter than had it been aluminium.

Inside hides the normally punitive mass of a combustion engine, an electric motor and a lithium ion battery pack, but the overall weight is 1560kg as claimed, or 1575kg on our scales – which is quite something. The last Porsche 911 we weighed – a Targa 4S – was also 1575kg, while a V6 Jaguar F-Type tops 1700kg.

'Hybrid synchronous' electric motor makes greater high-range power and torque thanks to magnetic reluctance

Power comes primarily from a reworked version of the 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol triple you’ll find in a Mini Cooper.

Here, though, special internals and new induction technology conjure 228bhp and 236lb ft from that modest swept volume. The engine drives not only the rear wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission but also a high-output starter-generator electric motor, which shuffles power back into the 7.1kWh lithium ion battery under the cabin floor.

Up front, there’s a 129bhp, 184lb ft ‘hybrid synchronous’ electric motor, which drives the front wheels. It is of BMW’s own design and gives a more balanced delivery of torque than a simpler traction motor. It is also ground-breaking because it drives through a multi-speed automatic gearbox.

BMW’s ‘hybrid synchronous’ electric motor is due a big chunk of the credit for the i8’s performance. Munich’s own proprietary tech is ostensibly a permanently excited synchronous motor (the kind used widely in EVs) with an asymmetrical rotor.

This creates what’s known as reluctance torque as it spins, in addition to the normal electromagnetic torque delivered by the alternating current. That extra torque delivers more power at higher rotational speeds than most electric motors can manage and therefore more electric boost for the i8 at higher road speeds.

The motor wouldn’t add so viscerally to the i8’s motorway pace without a second key bit of powertrain technology: a two-speed automatic transmission dedicated to that front-mounted electric motor. This gearbox, which was manufactured by GKN Driveline, is controlled in harmony with the primary engine and gearbox and shifts ratios seamlessly. It allows the electric motor to chime in with all of its 184lb ft at much higher road speeds than would otherwise be possible.

Meanwhile, design conversation pieces include narrow, aerodynamically profiled 20in alloys, ding and corrosion-proof thermoplastic panels, super-distinctive architectural surfacing and a particularly wide rear track.

INTERIOR

Open an i8’s doors and you’re greeted by a cabin that is at once extremely beautiful yet, if you’re used to seeing inside BMWs, reassuringly familiar. Just as it should be, then: special yet also entirely usable.

Pleasingly finished, high-grade materials are presented in an interesting, slightly futuristic fashion. Blue – the motor industry’s eco colour of choice – features here and there, but for the most part BMW’s traditional materials abound. One of our photographers thought it a pity that the bold material choices of the BMW i3’s interior hadn’t been continued, but by and large our testers felt it spot on.

The BMW's headlights are super-strong on either beam

The driving position and controls are sited entirely as you’d expect them to be on a BMW sports car or GT. You can sit long and low, with a good wheel extending out towards you and backed with classy paddles.

The front passenger fares equally well. The window line is high,  and because it's a mid-engined sports car with +2 rear seats, it’s snug and secure rather than airy.

The experience is unusual because there’s only so much space in the wheelbase behind the front seats, but BMW has done a decent job. You can fit nippers back there, but really it’s a three-seater, as a tall adult driving all but eliminates rear legroom on that side. Behind all of that lies a 154-litre boot, nine litres larger than the then Porsche 911.

Standard equipment was comprehensive and included climate control, cruise control with a braking function, DAB radio, a heads-up display, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, tyre pressure monitoring, variable damper control, electrically adjusted and heated front seats, front and rear parking sensors and an 8.8-inch media system display.

BMW installed its latest generation of iDrive for the i8's infotainment, albiet with a few additional features to work around. Fortunately the system is so intuitive that you don't have to churn through the handbook to fathom it – once you're used to where a few mission-critical screens lie, that is.

One of our preferred ones shows the current level of battery charge, but there are myriad ways of seeing what the powertrain is up to. BMW's navigation was excellent for telling you where traffic queues are and by how much you'll be delayed.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

The i8 is absolutely on the pace in terms of raw speed, way ahead of it on quality of delivery and unequalled on fuel economy. The sporting service this car provides in the real world is nothing short of excellent. Incredible, in fact, when you think it’s all coming from a three-cylinder petrol engine and some mains electricity.

There’s little compromise on acceleration. When we tested it, our i8 was quicker than both a Porsche 911 and a Jaguar F-Type V6 S to both 60mph and 100mph. There might be quicker used buys, but a departure point like that shouldn’t be hard for anyone to stomach.

The i8 completed the 0-60mph sprint in 4.5sec, according to our timing gear; 50-70mph took 2.3sec in third gear

It’s easier still when you consider how flexible the i8 is and how muscular it feels the instant you move the accelerator. Select Sport mode and the car will hold a gear at high revs. Chase the red line and the engine feels willing and powerful, but never more so than when you’re simply squirting along in a high gear on a motorway or picking off an unhurried overtake.

Locked in fifth gear, the i8 will get from 50-70mph in a brawny 3.3sec. The aforementioned 911 needed to be in second to sprint more quickly than that, while even the supercharged Jag needed fourth.

That immense flexibility makes the i8 a brilliant grand tourer. The low-profile tyres and super-stiff structure combine to create a bit of road roar, and you’ll wish there was a way to turn down BMW’s speaker-conveyed, frequency-augmented engine noise in Sport mode, but you can cover long distances at effortless high speeds in this car, while being as involved with the i8’s powertrain as takes your fancy.

And when you do, it’s remarkable how economical the i8 can be. Our touring test, driven partly on electric power, coaxed a whisker under 50mpg from the i8. But out on the road, you can be as brutish as you like with the loud pedal and seldom get less than 40mpg. In town, meanwhile, the electric-only range proved to be about 16 miles after a full charge.

RIDE & HANDLING

What’s important with the i8 is to manage your expectations. Come at it hoping for a straight rival to a Porsche 911 or an Audi R8 and you’re likely to come away if not disappointed, then at least slightly bemused. Expect it to be closer to BMW’s own 6-series or another grand tourer and the i8 is perhaps more likely to fulfil your remit.

The steering, for one, is definitely more that of a tourer than sports car. It’s responsive and accurate, no question, but lighter than we’d expected, and with little discernible increase in torque effort off the straight-ahead to replicate the feeling of cornering force transferring to the rim. Instead, it retains its consistent, oily slickness at all speeds. It’s far from unpleasant but less connected than you might have expected.

High sills, mid engine, 2+2 seating... I spend a lot of time thinking about the Lotus Evora when driving the i8. If only the Lotus looked and felt as special

The chassis, too, feels more tuned for dabbling in straight-line demolitions than it is for consuming corners. There’s a spot of fidgeting around town, but that clears on the open road and, given that it has excellent straight-line stability, the i8 makes a superb cruising companion.

However, it slightly fell down in its ability relative to a £100k purchase price. It’s not that it’s incapable; it wouldn’t record a lateral g figure of 1.03 if it were.

No, it’s just that the balance wasn't quite suited to outright sportiness. It feels at some stages agile and at others hampered both by the roles it’s meant to play and by its mechanical layout.

It’s quick to turn, and the steering’s consistency, if not its feel, is pleasingly reassuring. It quickly falls on to its outside front tyre, which, at just 215mm wide, is bound to give up grip before the 245mm-wide rears. At least, that’s the case in the dry.

In the dry, you drive up to where the front lets go and then manage things; in the wet, it’s a slightly different story. The front end lets go first on a steady throttle, but it’s possible to push through that and unstick the rear, which is, of course, driven by the three-pot Mini engine. Even with the stability control apparently disengaged, from then on the i8 doesn’t behave like you might expect.

The throttle pedal induces little but lag, and when power does arrive, it’s frequently biased to the front electric motors, which clumsily drag the i8 straight again. It can be quite quick, but it’s not always wildly entertaining.

We have no qualms with the brakes, though. They stopped the i8 in short order, repeatedly, and with excellent feel.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

BMW i8

A plug-in hybrid’s appeal can often be boiled down to what appears in this section – cheapness to run being, after all, most of the point.

The i8 is so obviously innovative that its running costs are perhaps less immediately consequential to buyers than the Philip K Dick-style cool radiating from the concept (although BMW’s Park Lane showroom in Mayfair reported that even very well heeled buyers are keen to avoid London’s congestion charge).

Unlike the Audi R8 or Porsche 911, the i8 is exempt from road tax thanks to its 49g/km CO2 emissions. And even now, no conventional rival can compete with its 134.5mpg combined claim.

These numbers are, of course, mitigated somewhat by real-world use, but given the exclusive segment in which it sits, that doesn’t prevent the i8 from garnering as many stars in this section as it does elsewhere – a unique advantage that makes it every bit the trailblazing prospect that BMW intended.

The i8's most profligate add-on was the £12,000 Pure Impulse Design package, which, among additional kit, included access to BMW's bespoke Experience Programme, offering "ideas and opportunities tailored to your interests."

VERDICT

Was there a ever more interesting car on sale? That’s the question we found ourselves asking each other during our time with the BMW i8. And we couldn’t find ourselves answering with a negative. 

The i8 is one of the most compelling cars we’ve ever tested, not only because of its fascinating powertrain and unusual but appealing dynamics but also because of how exquisitely finished it feels as a product – both inside and outside – and how easy it would be to live with.

A prodigy. Good in places where the others are brilliant; brilliant where its rivals are nowhere

That its dynamics fall short of the best we’d expect of a sports car (the balance is even a touch off for a GT car) is ultimately a minor drawback. The i8 might have pinched sales from the Porsche 911, but the Porsche remains far better to drive. But at any cost (especially £30,000), this is a thoroughly desirable car.

BMW i8 2014-2020 First drives