The devil on my left shoulder sniggers as BMW’s presenter takes us through the i8’s eDrive, Comfort and Eco-Pro modes, but shuts up and takes notice when the word ‘Sport’ is mentioned. The angel on my right shoulder diligently takes notes. Given that we’re about to try the BMW i8 for the first time on proper British roads north of Inverness (although we have already driven it on the familiar UK soil of the Goodwood hill) I suspect I’ll be swayed more by the imp than the cherub…
To keep our hosts happy we depart in the car’s default mode, which is eerily silent. All-electric cars are no longer a complete oddity in the UK, but ones that look as outrageously performance-oriented as the i8 aren’t exactly two-a-penny. Hence it feels somewhat strange to quietly glide along. BMW reckons its new creation can cope with realistic day-to-day driving for about 22 miles on pure electric power. It’ll also hit 75mph drawing juice solely from the battery, which may be charged up by plugging the car in. But while we don’t expect to break the speed limit today in Scotland, we’d quite like to confirm that the i8 feels like a proper sports car. The quoted figures say 135mpg, 99g/km and 155mph, after all.
Once out of earshot, the normal-looking auto shifter is shoved left into Sport mode, the digitally rendered instruments glow red and orange and the engine cuts in. In fairness, the latter is a smooth operation, in this mode and all others. And what an engine it is. Those who read about its 1.5-litre, three-cylinder layout and dismiss it as uninteresting really need to experience this car. It alone provides 228bhp and 236lb ft of torque to the rear wheels. Somewhat surprisingly, it sounds utterly brilliant, too. There’s so much torque available (more on that in a minute) that there’s rarely a reason to downshift, but you’ll find yourself doing it anyway just to hear the engine note when the throttle is automatically blipped. At full chat it sounds more like a special blown six-cylinder than it does something with half the number of pistons.
The acceleration never lets up
And if you didn’t know that this car had a hybrid powertrain, the acceleration it summons up would have you believe there’s a much larger capacity engine in the back. That’s thanks to the assistance of the electric motor up front. This adds 129bhp to the mix and it also produces 184lb ft of torque from a standstill. Not only does all this add up to a pretty useful 357bhp and 421lb ft of torque, but the electric motor ‘fills’ in the gaps in delivery from the petrol engine so the i8 is seemingly never without meaningful grunt. The first time we have to overtake a queue of dawdling traffic the effect of this is revealed to us. There’s no waiting for a turbo to spool up or the revs to rise; the i8 just slingshots forward and the acceleration never lets up. A 4.4-sec 0-62mph time is impressive enough, but it’s the sustained sweep of the ‘needle’ around the speedo at higher speeds that is so addictive.
In Sport mode the standard adaptive damping firms up as well and – though it’s a pity the driver can’t choose a custom setting – the i8 feels every inch the junior supercar. The low centre of gravity and super-stiff carbon structure mean completely flat cornering no matter how hard you try, yet the i8 isn’t at all intimidating to drive quickly. Its relatively compact dimensions help with that on a British B-road. So too does the super-fast steering and great body control. The damping is firm, but the car never bounces around or off line. All bumps are dealt with efficiently in a single movement, meaning the driver has the confidence to push on. It’s a very different experience to driving most BMW M cars, which are amusingly so rear-led, but no less enthralling. The i8 relishes fast sweeping roads and being driven smoothly within the limits of adhesion rather than playing around beyond them. Aspects of the car’s dynamics are reminiscent of the Porsche 911 (the nose bobs slightly and feels light, despite near 50:50 weight distribution) and Audi R8 (utterly simple to jump in and drive), but the BMW has a charm all its own.
Devils and angels everywhere will love this car. We certainly do.
Power to weight: 240bhp/ton
Top speed: 155mph
Engine: Three-cylinder 1.5-litre turbo petrol with electric motor
Torque: 421lb ft
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: F 195/50 R20 / R 215/45 R20
On sale date: Now