A few years ago, I got to attend the global launch for the BMW i3. It was in Amsterdam, so I was pretty stoned for the press conference. But I did take notes. “Today,” announced an arrogant car executive (as though there were any other kind), “we herald the dawn of a new age of electromobility!”
Life experience has taught me to be wary of Germans proclaiming the dawn of a new age, but a subsequent test drive of the i3 did get me excited for the future. It zipped around corners and you could park it anywhere. I drove many miles without using the brake. “One-pedal driving,” BMW called this technique. Inside, it resembled the first-class lounge at the Stockholm Airport, or at least what I imagined that place would look like. A new age seemed possible. I was thrilled!
But the real golden chalice of that new age was the BMW i8. The i3 was essentially a gussied-up Smart car, a yuppie Nissan Leaf. The i8 was a commercially-produced electric sports car, and I couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel.
Four years passed. Finally, after every other car writer on five continents had their go at it, they dropped off an i8 at my house. And I’m sorry to say that dawn has turned to dusk.
Rob Corrdry’s character pulled up in an i8 toward the end of Season One of Ballers, a very 2014 show. “You got the i8!” the Rock exclaimed, impressed with his spendthrift friend. It’s an expensive car all right. The model I drove cost $152,695. The base price alone was $143,400, with an $8,300 add-on for 20-inch alloy wheels and something called BMW Laserlight, and $2000 more for something called GigaWorld, which maybe was a hidden Nintendo game in the dash. So what do you get for the cost of a house in Iowa?
The i8 is definitely the most Batmobile-like car on the market, with the exception of the far-superior Porsche 918 Spyder, an electric supercar that costs a million dollars, or the Lamborghini Aventador, which has a similar million-dollar tag and often comes in orange. So it’s more like the millionaire Batmobile as opposed to the multimillionaire one. It slinks low to the ground, jet black with little blue trimmings, and has gull-wing doors that often don’t close properly. It’s a gorgeous toy designed to be emerged from in a puff of smoke.
The i8 has no trunk to speak of because the 7.1 kWh lithium-ion battery pack takes up most of the rear end. And the back seat can barely hold a miniature poodle comfortably. The front seats are form-fitting enough, though they sit below the gull-wing door line. If you’re going to drive this car, you’d better have good core strength, because it requires a good press on the carbon fiber and a little lift to slide out your legs for an exit.
While the i8 is pretty fast, with a combined 357 hp from the battery and a three-cylinder engine, it’s not that fast, and while it’s pretty agile, it’s not unprecedentedly agile. It’s way cooler-looking, but no cooler driving, than, say, something like the Lexus LS. The main selling point is that this is an electric sports car. But is it really?
The dirty secret about the i8 is that it has a 15-mile electric range. That’s right, 15 miles. I live in Texas, 15 miles is a trip to the hardware store. On Saturday I drove it eight miles to a crappy chicken-wing bar where I was playing in a freeroll poker tournament. I thought the dirtbags there would think it was cool (they didn’t). After I busted out, I drove it home. And then I had to plug it in because it was out of charge. I had the eco function going the entire time. Run silent, run shallow.
BMW claims the charge time is two hours. Maybe the power supply from my garage is weak, but when I got in it to drive again the next morning, 16 hours later, it had still only charged nine miles worth of range. The electricity plus gas MPG, per 100 miles, is supposed to be 76. On gasoline only it gets 28 miles to the gallon. That’s not bad for a car that’s light as a feather, stiff as a board. But it’s hardly a new age of electromobility.
Any Mercedes AMG car or any Porsche other than the Cayenne is faster. The Nissan Leaf and Prius Prime charge better and have far superior electric range. The new Corvette looks twice as cool. And let’s not forget the Tesla Model S in all this, the car that’s the only reason the i8 exists at all, a car that will still be in existence, in some variant, long after the i8 has retreated into a special corner of Jay Leno’s garage. Compared with the Model S, the i8 is a clay model concept car at an auto show.
You can look at the i8 as an evolutionary step. Within the next couple of years, BMW will have a full line of electric vehicles, desperately vying for attention over whatever Elon Musk produces. One should assume they’ll electrically do more than barely get you to and from the grocery. When they emerge, their owners will be able to look upon the i8 with affection.
That car, they’ll say, was a real baller in 2014.