i8 - The Not So Super Supercar
The i8 as we knew it is dead and while we await its replacement I started to wonder if we weren't a bit unfair to it while it was still around.
The BMW i8 has never fared well with reviewers. It’s commonly said that it isn’t very fast, it doesn’t sound good, and doesn’t really have any supercar credentials other than its doors. When it was launched, we were all intrigued by this new hybrid BMW supercar that looked fast standing still, to use the old cliché. But the less than stellar reviews and quite hefty sticker price have left the i8 in a fairly similar place as the Maserati GranTurismo I wrote about in my last article. In quite a similar manner, I think the i8 has gotten a bit of a bad beat because of what people think it is, not because of what it actually is.
The first major problem the i8 faces is the styling. One could say that it’s the DeLorean of the modern era – a bold design that is generally popular and represents a vision of the future. However, much like the DeLorean, that body writes checks that its powertrain can’t cash. While the i8 certainly isn’t the gutless wonder that the DeLorean was, one expects the engine to have more than three cylinders and produce more than a combined total of 357 horsepower. Even on the interior, the styling is good, but in a similar situation that Mercedes faced when they revived Maybach a decade and a half ago, the differences between the interior of the i8 and the M4 that cost half as much were nowhere near enough to merit the price gap.
The second major problem the i8 faces is its price point. New i8s started around $150,000 here in the US and started around $165,000 for the roadster. At that price point, the i8 was competing against several variants of the 911, the last of the Maserati GranTurismos, the AMG GT in several variants, and the Aston Martin Vantage. If the buyer was looking for a sports car that was also going to be a daily driver, the Mercedes and the Porsche were far more practical and much more subtle than the i8. If the buyer wanted a weekend toy, there were performance variants of the 911 and AMG GT for track drivers, and the Maserati or the Aston for someone looking for a fun toy that would inspire badge envy. In either category the i8 lost, since its back seats and trunk are functionally useless, and it doesn’t perform as well as any of those rivals.
However, the i8 is actually really good fun to drive. No it’s not as fast as supercars, but when I took it through my favorite twisty road it felt very precise and surefooted through the corners. In manual mode, the gearbox is actually quite responsive, if a bit selective in allowing the driver to grab first gear. The torque from the electric motors does make it fun to plant your right foot as the i8 does dig down in the back under hard acceleration, but it doesn’t get going so quickly that you have to back off immediately for fear of silver bracelets from the local constabulary. The only proper gripe I have with the i8’s performance is that the steering is overly assisted. It does seem a bit heavier in sport mode, but at the end of the day it doesn’t give much feedback at all, which is a shame in a BMW.
To return to my original point, I believe the issues with the i8 really come down to one thing: image. We see the doors and the styling and the mid-engine and the price tag and the carbon fiber passenger compartment and we think that it must be a supercar. But then we drive it and are disappointed by the performance and the slightly generic BMW interior. With that in mind, if we stop thinking of it as a supercar and start thinking of it as a sports car that’s comfortable enough and fuel efficient enough to daily drive it starts to make more sense. No, it doesn’t have room for golf clubs or rear passengers, but you can fit your groceries and a few overnight bags in it without issue. No, it’s not the fastest sports car ever built, but being a plug-in hybrid means that in many places it gets preferential tax treatment or alleviation of congestion charges.
So would I buy one? Definitely not new – even with discounts on leftover units while we wait for the new generation, the depreciation will be ruining. As a pre-owned car, though, the value proposition gets a lot better. Personally, I would only consider buying one that was a certified pre-owned car, as I worry about the long-term life of the hybrid systems and wouldn’t want to own one without some BMW warranty. That said, the earlier cars with a few miles on them are dipping down into the low 60s list price, so the entry cost is less than half of what it was when the car was new, while CPO cars are still over $75,000. But I still haven’t answered the question of whether or not I would personally spend my money on one, and frankly that’s because I’m seriously conflicted on that. On the one hand, the i8 does have the styling and is fun to drive and does have the electric capabilities that can be beneficial, but on the other hand it just didn’t speak to me in the same way that the Maserati or the 348 I reviewed recently did. I think it boils down to how I’d use the car – if I was looking for a car in that price bracket that was meant to be my fun weekend car, I think I’d stick with the Italians I mentioned a few sentences ago. But if I was looking for a car that had to be a daily and a fun car on weekends, I’d seriously consider the i8.
As a final note, I'd like to give a massive shout out and thank you to Chris Lee for the incredible photographs in this article - go give him a follow on Instagram at @m3.raw and @chrisleestudios
I wonder what cars I may be reviewing next...