It takes a lot to get noticed in Hollywood – especially in the automotive world, where Italian supercars, priceless classics and bold American muscle machines are the norm. But drive a BMW i8 through the streets of Los Angeles, as Auto Express did, and it’s as though a spaceship has landed.
The design alone screams futuristic; the wide, low-slung proportions are nothing new, but the elegant floating C-pillars, cut-out bonnet and delicate, flowing rear lights would be remarkable manufacturing achievements on a one-off concept, let alone a mass-production car. Impromptu conversations, snatched cameraphone shots and shouts of appreciation quickly become the norm.
The i8’s extraterrestrial looks aren’t only for attracting admirers, either; they’ve been designed as a visual representation of the cutting-edge tech that underpins this car – the second in a family of low-emissions BMW i models.
As with its i3 EV city car stablemate, the i8 uses a carbon fibre-reinforced plastic body and sits on an aluminium chassis. It’s a plug-in hybrid – so has a stack of heavy batteries – but weighs in at only 1,490kg, which is 70kg lighter than the most featherweight Audi R8.
There’s enough tech alone with which to fill the next four pages, but it’s how the i8 drives that matters most. The way it behaves depends on which mode you pick: Eco Pro, Comfort or Sport. The first two are good for town cruising, where the 129bhp electric motor on the forward axle provides mostly front-wheel-drive performance. As with all electric cars, instant response and acceleration nearly match those of a Volkswagen Golf GTI.
The rear-mounted 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo – which drives the back wheels – will kick in if you’re too hard on the accelerator, but on a full charge you can do 22 miles at up to 75mph on electric power alone. The engine itself is spectacular – BMW’s managed to make a tiny three-cylinder sound like a throaty V6.
Another small electric motor in the rear boosts the engine – as well as acting as starter and generator – to help integrate it better with the other electric motor. In Comfort or Eco Pro, and with all power sources working together, the i8 feels seriously fast and the powertrain seems extremely well sorted. There’s a subtle shunt as the engine kicks in, but other than that you’d have no idea that there was such a complicated process of gears, motors and engine constantly shuffling things around you. However, to get the most out of the i8 you need to choose Sport mode.
As you knock the gear selector over to the left, the dials turn red and the i8 really comes alive. Throttle response is crisper and the powertrain altogether more responsive, while the six-speed automatic changes gear with more conviction and holds on to ratios for longer. Now, the i8 feels like a proper rival to the R8 and top-end Porsche 911s. Floor the throttle in Sport and the combination of electricity and internal combustion works seamlessly, with the electric unit providing instant off-the-line torque and the 227bhp turbo filling in when the motor becomes less efficient.
You’d think there’d be erratic surges of acceleration, but instead everything works in perfect harmony to deliver a blisteringly smooth 4.4-second 0-62mph time. Engaging Sport also switches on the maximum amount of brake energy regeneration and turns the standard-fit adaptive dampers and power-steering to their most aggressive settings.
Where you previously had a supple, comfortable ride and light steering, Sport mode weights up the latter and makes the former seem instantly firmer. Yet the i8 still feels perfectly adept at dealing with potholes or large ridges without sending thuds and vibrations up through the base of your seat.
In corners, sticking with Sport, you’ll discover that the i8 has a character all of its own – nothing like a traditional M car. Those hefty, powerful, oversteering machines feel brutish compared with the delicate i8. There’s a real immediacy to the steering inputs, giving near-instant turn-in to bends with subtle feedback through the wheel. Pushing the i8 hard, you’ll discover that it naturally wants to understeer, and you’ll have to switch off all the traction control systems if you ever want to coax it into a slide.
Even then, it’ll take a fair amount of provocation. It’s not as lairy as a Porsche 911, but there’s a lot of pleasure to be gained from darting through sharp bends on the perfect line thanks to the great steering and superb body control. The brakes take a little getting used to, though, often requiring a firm push.
The i8 feels like a sports car revolution. It delivers everything we’ve come to expect from some of the best performance models out there – but with 135mpg economy and 49g/km CO2 emissions. It’s a definite game-changer, and while the hybrid Ferrari LaFerrari, McLaren P1 and Porsche 918 Spyder will each set you back around £1million, the i8 costs ‘only’ £100,000 – or £99,845, to be exact.
At that price it goes up against an established crop of supercars. Yet not only do you get the carbon fibre body, 4WD and hi-tech powertrain, there’s also 8.8-inch sat-nav, parking sensors, head-up display and a design that looks unlike anything else on the road. The BMW i8 changes everything – the future of performance cars has arrived.
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