Season 5 of the FIA Formula E Championship begins on December 15 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia with the Gen 2 car and new manufactures leading the headlines. Among them is BMW, which spent the last year working with Andretti Autosport in a supporting technical role, but this season is a fully-fledged manufacturer running its own purpose-built powertrain. BMW has been with the series from the beginning as supplier of all the safety and course cars including the i8 supercar.
So it seemed apropos to spend a long weekend driving the BMW i8 for some electric supercar thrills.
My plan was to drive from the northern edge of San Diego County across the sprawl of Los Angeles in search of delightful country roads through the Santa Ynez valley on the way to Cambria on the Central California coast — a distance of some 375 miles.
Laid out as a 2+2, the low-slung i8 looks and drives like a mid-engined sports car. Yet, it isn’t exactly one. The carbon-fiber “Life Module”, or passenger compartment, actually has one third of the drivetrain over the front axel in the form of a 70 horsepower-equivalent electric motor while the other two-thirds lays behind. What makes up the two-thirds is another 70-horsepower electric motor, and a 228-horsepower 1-5-liter, 3-cylinder turbo gas engine. There is no physical connection between the three power units other than the electronics that control the overall drive. When all three act in unison, total power output is 369 horsepower, along with 420 lb-ft of torque. Supplying the energy is a row of 11.6 kWh batteries down the central tunnel and an 11-gallon fuel tank. Curb weight for the i8 is a relatively lithe 3501 pounds with 48.8-51.2% front/rear weight distribution.
There are three driving modes on the i8.
“Comfort” is the most basic mode, which performs much like we would expect a hybrid car to: the car seeks to run on electric power as much as it can at low speed, while allowing the gasoline engine to supply power as needed according to the driving demand. In this mode, only the rear wheels are driven through a combination of power supplied by the rear electric engine and gasoline engine.
“eDrive” is an electric-only mode, providing enough power to quickly arrive at its 75mph top speed with a useable range up to 31 mile,s depending on how exuberantly the car is being driven. In this mode, both electric motors are utilized, and are managed by a two-speed automatic transmission.
Finally, there is “Sport” mode, where both electric motors and the gasoline engine are working simultaneously, and where benefit of 369 horsepower is fully reaped through all four wheels. Engage this mode, and the LCD instrument panel and heads-up display change from a calming blue hue to an aggressive red, while the engine noise goes from nearly silent to raspy bark with futuristic electric whine providing the undertone.
Comfort mode is fine for stop-and-go city traffic. The i8 will dawdle along quietly and easily as if it were any old passenger car, albeit much lower to the ground while swaddling you in firm, sport seats. Energy consumption is good as one would expect of a hybrid; however, battery regeneration in this mode is not ample enough to keep up with the demand. That means charging from a plug-in source is needed along with a topping of gasoline to keep the i8 fully-fueled. But, comfort driving is what this car is really for, so enough of that.
Having been to a few Formula E races, I was keen to discover what it’s like to drive an electric performance car myself. From a standing start, with the car completely silent, a firm press on the throttle results in marvelously linear acceleration. Without the normal peaks and troughs of engine revs and gear changes, the i8 arrives at 60mph almost imperceptibly. As a corner approaches, lift off the throttle as late as you dare, because deceleration in electric mode is aided by the friction on the driveshafts being harvested to regenerate energy. The electric motors wind down as quickly as they spool up, so a sharp stab of brakes has you straining against the seat belts. On point-and-squirt roads, eDrive is as fun to drive as any gasoline-engined car. But like the first generation of Formula E cars, don’t stray too far from a power source to plug into as the battery life is quickly used up.
As fun and unique as it is to drive in all-electric mode though, it just wouldn’t do for the journey at hand.
And so we get to Sport mode, which is well and truly the best way to enjoy the i8. For one thing, it’s where all of the power and torque are at your disposal, and 0-60mph in 4.5 seconds can be had all day long. It’s also the slightly counter-intuitive mode.
In most sports cars, sport mode is where you have the most fun and the worst fuel economy. The i8 turns that premise on its head, because Sport is where you have the most fun and, at least in my experience, get the best fuel economy. It comes down to the gasoline engine not only propelling the car along boosted by the two electric motors, but it’s also regenerating battery power. After a full day of enthusiastic back road driving that included several 0-60 starts and a few high speed runs, the i8 managed to travel 345 miles on just under eight gallons of gasoline. Over the course of three days, I only plugged the i8 in once to charge, and that was on the first evening after picking it up.
After three days of driving, the i8 was hard to give back. Though the i8 is both agile and fast, a side of me longed for that primal ferocity that urges more speed. Then again, it’s probably not what BMW was aiming for, otherwise it would have shoe-horned in the three-liter TwinPower Turbo inline 6 from the M2. As awesome as that would have been, it misses the point, which is that the future of sports cars is bright. It is possible to have an exhilarating driving experience yet still cut down on carbon emissions, and also use few less resources in the process.
While BMW positions the i8 as part of an all-electric vision of the future, it’s really closer to a P1 prototype in current form than a Formula E car. The combination of electric and internal combustion engine power propelling you seamlessly from the corner exit as speed and revs continue to climb with each gear change followed by the distinctive electric whine upon deceleration for the next turn while using a modicum of fuel is more reminiscent of Le Mans. But that will eventually change as the i8, or some version of it, appears that will indeed be all-electric. Numerous reports have surfaced of a 700bhp i8 that will be powered by three electric units. If that’s so, then indeed the i8 will be much more like its Formula E counterpart. So in the grand scheme of things, the current i8 is more of a bridge to an all-electric future that could arrive soon. If this iteration is anything to go by, it will be plenty of fun to drive.