BMW's pioneering, low-carbon sports car still amazes four years on. But how will the updated i8 Coupe fare on track against its polar opposite, the M2?

Words Ben Barry | Photography Alex Tapley

The BMW i8 is boosting around Anglesey race circuit, immersing me in its high-tech fusion of sporting and sustainability. Given it has the teardrop shape and carbonfibre construction of an exotic supercar, you might expect eight- or 12-cylinder firepower. But behind me, there’s an efficient three-cylinder engine, making a pretty huge 228bhp from its 1.5 litres, and the i8 is powering on hard with an urgent sci-fi roar.

As I jump on the accelerator through a quick corner, I can feel the electric motor chucking a load of twist action at the front tyres, its instant 184lb ft of torque pulling me from one corner and onto the next hairpin. The e-motor’s grunt complements the petrol engine’s already strong 236lb ft, and endows the i8 with its hybrid, all-wheel-drive powers. Co-pilot Jake Groves shouts from the passenger seat that the first two sectors are up, and it feels like we’re on for the fastest lap yet. We plunge into the Corkscrew, both egging on the i8 with the finish line in sight.

BMW i8 tech: under the skin of the 2018 version

The i8 was conveived to explore how decades of BMW performance and dynamism could be reinterpreted to meet the low-carbon needs of today and tomorrow. Four years on from its introduction, the i8 has been significantly overhauled for 2018.

The design needed no updating. Its lines recall the iconic, mid-engined M1 supercar from the ’70s – BMW’s first ever M car – but with an ultra-modern twist. The sculpted aero channels that flow under the rear buttresses and exit through the tail lights – like water has bored away at sandstone – are spectacular.

Underneath, the foundations are, if anything, more radical. At the i8’s core is BMW’s ‘LifeDrive’ module. The ‘Life’ part refers to the carbonfibre passenger cell, and when you pop open the gullwing doors you’ll see a thick chunk of carbonfibre sill, and glimpse its grey-black weave on the doors too. Not even Ferrari production cars use this expensive, F1-honed material, chosen for its rigidity and lightness.

Meanwhile the ‘Drive’ part is an aluminium, skateboard-style sub-structure. It houses the suspension, crash protection and battery, which is charged in three ways: regenerative braking, or via the engine, or when you plug the i8 in.

Improvements to the lithium-ion battery enhance both performance and zero-emissions capability. The battery remains sandwiched in what would normally be a transmission tunnel to keep the mass low and centralised for better handling, but cell capacity improves (to 9.4kWh net). Peak motor output increases by 12bhp to 141bhp, and there’s the promise of covering up to 34 miles without burning a drop of petrol, or hitting 75mph on electric power.

The three-cylinder engine is cleaner thanks to a new particulate filter, and the soundtrack now kicks under heavy acceleration like it’s hooked up to a subwoofer, for a suitably alien if highly primeval edge. Driven enthusiastically, you hear that deep and urgent three-cylinder thrum, the turbocharger’s gaseous blow and the futuristic fizz of the electric motor all fusing together. It’s a compelling combination, one that’s helped the plug-in powertrain win an International Engine of the Year Award for the fourth year running.

The rest of the improvements are shared with the all-new i8 Roadster. Our car showcases the new E-Copper paint and Accaro interior trim, which mixes cloth and leather and looks superb. The updated BMW Professional infotainment features touchscreen capability.

i8 comes alive: our drive to Anglesey

To get to know the new i8 better, we’re not just subjecting it to hot laps at Anglesey. We’ve also got ample seat-time on a road trip from the opposite side of the UK, taking in motorways, tangled B-roads and 30mph crawls as we make for Snowdonia’s best roads.

Once we’re at Anglesey racetrack, we’ll introduce the i8 to a car from the opposite end of the BMW brand spectrum: the M2, from the company’s high-performance M division. The smallest M is unapologetically raw and old-school: its focus is on track days, while the i8 worries about the end of days. You’d expect the M2 to monster the petrol-electric hybrid i8. Wouldn’t you?

Climb in to the i8 and you sit low on firm but comfortable sports seats, the ideal driving position easy to set. The broad centre console makes you feel snug, there’s a small-diameter leather steering wheel with shift paddles, and the controls are immediately familiar – the BMW DNA is very much alive in this cockpit. Then you hit the start button and it sounds like a contestant has nailed an answer on Catchphrase – ‘b-wooooop’ goes the i8. The digital dashboard springs to life, a familiar speedo to the left, but the rev counter’s absent, replaced by a gauge divided into Charge, eDrive and eBoost to help navigate the EV functions.

Making waves and 50mpg driving to Wales

With a full tank of fuel, we’ve got an indicated 342 miles of range, including 17 miles of EV mode to enjoy thanks to the battery being topped to 68 per cent. You can fully charge the battery in under three hours on a 3.6kW charger, or less than 4.5 hours from a domestic socket. Do that and the i8 Coupe could travel up to 34 miles on electric power alone.

We escape for Wales on the A14 and M6, the i8 energetically squirting past slower traffic, turning as many heads as any supercar I’ve driven. Later, when I swing open the gullwing door, I’ll watch with paternal angst as a young child walks backwards with an arm rigidly outstretched shouting ‘coooooorrrr!’. The walk-into-lampposts appeal is somewhat at odds with the fuss-free discretion with which the i8 is devouring the motorway leg of our journey. In the default driving mode, you can drive on e-power alone up to 65mph – it was only 43mph with the original i8. But I’ve pushed eDrive which raises the threshold again, to 75mph.

The i8 has officially recorded 156.9mpg on the EU test cycle, but that’s outlandish in reality. So BMW has helpfully released figures for more typical driving too: in city traffic and country roads it says 56.5mpg is possible using both petrol and electric power. On country roads and motorways that falls to 40.4mpg. The sat-nav even chips in, calculating where best to deploy electric power and when it’s preferable to keep it in reserve. Right now, partly thanks to our eDrive waft, the trip computer says we’re averaging 76mpg at a steady 70mph.

Into Wales, off the A5, and the roads become more challenging, highlighting the vigour with which the i8 can make snap-decision overtakes. Bwaaarp, zweeee it goes and in an instant you have clear road ahead. But it really comes alive on the B-roads around Snowdonia, especially in full-bore Sport mode. Elasticity to the damping keeps it composed through compressions, and the blend of eager turn-in and Superglue all-wheel drive keeps up the momentum over this challenging topography.

If anything the i8 prefers to carry speed through corners rather than processing a sudden application of urge at the apex, but there’s fun in working out how to bring out the best in this futuristic mobility enabler and there’s certainly some fire in its belly when you get a real hurry on. Sport more aggressively charges the battery too, and after 15 miles of enthusiastic blatting, the i8 has harvested eight miles of electrical energy. That night, I plug in at a free charging point at our Anglesey hotel to fully top up the battery. First thing tomorrow, the i8 will head for the circuit.

Showdown: BMW i8 vs M2 at Anglesey

The M2 is waiting in the pitlane: fat arches, quad tailpipes, stubby proportions… my word is this baby M car desirable. Turbocharged six-cylinder engine meets rear-wheel drive meets limited-slip differential – and the fact that it’s topped off with three pedals and a stick shift only increases my urge to get out on track.

In many ways, the i8 and M2 are so different that your head spins at the knowledge that both are BMW products. Yet they’re surprisingly evenly matched when it comes to performance. Both produce a fraction under 370bhp, sprint from 0-62mph in no more than 4.5 seconds and top out at around 155mph. The i8 is marginally heavier – but only by 40kg.

A chassis optimised by M division, stickier Michelins and a shorter wheelbase all count in the M2’s favour. The i8 fires back with a better-balanced mid-engined layout, the instant wallop of electric torque and the traction advantages of all-wheel drive. I’m intrigued to see how this will pan out.

It’s into the M2 first for sighting laps on Anglesey’s Coastal circuit, with its riot of elevation changes, fast kinks and big stops rolled out over UK motorsport’s most breathtaking vista. With Jake Groves monitoring the Racelogic timing gear, we set out for three quick laps.

BMW M2 against the clock on track

The M2 overflows with raw attitude and charisma. Given the very lightest input, the chunkily weighted steering immediately wakes up with response and resistance, and the little M car seems to pivot around the excellent bolsters in the sports seats – shame they’re too high-set – and loads up the outside rear wheel. The M2 feels aggressively responsive and rear-biased, and so agile that you might mistake it for nervousness.

The power delivery adds to this feisty sensation, with only a fraction of turbo lag, a huge whoosh of torque to make you whoop, but also that trademark BMW straight-six adrenaline rush as you blow past 5000rpm and make towards 7000rpm. The M2 just picks itself up out of corners and hurls along the next straight, and even over very quick sections it never lacks energy – in fact, extracting maximum speed through the kink before Rocket and sensing the M2 squirming around under braking before the unsighted 90º left spits you out at the top of the hill perfectly balances the tightrope between giddy excitement and full ejector-seat terror.

Despite the very rear-biased feeling, there is some understeer pushing the nose wide. I switch off the stability control so I can get more aggressive with the throttle and the M2 comes alive, liberated to make like an old-school rally car.

That means I’m wrestling the coupe into corners and holding a few degrees of sideways oversteer through the apex, and as a result the laps don’t feel particularly neat and tidy. But they’re consistent down to a tenth of a second except in sector three, and Jake announces the time the i8 has to beat is 1min 20.9sec.

BMW i8 against the clock on track

And, wow, this is very much your chalk and cheese comparison. With a longer wheelbase the i8 feels more stable and dives into the apex more eagerly with less weight over the front end. But there is more body roll, less bite from the Bridgestone Potenzas and more ABS intervention from the brakes.

In normal mode, it feels a little sleepy for the track, so I switch to Sport and an M division-style rev counter pops up in the display. This feels essential: without it I’m not always certain when to shift. Sport also engages the gears with a more satisfying punch.

At times, the i8 can’t match the M2’s firepower, and you’ll catch it off-boost more easily, as the e-motor doesn’t uniformly fill in the torque when the engine’s at low revs. But it fights back with the calmness of all-wheel-drive traction and some genuine urgency when the electric motor punches through, particularly out of low- and mid-speed corners; it’s like giving a croquet ball an extra thwack in its direction of travel.

You can actually sense the two processes at work – internal combustion building at the rear, electricity bursting in at the front – and you learn to anticipate that the electric drive to the front will provide a kick of energy and induce steady understeer to the exit kerb on mid-speed corners. But with the tyres heating up, the i8 also starts to oversteer out of slower corners, which feels especially naughty in something this saintly.

It’s all quite a lot to manage, which is possibly why I find it harder to be consistent in the i8 than the M2, with 1.1sec separating best and worst attempts. The quickest lap is 1min 24.0sec – 3.1sec off the M2. A splendid effort.

i8 vs M2: the final reckoning

The M2 is brilliant in its pursuit of old-school, petrol-powered thrills, a wonderful evolution of that decades-old wheeze of plumbing a big, bombastic engine into a compact coupe. But its definition of pleasure is rather singular.

The i8, on the other hand, is multi-faceted. It’s a car that can do its cool-down lap without burning a drop of fuel, or store its charge to roll silently and emissions-free through a city’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone. It’s a standard-bearer for efficient engineering, slashing the six or eight cylinders typically found in rivals to just three and supplementing them with electric power, improving on their consumption and emissions by around 50 per cent. And there’s more to admire about the i8, from its sci-fi design, exotic construction and hybrid all-wheel-drive capability, to the way it rises to the challenge of the best Welsh roads.

Right now, hybrid and pure electric technology are developing so rapidly that it’s hard to keep track – already the i8 feels like a big improvement over the model launched just four years before. One day, M division will unleash its own version of a car like the i8. When it does, the M2 won’t see which way it went.

BMW i8 Coupe

Price from £112,735
Engine 1499cc 12v turbo 3-cyl + synchronous electric motor
Transmission 6-speed auto plus front 2-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Suspension Double wishbone front; multi-link rear
Made of Aluminium, carbonfibre
Length/width/height 4689/1942/1293mm

BMW M2 Coupe

Price £46,740
Engine 2979cc 24v turbo 6-cyl
Transmission 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Suspension MacPherson strut front; multi-link rear
Made of Steel
Length/width/height 4468/1854/1410mm

SPECS: BMW i8 AND BMW M2

i8 AND M2 vs ANGLESEY

i8 lap time: 1min 24.0sec

M2 lap time: 1min 20.9sec

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