How many supercars do you see out and about getting filthy during the winter months?
Snowy roads, iced-over parking lots, and low ground clearance are typically signs that it’s time to park your exotic, but if you can afford the sticker shock of something with three-comma doors, chances are you can also afford to shod its enormous rims with the appropriate winter tires, too.
I spent a week behind the wheel of the BMW i8 during Montreal’s harsh late-January chill in a bid to see just how practical it is to pilot not just an over-the-top styling exercise but also a highly complex hybrid at temperatures that would stick your tongue to carbon fiber. Here are five things I learned driving the BMW i8 in the winter.
1. It’s Surprisingly Quick To Warm Up the Cabin
There are a number of chronic downsides to electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids during winter driving, and one of the most unpleasant is the lack of cabin heat. Programmed to run their gas engines as little as possible, it’s tough for models like the Chevrolet Volt to keep the cabin feeling warm and toasty while at the same time fulfilling their efficiency-focused mission.
The BMW i8, however, displayed no such reluctance to blow hot air into its cockpit almost immediately upon start-up. I also had zero issues keeping the front and rear glass defrosted, although on occasion, the side windows got a bit foggy when I had a passenger with me on longer trips. You can choose to remotely pre-heat the car using BMW’s app, too, for when you really don’t want to wait to be warm. If none of this sounds like that big of a deal, then you haven’t sat inside a PHEV feeling like the last, lonely ice cube abandoned in the back of the tray while praying for actual heat to blast out of the vents. I envy you.
ALSO SEE: BMW i8 Review
2. Battery Chill is a Real Thing
Not every aspect of the BMW i8 is quite so quick to come up to proper operating temperature. The current-generation vehicle, which is motivated by a single turbocharged three-cylinder gas engine and a pair of electric motors (one driving the front axle, with its own two-speed automatic transmission, and the other nestled near the mid-mounted gas-fired unit). There’s a 7.1-kWh battery pack that allows the vehicle to travel an advertised 15 miles (24 km) on a single charge using electrical power alone.
Unless, of course, it’s really cold outside, which is when things get a bit more complicated. To access EV operation, the i8 requires you to push the big eDrive button on the center console, but doing so on a cold start when temperatures are hovering around 18 degrees F (-7.5 C) returns the message “AUTO eDrive – Max eDrive not available” on the car’s LCD screen. This happened regularly when first waking the i8 from its snowy slumbers, and it took at least 5 to 10 minutes of driving around before the eDrive would engage.
3. Reduced Range, Of Course
Whether you can get eDrive to answer the call or not, the BMW i8 can’t deliver on its full battery range in the depths of winter. I never saw greater than 14 miles of battery range displayed by the car, even after a full overnight charge, and once underway — even in hybrid mode — it was clear that I was using up available EV distance at a rate approaching twice normal consumption. Blame it on the use of the heater, the wipers, and the inefficiencies associated with cold weather in general, but the i8 performed no better or worse than any of its other plug-in hybrid brethren at fighting off January’s chilly tendrils and preserving the car’s rated efficiency.
ALSO SEE: Pros and Cons of Electric Cars
4. Ground Clearance Isn’t An Issue, Until It Is
It’s hard to get moving, even when you’ve got all-wheel drive like the BMW i8, if the front of your car is low enough to act like a snowplow. The i8’s 4.6 inches of ground clearance were, for the most part, a complete non-issue during my week with the car, even though there were times when I had to knife the front edge of the grille across a snowbank while parking. One exception stands out: as I returned home after the city’s graders and sidewalk crews had been working on my street, I discovered that a small five-inch tall mound of chopped ice had been deposited in front of my alleyway entrance, awaiting removal by the fleet of dump trucks cruising the neighborhood. In any other car, I would have been able to crunch right over it, but the angle of attack offered by the BMW promised expensive bodywork should I make the attempt.
I was fairly impressed by how well the vehicle’s all-wheel-drive system dealt with low-traction conditions. For the most part, the BMW i8 deals with a slippery road like you’d expect any modern BMW to, using stability and traction control to reduce throttle input and prevent a loss of control. I actually drove the car throw a blinding snowstorm at highway speeds for the better part of two hours without once experiencing any unpredictable behavior. Still, I had to switch from eDrive mode to hybrid mode a few times when nudging into a parking spot because the former doesn’t allow for any wheel spin at all before cutting off power — which means you can’t get the momentum required to move forward or backward in extra icy situations.
5. Doors Not So Bad, But That Trunk…
One of the least practical aspects of the BMW i8 is its scissor doors, which push or pull skyward to give you a brief sliver of access to the vehicle’s cabin. One might think that this is an open invitation to drop a ton of snow onto the front seats every time you crack them open, but in reality, as long as you clean along the edges with a glove beforehand, the design is quite good at keeping the interior clean and dry. The same can’t be said for your pants or skirt, which will drag across the very dirty, extra-wide door sill each time your tumble in or out of the coupe.
The trunk wasn’t quite as accommodating when it came to snow and ice. Consisting of a flat glass panel with no real lip, in order to lift open the hatch once it’s been unlocked you have to fit your fingers between the edge of the glass and the top of the rear deck. This thin access crack is fine in the summer, but with even a little snow and ice piled on top the opening mechanism isn’t strong enough to pop the hatch to the point where you can actually lift it up. In fact, at one point I wasn’t able to open or close the panel at all, as it was frozen in the unlocked position, but wouldn’t latch or lift as ice had completely covered the edges. This is problematic if you’re storing the household charger back there, as I was — or, you know, the ice scraper.
Another i8 design detail that didn’t stand up to winter was the charge port on the front left fender. It has to be left open while plugged in, which means if there’s a blizzard, or even a dusting, it fills up with snow. Once full, you can’t properly close it without packing in said white stuff and blocking the latch. You can blow it out with a can of compressed air, but who carries one of those around all day?
The Verdict: 5 Things I Learned Winter Driving the BMW i8
I was surprised by how friendly the BMW i8 was during winter conditions. Combining the restrictions of near-exotic design with the cold weather compromise of a hybrid drivetrain should have been a massive strike against the coupe, and yet aside from reduced efficiency and occasionally traction control weirdness, they didn’t present much of a hurdle at all. The frozen trunk and the clumsy door openings are the two styling conceits that had the greatest impact on winter practicality, and if those are the biggest complaints about your snow-bound supercar, I think you’re ahead of the game.
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