I’m excited today.
You see I’ve been baffled and intrigued by the “hybrid takeover” for some time. I don’t doubt that you’ve had the concept of electric vehicles (or EVs) being the future thrust in your face over the last couple of years, but it makes me somewhat uncomfortable. I mean it’s all well having the elite hypercars of the world using electric wizardry to shave seconds off their laptimes, but on the sectors below that I’m worried that we’ll be left with a load of vehicles that are numb, devoid of the visceral aspects of motoring that we love so much. I look at my 996 911. It roars, it spits, it twitches and it stirs up the soul.
So the BMW i8 then seems to be the perfect proof of concept to validate or cure my fears. OK so it was $300k as a new car but at the time of writing, prices have dropped to around $150-170k. Still pricey, yes, but it’s moving towards the territory of other M cars, Porches and AMGs of varying levels of use. So needless to say I scrambled to the depot like a kid who’s just been given a go on his friend’s new bike.
Admittedly confused as I’m handed something that resembles more a smartphone than a key. It’s huge with an image of an i8 in the centre of the LCD screen, which allows you to perform all sorts of adjustments and checks from the remote – right down to pre-cooling the car with the air conditioner. It sets the tone of the sort of “tech of tomorrow.. today” that the i8 is packed with. And just look at it. The design of the thing gets your pulse up. Whilst many will say that by today standards it doesn’t fit the profile of a fully fledged supercar with it’s tiny 1.5, 3 cylinder motor that puts out less than 400bhp when combined with the electric motor – don’t think that’s where the story ends.
The exterior is diced up by angular surfaces, edged with LED’s and from just looking at it you immediately become aware that you’re about to experience something rather special. The rear lights forming a futuristic spoiler that wraps around the rear end. I’m not sure the wheels sit perfectly but that’s a personal aspect no matter what car you’re in. The supercar credentials get a boost by the sheer street cred generated when you walk up and open a door.. upwards.. As a sheer tool of desirability, you’d be forgiven for saying that the i8 was one of the most exciting designs to wear the roundel in a long time, possibly since the M1 which its proportions give a conceptual throwback to.
You climb, literally into the sports seats. The exposed carbon tub forms a ledge that you have to climb across before dropping into the cockpit. The sense of occasion is huge as you tuck in the small opening and reach to the sky to pull the door down and shut. The cabin wraps around you with a glass dashboard showing you the vitals. The sports seats are carved ins uch a way they hug the body.
I could go on for days about how the thing looks. The angled-lift doors are reminiscent of the z9 concept of the Chris Bangle Design era (a car which sent my imagination running wild at the time). But I feel that’s not the important bit here, as much as I love the visuals the more I look at it.
The proof is in the pudding as the saying goes. Hit the starter button and the engine surprisingly grunts to life with a throaty snort however in eco, electric only mode, you won’t even notice that the car is primed for action. It will whisk you forwards with a silent gusto and a surprising amount of pace. Should the battery get low, or you depress the throttle to the point at which the computer thinks you need an octane injection. The flipover between battery and hybrid drive is marvelously seemless.
The way in which power is put down is the immediately impressive aspect here. The electric motor provides instant torque. The acceleration feels like so much more than the 4.5 second 0-100 sprint would suggest and when you are really making progress the electric motor fills in all of the torque gaps left by the petrol motor. The two combine to ensure that sufficient capability is available at any moment. Whilst pure-bred combustion alternatives might deliver more thrills going flat-out, none of them create the same overall feel as the BMW.
The 3 cylinder motor combines with it to create a thrilling combination of performance. It has a relatively high weight, owing to the batteries supplying the motor. The 19” wheels and sophisticated suspension combine to keep the car flat and responsive, changing direction on command. Steering could perhaps be a little bit more communicative, lacking the telepathic communication that I’d like to see from a sports car let alone a supercar, with a little vagueness present especially in comfort mode. That is being a tad critical though as it is a lightweight package and still handles as such. As a rule, I’m no fan of augmented sound. Sound is such an integral part of the experience that it feels an affront to fake it. It’s up there with fake vents, air intakes to nothing and fake exhaust tips. That being said, it is difficult to pinpoint where the mechanical roar ends and the synthetic sound begins. Have one drive by enthusiastically and they sound no-where near as tame as I would have initially thought. Think about the same sort of engineering which allows the Alfa 4C to bark louder than its small stature would paint the picture of. You begin to feel that you are in the cockpit of a race car. Which is fitting given the race car technology embraced in the monocoque chassis.
The i8 then, is more than just a glimpse of what lies ahead for the world of motoring. The on board tech combines the best of the BMW i-drive world with perhaps just a taste of the sort of performance that you get on an NSX or P1. It’s an important car as far as it represents the meeting of the enthusiasts and the greens to find some mutual ground. You can’t for a second look past the supercar looks and it is an event to fling a door to the sky and climb in.
All things being equal, would I take one over a similarly priced 911? A car with potentially more power and twice as many cylinders? Well I’d like to think not, but truth be told I would loose a week’s sleep trying to decide..