Christmas came a little early for me. I was fortunate enough to spend six days over the festive holidays with a six-figure plug-in hybrid that looks like something ripped straight out of a Tron movie. BMW calls it the i8 but some enthusiasts go as far as to label it an everyday hybrid “supercar.”
And why wouldn’t they? The i8 uses a huge battery to power the front two wheels while a small gasoline engine borrowed from a frugal MINI Cooper powers the rear – that makes the i8 technically all-wheel drive. As a result, it gets from 0-100 km/h in a mere 4.4 seconds whilst pushing a combined 362 hp and 420 lb-ft via two separate transmissions controlling each power source.
It’s got four seats (though two of them are best suited for storage and baby seats), a below average trunk (but at least it’s got one), and when eDrive mode is selected, it sips fuel like a nun sips gin. And really, how often does a car roll out on the showroom floor looking nearly identical to the concept car it was based upon?
However, theories generally fall apart once put to the test. So to find out if the i8 could truly stand the hardships of being a practical daily driver, we took it through a variety of everyday situations. Thus over the holiday break, we drove the i8 on narrow roads blanketed with freezing rain, we adventured through snow-ridden paths north of the GTA, went for a Whole Foods grocery haul, scoured for priceless parking spots at Yorkdale Mall on Boxing Day (okay maybe we regret this one – no driver should have to endure this feat), and even ordered McDonalds via Drive-Thru.
So what did we learn over our six day tenure with the i8?
That it is more comfortable, more usable, and more practical than many would assume from first glance, but there are a few obstacles. First are those butterfly doors – they aren’t too arthritic-friendly and ingress becomes more of memorizing a choreographed routine rather than just falling into the seats like you would a Mazda MX-5. Here’s what you do: place your buttocks on the doorsill and gradually push yourself backwards into the seat while you gyrate your lower body into the binnacle below. Sound easy? Well it gets a little more complicated from there.
The trouble is that once you get to your destination, you must find a parking spot wide enough so that when you swing the doors open, you won’t knick the neighbouring car. Most parking spots in the GTA are spacious enough that if you park the i8 in the center, the doors won’t ever go past the yellow lines on either side. But then comes Boxing Day shopping, when the scourge of bargain shoppers raid the lot like bees to pollen and as a result, all regard for mannerisms, dignity, and courtesy are thrown straight out the window.
“Get out first,” I would tell my girlfriend, as I slowly inched the i8 into a narrow parking spot – narrow because the adjacent GMC Yukon XL decided to borrow some precious tarmac. Keep in mind, this was after fourty minutes of s̶e̶a̶r̶c̶h̶i̶n̶g̶ seek and destroy, and I was on the brink of imploding, calling it a day, and heading home. But the i8 aided in scanning the aisles quickly and is where one of its attributes evidently shined – visibility.
Hopping inside the i8 through its fancy doors is an event, but once situated in the cabin with the doors closed and seat belt buckled, it feels no different than sitting inside a 3 Series. The view out the front windshield is spectacular. The glass is wide, panoramic, and the A-pillars are quite narrow and offer a great 180-degree view. The blind spots could use some work seeing as our i8 was not available with any blind spot monitoring systems, but even the sightlines out the rear window was better than average.
The next obstacle arose when we finished our shopping and made our way back to the i8, wondering how exactly to fit our ten-bag haul into this supercar. I’m not going to lie, the thought of asking my girlfriend to “take one for the team” and take the bus home did cross my mind, but then I realized that I’d rather keep my fingers, toes, and other miscellaneous appendages intact.
Our first point of attack was the trunk, if you can really call it that. It’s more of a… bin. Pop open the glass hood and you’ll discover that the mid-mounted engine takes up most of the valuable real estate. The rest of the surrounding area we can classify as the “trunk.”
It’s wide but narrow, so long items like our new computer monitor and snowbrush fit like hand in glove. Flexible items like clothes and hats could be placed right on top of the covered engine but boxier items like our new Nespresso machine would have to find a new home. Never have my Tetris abilities been challenged more than this day.
On the bright side, unlike some supercars like the Audi R8 or Aston Martin V8 Vantage, the i8 actually has two rear “seats.” Wide enough to fit baby car seats, we were able to stash our larger items back there by simply moving our front seats a little further up. Crisis averted.
With the heaters blowing and the heated seats switched on (no heated steering wheel available), we were ready to set sail. That is, until we noticed the blanket of black ice covering all the local roads on our way home. Good thing we’re not in some rear-wheel drive track monster. All-wheel drive? Check. Snow tires? You betcha. The i8 performed better than expected on those slippery conditions. We were skeptical at first due to the skinny 215/45 20-inch tires and thin contact patch, but the i8’s unwavering body control and predictable understeer helped to pave a safe route home.
Famished and with tempers growing, we decided to pop by a nearby McDonalds drive-thru to see if these i8-owning millionaires would be able to order their Big Macs without embarrassing themselves at the pay window. The i8 may sit low to the ground, but its windows are fairly tall. The only real downside is that you will have to reach up higher than normal to hand them your Centurion Black. The window doesn’t roll all the way down though, and leaves about a one-eighth opening, becoming a glass ridge poking out at your underarms as you try and reach your order or parking ticket meter. Arm-out cruising is denied as well.
With stomachs stuffed with questionable meat and French fries that are as French as my bubble tea, we made our way home and proceeded to plug the i8 into our standard wall socket – it takes around three hours for a full charge. That amounts to 35 km of full electric driving without any gasoline assistance. On a cold winter day with the heaters blowing and an itchy right foot, that number drastically dwindles down. The most I’ve attained with a full charge was 20 kilometers of 100% city driving, which makes the most of brake regeneration from stop and go traffic. It may be laughable range, but it’s arguably enough for many commuters hopping to and fro from work.
But you won’t be laughing once that inline-three cylinder kicks in and offers a mean growl through the exhaust (and the speakers). The i8 is bewilderingly fast down the straights, and offers the same kind of instant push from its electric motors that you would experience in a Tesla.
The best part about that is when driving in Sport Mode, the i8 quickly regenerates its own batteries like a starfish mourning its own severed limbs. After a 40-kilometer highway stretch using just Sport Mode, my batteries were back to 100% charge – it’s the circle of life. So if you live close to work, you can theoretically commute without using one drip of fuel. Let’s see the Audi R8 try that same feat.
So what did we really learn over our six day tenure with the i8?
We learned to hide from car gawkers, we learned to give thumbs up to drooling kids on the highway without veering into a different lane, we learned how to put on our game-face when car spotters appeared and more importantly, we learned that “i8” is more than just an italicized badge on the rear trunk panel.
BMW has not only given birth to an automotive icon born from butterfly doors and whizzing electrons, but they’ve designed a car that makes a statement about the driver and how far technology has come in this day and age. Rewind ten years and the words “practical” and “supercar” rarely fell in the same sentence.