Stepping out of LAX terminal B after 11 hours in the air, a BMW i3 glides along to pick us up. We clamber in and it silently accelerates us from the bustle of the busy airport and out into the LA sun. After the constant background noise and dark cabin of a 747, its silence and that light is welcome, it feeling every-inch the future. Yet the i3 isn’t why we’re here, the i3 is a Total Recall Johnny Cab, albeit with a real driver, a conveyance to the promise of something even more exciting.
The BMW i8 was first shown in 2009 at the Frankfurt Motor Show as the Vision EfficientDynamics. An outlandishly, overtly styled concept that promised a brave new world for sports cars. BMW said it would build it and just five years later it’s here. No longer a dreamy, idealistic concept, but reality. BMW has delivered the i8’s environmental promise and been faithful to the concept’s lines, too. It’s stunning, the complex interplay of flat surfacing, scalloped sills, the floating teardrop roofline and mixed colour elements highlighting the varied topography of its lightweight, wind-cheating bodywork. Add a-pillar hinged butterfly wing doors for even more look-at-me attention grabbing.
Underneath that special bodywork is a plug-in hybrid drivetrain that features a front-mounted electric motor driving the front wheels and a rear internal combustion engine – with an attached electric generator/recuperation motor – driving the rear wheels. Slip inside and the cabin is as future-feeling as the exterior, the dashboard’s many layered, many surfaced form neat and functional, and remarkably devoid of buttons given the complexity of the i8’s drivetrain.
I’ll admit to being more than a little bit excited at the prospect of driving it. The drivetrain interests me, BMW might be tapping into the increasingly green zeitgeist, but who really wants, or needs, a hybrid sports car? Will its diametrically opposed goals of performance and economy create a machine that’s full of compromises? So many questions, answered the second I open the door and press the start button.
Default drive mode is Comfort, utilising as much of the pure electric mode as possible, the engine only cutting in when required. It’s possible to select pure electric mode for up to 23 miles of silent, emissions-free driving, at speeds up to 74mph, the 131bhp electric motor giving the i8 brisk performance when running exclusively on its battery power.
It’s brilliant, engaging, even at town speeds, the excitement behind the wheel palpable, there being a feeling that you’re experiencing something very special indeed. As if you need any reminding LA’s car-mad population underlines it; the last time I experienced a reaction to a car anything like this was when sitting in the very first Audi TT (remember when it was a head-turner?) in traffic on the M1 or driving the new Mini through the centre of London. The population is the paparazzi, and the BMW i8 is the star, it stopping traffic and the object framed in countless smartphone shutters.
Comfort or EcoPro actually lack the sharp throttle response of the solo electric motoring, both still only adding the additional 231bhp of the turbocharged 1.5-litre triple when it’s absolutely necessary. It’s great in town, and in truth BMW could have left it at that, delivering an eco statement piece to a urban driver and charged whatever price it wanted. But it hasn’t, it’s stayed true to the sports car promise, the i8 not just corporate environmental posturing or a car that uses its extreme green credentials as an excuse for compromise. It really is a proper sports car.
Nudge the gearlever over to Sport, as you would with a conventional automatic, and the i8’s character changes markedly. The TFT screen in front of you changes the instruments to a more menacing red, and the 1.5-litre’s timbre changes from quiet background noise to a sound that’s more big capacity, muscular V6 than a tiny blown triple. It’s amplified, electronically, the sound not created by anything but the engine but played through speakers in the cabin – and one outside – to hoodwink you into thinking there’s a bigger, more potent unit over your shoulder.
Is that fakery less authentic than a bypassed exhaust, or needlessly chattering wastegate? Not really, the i8’s technology is simply different. And it works, if the grins on both mine and my passenger’s faces are anything to go by.
The suspension changes accordingly too, firming up, while the front electric motor forgets all about fuel saving and assists in the i8 driver’s pursuit of speed. Combined the powertrain’s output is 362bhp, torque a sizeable 420lb ft. It’s all fiendishly clever but doesn’t feel it, the i8 actually offering the driver less modes and choices than many of its more mundane BMW relations.
Two motors are better than one?
The result of its dual powerplants and four-wheel drive is a 0-62mph time of just 4.4sec and a 155mph potential maximum. In Sport mode you forget immediately this is a car with a combined fuel consumption figure of 134.5mpg and CO2 emissions of 49g/km. It’s fast, not supercar fast, but sportscar, the i8’s most obvious, albeit conventional, rival being Porsche’s omnipresent 911 Carrera.
America might not be renowned for the sort of roads where sports cars can be truly enjoyed, but turning off the coastline hugging Highway 1 and up into the canyon roads reveals tight, testing switchback roads that follow the topography rather than America’s more usual grid pattern. What’s immediately obvious is that the i8’s chassis is extremely stiff. It’s a carbon fibre structure, off which aluminium subframes hang, the i8’s double wishbone front and five-link rear suspension having a solid platform to work from.
The suspension’s control is significant, the i8 riding with real sophistication, yet retaining excellent body control on challenging undulations, odd cambers and deep compressions. The steering’s weighting is good, the immediacy of response from the pleasingly substantial (and thankfully not flat bottomed) steering wheel quick and accurate. There’s some feel at the wheel’s rim, though with speed that diminishes. So too does the faithfulness of the front end’s response, the i8’s nose pushing wide into understeer when the velocity rises. That’s a frustration, but one that can be driven round.
Some of that understeer can be attributed to the paucity of feel with the brake pedal too. It is not unusual to arrive at a bend needing to add more force when you should be rolling off the brakes. For that it’ll be criticised by other testers as a failure, something to grab onto as a weakness. That’s to do it a disservice, as adapting your technique to a slower approach to bends, using the paddle-shifted auto and throttle-blip announced engine braking, and enjoying the slingshot of the i8’s plentiful traction and elastic power delivery on exit helps with the i8’s balance. So too does switching off the stability and traction control systems – not in the pursuit of lairy oversteer, but simply allowing a little bit more mobility at the i8’s rear.
Do so and ground can be covered with real pace, though if you up the pace you’ll not get anywhere like those quoted fuel consumption figures. After the hedonistic pleasure of empty canyon roads, wanton fuel consumption and law bending speeds the i8 can salve your environmental conscience at the flick of a switch. Silently, though never entirely stealthily given the reaction it gets from traffic around it.
Slip back into town on battery power, relieved the Califonria Highway Patrol wasn’t out today, and the i8’s dual nature is no better demonstrated as it slips easily and quietly through the traffic. A landmark car, no question, and one that if I had the near-as-damn-it £100,000 price tag I’d buy. It’s that good, that special, and looks absolutely sensational. It’s not perfect, but then no car is, what BMW has achieved is nothing short of incredible – it didn’t need to make the i8 as good as it did, that it has should be congratulated. Every single petrolhead should celebrate its arrival; it demonstrating a cleaner, greener future really doesn’t need to be mired in fuel-saving monotony, and making pretty much every sports car that came before it look like ancient history.
Top speed: 155mph
Engine: 1.5-litre turbo petrol three-cylinder with electric motor
Power/weight: 244bhp per ton
Transmission: Hybrid-specific all-wheel drive, combustion engine driving the rear wheels, electric motor driving the front wheels, six-speed automatic
Wheels: 7J x 20-inch light alloy / 7.5J x 20-inch light alloy
Tyres: 195/50 R20 front, 215/45 R20 rear
Torque: 420lb ft
On sale date: Now