(Pocket-lint) - We were first mesmerised by BMW's hybrid sports coupe back in 2014. And on some of the best roads that Scotland has to offer, no less. Back then, the BMW i8 was received with much hyperbole. We said at the time: "In many ways, [the BMW i8] redefines the performance supercar format. Together with the Tesla Model S, you're looking at the vanguard – and the future – of cars."
Looking back, that sentence makes us realise quite how fast things are moving in the automotive sector. Four years down the line suddenly feels like a long time. Since the i8 first came onto the scene, Tesla has launched two more full electric vehicles (EVs) and ramped up the performance of the Model S. Meanwhile, other brands continue to pile in. There's the incredible new Jaguar i-Pace all-electric SUV. Audi will join the party with its all electric E-Tron at the end of 2018. New brands such as Polestar have appeared, with an all-electric brand promise. And the more affordable, accessible marques are going electric too: from the Hyundai Kona EV to the Nissan Leaf.
The i8 isn't even fully electric; it's a mere plug-in hybrid, but a very clever one. In this context, does BMW's partly electric supercar, with its series of upgrades for 2018, still feel as fresh and futuristic?
Still got the looks
It only takes a handful of seconds in the company of a BMW i8 to appreciate that it still totally different to anything else. From the (somewhat bulky) digital key, to the layered, aerodynamic styling – which arguably only the Lexus LC has yet come close to matching for its avant-garde qualities – it's one full-on car that's hard to steer your eyes away from.
To get in the i8 you have to feel in the gap down the side of the door as there's no conventional handle, then the doors then swing upwards and forwards, like a Lamborghini or McLaren. Rather like the McLaren 720S, because it's built around a carbon fibre tub, the sill is really high and you have to heave yourself over it and then drop down into the seat. Making an elegant entry is hard. But it all adds to the sense of drama and lack of convention.
Beam me up, scotty
The i8's interior never quite wowed in the same way as the exterior. In fact, for futurism feels it probably gives way to little brother BMW i3.
The dedicated switchgear that BMW developed for the i-series cars, mixed with the regular BMW interface, certainly doesn't have great wow factor any more. It's nice enough, and hardly feels old fashioned, but it's not that different to any other BMW. Which means the i8 is not as overtly technology rich as a Tesla, nor as blingy or high-quality as the latest Mercedes. The new orange and black seat and door trim material on our test car do certainly help improve the ambience though.
Despite the high sill and the high tunnel, there's a reasonable amount of space in the i8's cabin – and a glance backwards reminds us that there are a couple of seats in the back, where small kids might be happy, or they just make a useful secondary luggage area (which is handy, as the actual luggage area is pretty tiny, because it shares space with the engine).
Once inside, you'll need to reach up and out to pull down the door and give it a good slam shut, then press power on button and the i8 makes a "beam me up" der-dum kind of noise as it comes to life... in complete silence. Well, that's assuming the battery is charged, of course.
Updated battery and motor specs
The biggest update to the 2018 BMW i8 is that it gets a bigger battery: tt's risen from 20aH to 35aH capacity, which bumps all-electric range up from 23 miles to a theoretical 34 miles. Not to be outdone, the BMW i8's 3-cylinder petrol turbo engine (borrowed from Mini, albeit with heavy revision) jumps in power too, taking the combined total of electric and petrol power to 374hp.
To activate the petrol motor, you flick the auto gear-lever across to the left, activating sport mode – which kicks the engine into life, and turns the dials red (cheesy, we know, but somehow it kind of works).
Alternatively, you can use the drive mode selector to toggle through a full spectrum of E-drive (pure electric driving), hybrid mode (which chooses how to mix both petrol and electric), or the full-power sports mode (which runs the engine, but adds in electric power for boosts in acceleration).
What's most appealing about the i8 is ambling through a village or town in complete silence and being emission-free with the petrol engine off. Then as you see a national speed limit sign, simply flick the gear-lever left and put your foot down, which brings the crazy little 3-cylinder turbo engine into life.
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The mind-warping drive
What happens when you're in sport mode and driving hard is a little bit mind boggling. Not because the i8 is crazy rapid (although it is plenty fast – 0-62mph takes just 4.4 seconds). Or because the noise sounds like a mix of some angry bees trapped in a tin can, a whooshing Batmobile and a 911 missing three spark plugs. Or because it feels light and easy to push down the road. It's that the i8 manages to be a mix of all of these things, sometimes all at once, which makes the driving experience a bit of a sensory overload like absolutely nothing else.
One minute the i8 feels like a slightly artificially-enhanced Porsche 911, snarling down the road, picking off slower cars and roaring from corner to corner. In those corners, it then feels like a big Lotus Elise, because it's light (thank you carbon fibre) and the wheels are narrow, so you get feedback and a sense that the thing is quite delicately balanced. Then, if you back off a bit, it calms down and start to feel like one of BMW's own big GT coupes. Frankly, it's a bit weird and schizophrenic.
But somehow it works. It's a deeply cool car to be in – not least because you're aware everyone on the road or that you're driving past is staring at you (yes it helped that our car was orange) – but also because your senses are getting a workout that feels so different to other cars. In this way, the i8 doesn't really have competitors, because there's nothing like it.
The i8 is not finished with its tricks though. Because it will allow you to coast in eco mode and recover energy into its battery should you desire.
BMW has also upgraded the head-up display (HUD), creating a more motorsport orientated version which activates in Sports mode, similar to what you find in BMW M performance cars.
Not so eco
If you're thinking all of this doesn't sound very eco, then you're kind of right. We averaged 34mpg, which in one sense is pretty poor fuel economy. However, if you compare that to the V6 turbo and V8 alternatives you might choose instead of the i8, and considering the way we drove this car, it's really not that bad. Most of the competition would have shown below 20 mpg in similar circumstances.
That's one of the appeals of the i8: it's an expensive sports car, but one which is cheaper to tax, has a low official CO2 emissions rating (42g/km) and which, should you charged it up every night and drive less than 30 miles each day, would actually be very affordable to run. If you ran it on your business as a company car, you'd end up paying way, way less tax than if you bought a Porsche 911.
Beyond the changes to battery and petrol engine, the i8 is better equipped for 2018, too. You get a Harman Kardon stereo system and LED headlamps as standard (they were optional before), and BMW has changed the wheel design, the bonnet vent, and added new interior trim and exterior colour options.
Oh, and you can have Apple CarPlay now, too, although it's a £235 option (which we believe expires, ready for you to pay for it again after a handful of years). But there's no Android Auto, which BMW doesn't seem to think is a thing its drivers want (wrongly!).
It's easy to argue you shouldn't choose a BMW i8 over any of its opposition. A Tesla 90D or 100D variant is faster and goes much farther on electricity alone, thanks to its bigger battery pack. A Porsche 911 is a better sports car when driven to extremes. And the Lexus LC500 has turned our eye, poised as the dramatic new kid on the block from Japan that you'll probably never see on the UK's roads. Objectively, making a case for the i8, therefore, is hard.
But the BMW i8 has charms and tricks which make you forgive its foibles and ignore logical reasoning. This car blends the capabilities and star qualities of each of the three competitors' cars mentioned above. If you're up for only pure EV kicks, it'll never beat a Tesla. If you're after a pure sports car, a 911 is better. But an i8 blends both, wraps it up in a wild-style package and after just a few minutes driving one it's impossible not be smitten.
The auto industry often gets criticised for making homogenous products that are hard to differentiate and which all look the same. The BMW i8 is the opposite of that approach. It's different, it's strange, it's special. It has that unique ability to make you feel good about life and yourself and put a smile on your face. And despite not topping any charts for performance or range, it still boasts appealing and useful numbers in its ability to run on just its battery, and also go quickly when you want.
Four years on from its launch, the i8 has still got it. It still feels futuristic. And given the auto industry has gone into fast-forward mode in the meantime, that's an impressive feat indeed.
Tesla Model S
It doesn't possess the i8's arresting looks or sense of drama, but for the same price as the BMW you can have a fully loaded P100D Model S, which seats up to seven (alright, five realistically) and would obliterate the BMW in a drag race. Access to Tesla's Supercharger network is a significant draw too.
The evergreen 911 might not seem like a natural rival to the BMW. If you're after eco-kicks, look elsewhere. But in fairness to Porsche, the latest turbo-charged flat 6 is capable of impressive fuel economy given its performance, while its handling and driving dynamics are on another planet. You'll also get much more than a basic 911 for similar money to the i8. You'll be invisible though.
The new kid on the block. Lexus's GT coupe comes closest to matching the i8 in two key areas: firstly, it's the only other large sports coupe GT to offer a hybrid powertrain (in its V6 "H" format only) although you don't plug in the Lexus and its pure electric range is meters rather than miles; secondly it's got the looks to compete with the BMW. Pity the on-board tech is so off the boil.