One Step Beyond
Many have tried to improve the looks and performance of the i8, but none have gone as far as Japan’s 3D Design…
The Japanese pursuit of perfection (as Lexus put it) is well-documented. Almost no other group of people on earth invest as much time and money into their passions as the Japanese, and it shows in the results they achieve. Whether it’s food, artistic works, technology or any other area, the Japanese often stand atop the world, and it’s no different with cars. Take 3D Design, for example. Rebooted 12 years ago by a highly-talented group of designers and engineers (previously a suspension specialist, it had lost its way a little by 2006), the company has evolved to become a complete BMW tuning parts maker, designing and selling everything from intakes and exhausts to wheels, coilovers, aero parts and interior pieces (all Japanese-made, of course). And in the best Japanese tradition, it does nothing by halves. For example, 99% of its aero parts are either polyurethane or carbon – no fibreglass – and its higher-end stuff is either vacuum infusion carbon or full, autoclaved ‘dry’ carbon, with every piece fitting like OEM. Its coilovers use machined billet alloy bodies, rather than cheaper steel, and its wheels are also cold forged. Put it this way – if there’s a better way to make something, 3D Design will use it, even if it’s expensive. They just wouldn’t accept anything less.
It’s no surprise, then, that 3D Design’s take on the i8 is not only stunning, but a level above what everyone else has attempted to-date. Every single body piece, from the lip spoiler to the rear wing, is dry carbon, and while precious-few tuning part makers have even attempted to make an i8 exhaust system, 3D Design not only made one (out of titanium, of course), but also created an entirely unique, and highly-complex, rear diffuser design to allow it to be centre-exit (there’s a design for normal exhausts, too). They also make the world’s only i8-specific coilovers (everyone else just offers lowering springs) and, for this particular demo car, even went to the trouble of creating custom, one-off 21” machined and anodised wheels and custom retrimmed Recaro Sportster seats to complete the look. Oh, and unlike anyone else with an i8 demo car, 3D Design decided to actually add some power (around 25hp or so) via a prototype DME Flash kit, which should be ready for sale in a few months. This car really is something else.
Of course, creating something this exquisite is not easy, and 3D Design manager Toru Endo said there were plenty of challenges during the parts’ development, namely due to the i8’s unique design and construction. “For example, to save weight, BMW made many body parts out of plastic, while in an attempt to reduce drag, they introduced some very complex design elements. In the case of the rear wing, which we’d normally just bolt to the relevant body panel, this meant we had to develop extra reinforcement for it, as the lightweight panel underneath was too flexible to deal with the downforce otherwise. We’re still working on getting that right, too, which is why it’s not on sale yet, whereas the rest of the body kit is. Meanwhile, the side skirts provided a challenge due to the aforementioned complex body shapes. Usually, our side skirts are a relatively simple ‘blade’ shape, but the i8’s side sills are huge and very complex compared to a regular car’s, so that resulted in a longer development time,” Endo-san explains. Even the rear diffuser produced challenges, as the team’s desire for a more aggressive and sporty look via a centre-exit exhaust meant not only integrating that, but also dealing with routing issues, as the i8 was never designed for it. In the end, Endo-san said they had no option but to cut into the body to fit it, but the results speak for themselves – it looks stunning.
It sounds stunning, too. One of the key goals of the exhaust’s development was to actually give the car a properly hardcore note, and despite only working with a 1.5-litre triple, 3D Design actually managed it. There’s a complex, animalistic bark on start-up, a bassy idle, raspy, aggressive burble on acceleration and pops and bangs on change up and overrun. It actually sounds like a sports car now, which is no mean feat. And given the rest of the exterior’s visual aggression (the key design goal was to get rid of the i8’s ‘electric car-ness’), you’ve finally got an i8 that both looks and sounds like a supercar.
Thanks to the car’s improved suspension, wheels and tyres, Endo-san says it also drives like one. “It’s sportier now. It doesn’t feel like a hybrid any more – it feels like a proper sports car. Of course, the i8’s standard suspension and handling are quite sharp, thanks in part to its lightweight, carbon monocoque, but we feel we’ve added an extra level of flavour on top of that”. And don’t worry, when he says flavour, he doesn’t mean the usual over-sprung and under-damped feel you get with cheap Japanese coilovers – he means proper high-end, European-style damping, with a long stroke and the ability to absorb mid-corner bumps, so you can have your keen, lowered stance and centre of gravity, but still enjoy regular roads and not just race tracks.
One particular point to note about the car’s handling upgrades is that 3D Design went with a square tyre set-up front and rear. As opposed to the standard car’s 215/45 and 245/40 20s, the 3D Design car rides on 245/35 rubber all-round, which means a lot more front grip and less understeer-biased attitude. Thanks to its one-off billet wheels, there’s likely a reasonable unsprung weight saving, too, even with the increase in size. Asked whether the company would ever think about selling the wheels, though, Endo-san was sadly non-committal. “The basic shape is easy enough to make, being based on our M4 Anniversary 01 wheels, but tooling costs for a forged wheel that would only ever fit an i8 are difficult to justify unless we get a lot of orders. Of course, we could look at making them in other sizes to broaden the range, but just to make them for the i8 is not something we’re planning at this time as a result”. He also mentioned that replicating the anodised finish would be tricky for a mass-production wheel, and while painting them like they do for the Anniversary 01s would be an option, he would ideally like to keep the very mechanical look if he can.
If there’s one minor consolation, it’s that you can at least have anodised alloy parts inside your i8, thanks to 3D Design’s new machined alloy pedals and paddles. These are a similar design to their products for other BMW models, and like those pieces, are designed to enhance both the look and feel of the cabin, with improved shift feel for the paddles, and better underfoot feel for the pedals, thanks to their rigid aluminium construction. Sadly, there are no plans to sell the lovely, custom re-trimmed Recaro Sportsters, but perhaps a bit of nudging might change Endo-san’s mind, especially as he places a great deal of importance on these interior pieces, saying: “We always aim to make our demo cars a complete package, rather than just show off our expertise in any single area, so the interior is part of that. The cabin is where the driver spends most of their time, and therefore what their senses experience most. It’s thus important to ensure the elements they come into contact with, like the paddles, or the seats, have just as much time invested in them as the exterior or mechanical components. It’s a complete car, and we want the driver to feel that it’s something special – that they’re driving a recognisably ‘3D Design’ car – every time they get in”.
Now, as you might have noticed, the way Endo-san talked about ‘the driver’ just there suggested that the car would eventually be sold as a complete car and driven by someone else, and you’d be partially right. It won’t be sold (although 3D Design will happily sell you a brand new i8 built to your spec), but it will be driven by someone else in future, because the car actually belongs to a long-time customer, who very graciously loaned the car to the company for product development. It’s an even more gracious gesture when you realise the car isn’t just a normal i8, either, but one of only four special edition Protonic Dark Silver machines in Japan, which separate themselves from regular i8s not just by the paint and special interiors, but the lack of blue pinstriping, something Endo-san said actually worked better for the company, as the blue touches added to the ‘hybrid’ feel, which is what he and the team wanted to get rid of to a large extent with their exterior mods anyway. Oh, and in case anyone was wondering, the gradated stripes along the car’s flanks and centre line are not part of the special edition. They were custom made for this demo car.
Essentially, what 3D Design have produced here is what many enthusiasts feel the i8 should have been in the first place – a true sports flagship, not just worthy of leading BMW into the upcoming era of electrified cars, but one that will genuinely stir the soul and continue the BMW tradition of being the ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’. Let’s hope BMW learns from this example.
3D Design i8
ENGINE AND TRANSMISSION
1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo B38A15T0, hybrid synchronous motor, 3D Design centre-exit titanium back box, prototype DME Flash Program remap. Six-speed automatic gearbox
9×21” ET35 (front) and 9×21” ET40 (rear) one-off 3D Design wheels with 245/35 (front and rear) Continental ContiSportContact 5P tyres, 3D
Full 3D Design dry carbon aero kit comprising front lip spoiler, side skirts, centre-exit design rear diffuser and racing wing, custom gradated body stripes
Custom retrimmed Recaro Sportster front seats, 3D Design alloy pedals, 3D Design alloy shift paddles, 3D Design floor mats
Contact: 3D Design
Words and photos: Chris Nicholls