It’s a plug-in petrol/electric hybrid supercar that runs silently on its battery in the morning commute, yet transforms itself into something like a Porsche 911 when you’re in the mood. It also looks sensational, feels special and will slash your running costs to the bone. As a result, this market segment will never be quite the same again.
So, what’s it like? It’s hard to know exactly what to expect when you raise the dihedral driver’s door, ease across the wide sill of the carbon-fibre passenger cell and settle yourself into the low, snug cockpit.
Already, you know the experience to come is going to be rather different, a perception confirmed by the silence that follows a press of the start button. Instead of the V8 or flat six roar you expect from a super-sportscar of this kind, you’re merely treated to a series of sci-fi-style bleeps and a distant whirr from the electric motor up-front. Star Trek-style graphics spring into life on the virtual instrument screen ahead of you and strange enviro-conscious jargon references ‘eBoost’, ‘eDrive’ and ‘Charge’ functionality. For all of us who love our cars, this - apparently - is the future. I wonder what’s in store.
Here, a tiny 1. 5-litre three cylinder petrol powerplant borrowed from the MINI Cooper sits in mid-engined format behind the back seats, turbocharged to push its output up to 231bhp and there to drive the rear wheels via a 6-speed auto gearbox. Ahead of you meanwhile, a tiny 131bhp electric motor is there to work in concert with old fashioned fossil fuel, drawing charge from a high voltage lithium-ion battery to power the front wheels through its own dedicated two-speed auto transmission. Together, the two power sources develop a combined output of 362bhp and though that’s a little less than the class norm, the hefty 570Nm torque output is more than enough to take up any slack, should you want to go 911 or Maserati-chasing.
Which you might well do. Snick the auto gearlever to its lefthand ‘Sport’ setting and, as the dashboard graphics flash orange, the engine fires up if it hasn’t already, chiming in with power to the rear wheels that supplants the torque already being developed by the electric motor for those at the front. The result is 4WD traction and some serious pep, 62mph from rest achievable in just 4. 4s on the way to a maximum speed that must be reined in at 155mph. At the same time, that ‘Sport’ setting firms up the damping, weights up the steering and carefully tweaks the torque split for maximum entertainment. There's even an artificial roar that’s piped in through the speakers - and actually sounds rather good.
Not quite so good is the steering. As I’ve said, it gets heavier when you switch to the ‘Sport’ setting, but even here there’s less feel than you’d ideally want. That’s a pity but it is at least appropriate for the other driving modes this car can offer. Click on the ‘Drive Performance Control’ rocker switch you’ll find on top of the high centre console that houses all those battery cells and you’ll be able to flip out of ‘Sport’ into either the laid-back ‘Comfort’ setting this car always starts off with or conceivably into a enviro-conscious ‘ECO PRO’ mode.
To fix the car in permanent electric mode for as long as the cells hold out, you’ve to click on this ‘eDrive’ button, in which case pure electric driving is theoretically possible for up to 23 miles at speeds of up to 75mph.
It seems appropriate that such unique engineering should be so uniquely fashioned. Clearly futuristic, it’s every inch a BMW - and every inch a sportscar with its long wheelbase, short overhangs and solid stance. Even standing still, there’s a sense of theatre here, with a riot of complex surface treatments, contrasting colours, sharp creases and scalloped sills.
Setting this coupe i8 apart from the equally arresting open-topped Spyder version of this design is the so-called ‘stream flow’ contour of the side window styling. It’s intended to reflect the path of airflow between the falling roofline and the distinctive character crease that rises across this muscular wheelarch towards the lip of the rear spoiler. This is perhaps the most distinctive feature though. Dihedral doors are rare enough in automotive design but these ones are particularly unique, fashioned from aluminium, carbonfibre and thermoplastic and so light and easy to use.
In the cabin, you’ll find the styling as futuristic as it was outside, the curved, layered dash made up of overlapping three-dimensional segments and complemented by contrasting colours. You sit low on slender leather sports seats cocooned in a driver-focused cockpit dominated by two 8. 8-inch screens. One of these should at least be familiar to the BMW faithful, a central iDrive infotainment display that rises from the centre of the dash and deals with all the things that don’t directly concern the performance experience - like Navigation, the stereo system and the many ‘ConnectedDrive’ technology features this car borrows from its more conventional brand stablemates.
More arresting though, is the display you view through the grippy three-spoke wheel, a sci-fi-style layout which delivers range readings for fuel and battery power below two circular digital dials that change in colour depending on the driving mode you select.
Of more importance perhaps, is the news that allround visibility is much better than some rival sportscars provide, helped by a wide rear screen.
Talking of the rear, the 2+2 cabin layout means that, as in a 911 but in contrast to, say, an Aston Martin V8 Vantage or a Jaguar F-TYPE R, you get a couple of extra useful but rather upright chairs. And you may need them because, as with most mid-engined cars, the boot is pretty restricted in size – and can also get quite hot due to the proximity of the engine. This trunk is 154-litres in size – just about big enough for an airline carry-on bag and not much else.
Ultra-lightweight materials, specific aerodynamic optimisation and a comprehensive package of BMW EfficientDynamics technologies combine with this car’s innovative LifeDrive vehicle architecture to promise much when it comes to its running cost returns. Just how much though, is difficult to accurately determine. For a start, the i8’s quoted combined cycle fuel economy figure of 134. 5mpg is clearly a nonsense, but that's not BMW's fault, the reading instead attributable to the shortcomings an official European NEDC testing procedure that still hasn’t worked out how to properly evaluate plug-in hybrid vehicles.
You can see the problem the bureaucrats in Brussels face when trying to measure this. Just how do you accurately ascertain the ultimate fuel economy of a car like this? After all, if you had a ten mile journey to and from work each day and used the car only in full electric mode for your commute, you'd conceivably never put any fuel into it.
In the unlikely event that you were able to do all your running completely using electric propulsion, this would in theory, according to current NEDC rules, make this i8 capable of an infinite number of miles per gallon. In reality of course, you’re going to need petrol power at some point as part of a total combined fuel and battery range that frankly, is a bit restricted. BMW claims this can extend to 375 miles and says that in ECO PRO mode, over 400 miles is theoretically possible, though for that, I reckon you’d have to be driving like Miss Marple.
You may though, find that you can make the charging process work for you to accommodate lengthier journeys. If, say, you’re attending a business meeting or visiting friends, you might well be able to refresh your i8’s battery cells before returning home, for charging doesn’t actually take that long. Plugged into a domestic socket from empty, around three hours would give this car an 80% charge.
Back at home, you’ll be able to complete that charge more quickly in just two hours, provided you’ve had the foresight to get the Munich maker’s 15-amp i Wallbox fitted into your garage.
This i8’s 49g/km emission reading is as difficult to evaluate in real world terms as its quoted fuel return. For potential buyers, the important thing is that the government believes the quoted 49g/km return – and one of the benefits of that is that you won't have to worry about paying road tax.
A much bigger bonus though, comes with benefit in kind taxation, for the penalty you’ll have to face here for running a super-fast exotic sportscar will be pleasantly low.
Remember this moment for it represents a turning point in sportscar history. As interpreted by this i8, the concept of high performance motoring is no longer one of ecological embarrassment but futuristic fascination. In this model perhaps more than any other, driving enjoyment and planet-friendly performance at last meet in unison. It’s a very special blend.