The bell tolls for BMW's i8
Good riddance or fare thee well?
Reminiscent of a medieval monarch locked in the Towers in Munich, the spirit of BMW's i8 gazes outside to the forecourt where the executioner's axe is sharpened. There shall be no reprieve. No Sir Percy Blakeney, alias the Scarlet Pimpernel, who saves the doomed model. Only a final, "Ultimate Sophisto" edition of the i8, limited to 200 units, to signal its departure.
BMW announced the i8's end of production from April 2020. As an i8 owner I began wondering what this meant and this led to more existential questions. What did the i8 mean in the first place? Why did it exist at all and how should we mourn its passing?
A short history of the BMW i8
The i8's history starts in 1978 with the BMW M1. A wonderful mid-engined BMW with a body designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro. BMW only made 453 and they are as collectable as they are gorgeous to look at. Thirty years later, in April 2008, BMW unveiled the M1 Homage concept, also penned by Giorgetto. The picture I saw set my heart pulsing, but it was not put into production as a new M1 which disappointed many -- myself included.
The BMW designers kept tinkering with possible mid-engine concept cars, none of which looked like making production until the Vision EfficientDynamics concept vehicle. This was unveiled at the 2009 International Motor Show Germany and, shortly afterwards in 2011, BMW released the i8 Concept. The i8 Concept later featured in the film "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol" with Tom Cruise sharing the spotlight
While the 2009 and 2011 concept cars were met with enthusiasm, many believed the actual production car would be more conservative. It's common knowledge that concept cars are too difficult to make. They are far too complex for any efficient production. Most people know this...
... and, in the i8's case, most people were wrong.
In 2013 the production model was unveiled and retained many of the styling cues from the concept cars. Indeed, the first reviews of the i8 often refer to the review feeling as if they were driving a concept car. It turned heads in 2013 and, I can assure you, it still turns heads today.
... what the i8 was
The i8 was a way for BMW to showcase a possible future where hybrid vehicles were exciting to own. Where a driver could have performance and efficiency, but not sacrifice aesthetic design. In this respect, the Munich engineers in BMW's i division succeeded. The figures tell the story: the i8 accelerates from 0-100 km/h in 4.4 seconds with an electronic limited top speed of 250 km/h (155 mph). It can sip fuel at a rate of 2.1 L/100 km (112.0 mpg‑US) with a low carbon emission of 49 g/km -- although I don't know how you'd have to drive to achieve those figures as I've not been able to get better than 4-6L/100km. And if you accelerate to outrun tomorrow then those figures fall to a very ordinary 8L/100km.
I've been informed that the i8's 0-100 performance was benchmarked against a 2014 Porsche 911 Carrera S (4.3s), although the Carrera's top speed is much greater reaching (about) 290km/h. But the 911's fuel figures are, in day to day driving, over 10L/100km.
The BMW i8 even had a carbon fibre reinforced plastic "life" shell, like the Porsche 918 or the McLaren supers. But this brings me to...
... what the i8 wasn't
A supercar. At least, it in the same manner as, say, a Lamborghini Huracan or McLaren 720s.
Don't get me wrong. I think the i8's a superb car and it achieved everything its designers intended... but it isn't in that supercar taxonomy. Rather, I see it as a drop-dead beautiful GT, albeit without any capacity to carry heavy suitcases. I find it very comfortable on long drives and the back seats can be used to hold overnight bags.
After all, you'd never put an actual human being in those rear seats.
So why did you buy it?
My wife and I spotted the i8 at the local BMW dealership and fell in love with its looks, but its price was too high. Then something odd happened. No one bought it -- and I will touch on the unloved nature of the i8 -- and during the course of 18 months at the dealership its price fell. Then, around late 2017, the price had fallen by a third and into our purchasing range.
We held long discussions if we should or shouldn't buy it. Despite the price drop, it would still be a significant purchase for us. Then, in a cunning move, BMW allowed me to take it home for the weekend on my birthday. Very clever. I later found this is a technique animal rescue centres use to re-house cats and dogs, except this was going to be far more expensive. At least you don't have to housetrain an i8.
After much wibbling and juggling of finances, we decided to forge ahead and we still remember driving it out of the showroom. I expect we were grinning like children, which is what a certain amount of temporary insanity can do. But we love the aesthetic lines coupled to its performance. To my wife's distain, I've often quipped if petrol ever disappears then I shall scoop it out and use the i8 as a water feature.
At the 2018 German Auto Day in Canberra
Finally, the butterfly doors make every drive an occasion. On this, though, as my wife discovered early on, those doors are not short-skirt friendly. Something any prospective buyer should note on a second hand purchase.
So there you have it. We love it looks and there's enough performance to make driving enjoyable. When we take it out, it gives us great pleasure and, if in the distant future petrol dries up, I'll have water flowing down its flying buttresses.
The evolution of cars from old to new
So why didn't they sell?
The thing is the i8 sold too well to make it a collectable. BMW shifted over ten thousand of them. Most sales, I imagine, weren't at the full retail price and probably discounted in a manner similar to ours. So, the question could be re-phrased to: "why wasn't it more popular?"
That's the rub, as Hamlet might say. The answer lies in the i8's appeal to a narrow range of buyers. First, they were expensive, so any purchaser needed a good income. Second, they weren't as quick as other cars in that price range, so it needed a purchaser for whom performance wasn't a priority.
That meant the traditional BMW buyers, who prefer the subtle looks of M cars over swooping lines, viewed the i8 with great suspicion. Yet non-traditional buyers who value supercar looks, such as potential Lamborghini owners, wanted better performance. They'd also want more cylinders -- at least five more by my reckoning.
To be honest: if the i8 had the E9x M3's V8 engine rear mounted coupled to a front electric motor, then there'd be queues for them to this day.
The Ultimate Sophisto's interior
So what does the future hold for the i8?
On the i8 forums we always talk about if it's a "collectable". I don't think it is, at least in the next two decades, because there's too many. If BMW had made a few thousand, then they would be desirable, but at ten thousand and counting, there's too many cars. As an example, the number of DeLorean DMC12s stands in the region of six thousand and they're still not commanding ultrahigh rarity prices, even after forty years.
What it means for me, though, is a worry about maintaining the car over the course of my ownership. It's a specialised car and will continue, in the foreseeable future, to require hard to get parts and servicing. This will make it an expensive car to own, but that's the price for automotive sculpture.
Oddly enough, the M Next... see here...
Striking and sublime, or satirical and silly?
So rather than a dirge combined with ash and sack cloth, the departure of the i8 should be ushered with a wake. A rejoicing. Kudos to BMW for making the car that still looks like its concept. The other week, as I was driving the i8, another car came beside mine filled to the brim with children. They waved, smiled and laughed. Hopefully at the car and not at me.
Yet perhaps that should be the i8's epitaph: the power to make smiles.
After all, that's not a bad way to go.
A fitting epitaph