The BMW i8: supercar speed from a Mini Cooper engine

A tiny three-cylinder engine and an electric motor is all the BMW i8 needs for Ferrari-rivalling performance. We road tested it in Dubai.

Damien Reid January 6, 2016

Ever since BMW revealed the i8 coupe to the world as a concept way back in 2009 it has become the poster car of what we’ll be driving in the future.

It’s now on sale as a production car looking very similar to that futuristic concept and demand is so strong, you’ll be hard pressed to even get on the waiting list.

In my few days enjoying the i8 driving around Dubai, the overwhelming topic of conversation was how its hybrid drivetrain and futuristic looks make it the quintessential car of tomorrow and yet from where I was sitting, from behind the wheel, all I had was flashbacks of the retro kind.

The Instagram generation snap pics of it and hashtag lines that say it’s like nothing else they’ve seen from BMW and they’d be right because they weren’t around when BMW made its last mid-engined car, the M1 from 1978.

I’m old enough to remember the M1 and had a poster of one on my bedroom wall and despite all the high-tech gloss, I just kept seeing hints of that stunning Giugiaro-styled Seventies icon in its profile. The i8 is the first time BMW has revisited the mid-engined sports car layout since and you can’t help but see the family ties.

1978 bmw m1.jpg The i8 takes its design cues from the 1978 BMW M1.

Like the M1, which launched BMW’s M range, the i8 unveiled BMW’s i range and is effectively doing the same job in attempting to change our attitudes to what constitutes a modern-day, performance sports coupe.

With a 1.5-litre, three-cylinder turbocharged engine from the Mini Cooper hiding under drop-dead gorgeous looks, this isn’t exactly a sheep in wolf’s clothing as it’s got the performance to kick most V6 and even some V8 competitors into the weeds, helped by its lightweight construction and an innovative electric motor that assists the petrol engine by powering the front wheels.

It’s made from the lightest, strongest materials using the most advanced techniques that BMW could apply and is driven by a revolutionary plug-in hybrid, all-wheel drive powertrain.

The 1.5-litre petrol engine sits behind the driver and on its own develops 231bhp and 320Nm of torque. Running through a six-speed automatic box, it drives the rear wheels as well as a high-output starter-generator electric motor that sends power back into the 7.1kWh lithium ion battery sitting under the car’s floor.

In addition to this lies the electric motor in the nose, which drives the front wheels and produces 250Nm of torque with the equivalent of 131bhp, but unlike most other plug-in hybrids, it drives through its own two-speed automatic gearbox.

This two-speed gearbox is unnoticeable to the driver and shifts ratios seamlessly with no driver input, but it allows the electric motor to use all of its 250Nm at much higher road speeds than would otherwise be possible. With both motors kicking along, the combined outputs for the i8 are 362bhp and 570Nm, which is good enough to peddle it to 100kmh in 4.4 seconds and onto a governed top speed of 250kmh.

Astonishing figures if you think of it as a three-cylinder engine as the primary powerplant and with enormous and instant torque that can only be achieved with an electric motor, it leaves most cars in its wake when it comes to overtaking punch.

Leaving the i8 locked in fifth gear, independent tests have shown it can accelerate from 80 to 115kmh in 3.3 seconds - faster than a Porsche 911 3.4 which has to go back to second gear to eclipse it, and the Jaguar F-Type V6 S which, even with its supercharger, has to drop back to fourth to catch the BMW, while the i8’s also quicker than those two to both 100kmh and 160kmh. 

It makes for an exceptionally easy drive but you have to train yourself to keep a close eye on the speedo as that endless surge of torque delivered so smoothly can fool you into thinking you’re not going all that fast when in fact, and without warning, you’re soon barrelling along at more than a decent rate of knots.

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 or picking off an unhurried overtake.

Power under foot is silky smooth but when you’re pushing it along and using both motors, you can feel a torque bias through the front wheels which are connected to the electric motor. The effect is that it feels a bit like a runaway horse with the tail trying to catch up as you power out of bends. 

It takes a bit of getting used to but is just a quirk of driving such a radically different type of car. Brakes are sensational thanks to a combination of large discs and the energy recovery systems for the electric motors, while the steering was one area I didn’t get comfortable with.

It didn’t offer the levels of response I was expecting from a sports car. With not enough weighting at speed, it was a bit of guesswork to know where the front wheels were at times during heavy cornering.

Whilst we didn’t get the chance to take it on a long drive, the feeling is that it would make for a fine long-distance tourer although maybe not in Sport mode as the engine drone which is synthetically produced and piped through the car’s speakers became tiresome after a short while so I’d imagine would be more than just slightly irritating over a long distance.

There’s also a bit of road noise that comes from the 20-inch tyres which are super thin to reduce air drag but other than that it’s not much different inside than your regular BMW sports coupe.

Keeping its weight down to 1,485kg is the extensive use of exotic materials including resin-injected carbon fibre-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. 

Aside from the dramatic entrance you are forced to make thanks to the huge doors that swing up and stop traffic in a literal and metaphoric sense and the swathes of electric blue highlights through the cabin, the interior is fairly conservative by comparison, especially if you’re already familiar with modern BMW ergonomics. It somehow makes you feel both comfortable and just a bit special at the same time.

Standard equipment is comprehensive and includes climate control, cruise control with a braking function, 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's latest-generation iDrive underpins the way the entertainment and information systems work in the i8 but includes a few additional features including one that shows the current level of the battery charge as well as others that show what combinations of the powertrain are in operation.

The driving position and controls are located entirely as you’d expect them to be on a BMW sports car or GT. You can sit long and low, with the leather-wrapped steering wheel extending out towards you and backed with classy paddles. The front passenger fares equally well and as the doors slide down and click into place it gives a feeling of cosiness up front thanks to its high window line. 

Surprisingly there are two tiny seats in the rear, which are fitted more as a courtesy only, however on our first drive of the i8 a few months earlier for TV when we had to be chaperoned by the dealer’s representative, the tall sales chap managed to squeeze into the rear and faked a smile for a good 40 minutes before we extracted him at our film shoot location.

I’ve been waiting a long time to climb into the i8 to see if the future will still be exciting for the weekend sports car driver and I have to admit that I’m mightily impressed. It feels nothing like its main rivals the Porsche 911 or the new Audi R8 V10, which both feel earthy and raw by comparison, however you can’t deny the i8 is a rewarding car to drive and that’s the important thing.

We managed to squeeze 36km around town running on nothing but pure electricity during the boring parts of the daily commute yet still had a blast on the open road, blowing away cars with more than triple the engine size, while squeezing out 410km before needing to refuel.

It’s a genuinely extraordinary car and one of the most mesmerizing I’ve ever driven, not only because of its cutting-edge technology, but the fact that this technology is as easy to drive as an automatic Mini Cooper with performance that will blow the socks off most other sports cars on the road.


  • Engine: 1.5-litre, 3-cylinder turbo + electric motor
  • Power: 362bhp @ 5,800rpm
  • Torque: 570Nm @ 3,700rpm
  • 0-100kmh: 4.4 seconds
  • Top speed: 250kmh (limited)
  • Price: AED 635,000