There are sports cars, and then there's the BMW i8 – a shamelessly futuristic performance-focused hybrid that deftly bridges the gap between the high-octane past and the high-amperage future. It's a significant car symbolic of our time – and we had the chance to drive one in anger.
The sportscar industry finds itself in a weird place in the noughteens. By this point, one thing is abundantly clear to anyone who's driven a Tesla: if this game is about performance, power and the thrill of acceleration, there is nothing that the gasoline engine will ever be able to do to keep up with electric. Nothing.
When the lithium battery comes of age – and it will, by every estimation, within a few short years – power and acceleration figures will become almost meaningless. As my wild-eyed, learned friend Luke Workman once put it, with electric performance vehicles "your tire to street interface [will be] your performance limiter."
Of course, the sportscar game is not all about performance, power and acceleration. It's largely about sex, prestige and theater, and a lot of high-performance vehicles will never be thrashed on a racetrack or a mountain road. Many will spend their entire working lives ferrying status-hungry stockbrokers between home, work, secretary's apartments and whatever restaurant they've heard it's hardest to get into. Their performance capabilities will go untapped; the genius of their engineers never honored at the altar of speed.
And in this regard, the gasoline engine still has much to offer. Noise equals presence and power when every fast vehicle you've ever known has gotten louder the faster it went. And no electric motor will ever look a tenth as sexy as a row of pornographically curvy exhaust headers poking out of a V12 dinosaur burner.
So here we sit, in this curious little sliver of time in between the great gas guzzlers of the past and the great electric tarmac-rippers of the near future – soon to be followed by another future in which autonomous cars and VTOL flying machines do all the driving for us and the idea of buying a car for yourself – or, for that matter, caring about what badge is on your mobility service – will seem bizarre.
So, like I posited three years ago, the hybrid BMW i8 might just be the perfect sportscar to symbolize where we're at right now. Somewhere in between eras, looking fondly back at the past and hopefully forward at the future.
And thanks to BMW Australia's 2017 range day, held at the picturesque Duneria Estate in Mt. Macedon, I've finally had a chance to drive the thing – hard. My test loop gave me about 15 minutes' worth of driving, which I knocked off in about 10. So here's a very quick driver's seat impression of what I consider to be a highly significant vehicle.
I'm happy to go on record as saying this is the coolest-looking BMW I've ever seen, and one of the best-looking cars on the market outright. The i8 is unashamedly futuristic, yet somehow understated at the same time.
The doors open upwards, which looks super cool, but also makes this a very awkward car to get in and out of, particularly thanks to a high, chunky bar beside the seat. You're best served by dangling your backside down toward the seat and then swinging your legs in behind you. Luckily, I had my "going out in public" underpants on, so while my ingress and egress may have been dignity-free, at least nobody called the police.
The interior is comfy and classy once you're closed into the cockpit. There are no huge surprises here other than how long it took me to work out the needlessly complex electronic transmission shifter, which now rolls out across a lot of the BMW line. Once we worked out how to put it in Sport mode, we left it alone.
Trickling through suburban streets with a 60 km/h (37 mph) speed limit, the i8 is nervous and aggressive. The throttle is mapped for light-switch electric torque that surges you forward even on a gentle pedal. It's actively difficult to drive smoothly, although my co-driver later informs me that if you take it out of Sport mode, it's much nicer.
I've no time for such things. We quickly come to the start of a fast, open road with tight, twisty corners and some fast, sweeping sections. I floor the thing and it's on for young and old.
There's a tangible distinction between the types of power this car offers. Putting your foot down, you're first treated to the instant, urgent torque of the 131-horsepower electric front-wheel drive, which shunts you forward far quicker than you'd ever expect from just 131 ponies.
Meanwhile, at the same time, the gas motor is spooling up. This is a tiny 1.5-liter three-cylinder turbocharged anger box that's somehow able to pound out 231 additional horses through the rear wheels. Helping to fill the horsepower hole at the rear axle at low revs and during gear changes is the electric starter motor, which kicks in to the tune of 35 horsepower when needed.
The combined effect is remarkable. Huge electric torque gives way to screaming combustion horsepower with a soundtrack that's piped purposefully into the cabin to provide visceral drama. The electric drive does the heavy lifting at low speeds, the petrol takes over once the revs come up, and you forget all about what the transmission's up to, because there's always a ton of drive available out of a corner.
Steering and roadholding is terrific. The i8 is light and nimble and well suspended, and a physical pleasure to drive hard. I'm not man enough on this road to make this car feel squirrelly or test its stability systems, although approaching the same track later in the day in a John Cooper Works Mini and a BMW 740e sees the former running out of grip, and the latter getting a wee bit airborne, to the vocal protestations of my passenger, an Australian Supercar driver. The i8 takes the hardest driving I can throw at it, and comes away unflustered and unflappable, confident and assuring. I'm very impressed.
This is a very quick car, off the line and up to a good chunk over most any speed limit. Perfect for hard, fast performance driving on a twisty road or racetrack. In fact, the i8's modest gas engine and 255 km/h (158 mph) top speed make it much more relevant to round-town hedonism and twisty road hooliganism than high-speed autobahn mile-munching. It feels to me like a sportscar designed perfectly for the kind of way I'd use one, if I had a spare US$$141,700 (or a whopping AUD300,000 in Australia) lying around.
And it also very much feels like the bridge it is, between the past and the future. You can feel the benefits of the different drive technologies trading back and forth as they take turns leading the dance. The silent, alarming, stomach-churning surge of the electric, the throaty roar and the familiar, building power of the combustion engine.
It's a magnificent piece of engineering and a downright desirable sportscar that happens to go twice the length of most commutes without using any petrol at all, and will happily deliver more than 110 mpg (2 L/100km) if you choose to drive it efficiently. And I'm delighted, folks, that on your behalf and on behalf of the geniuses that designed it, I was able to give this thing a gumboot full, on a beautiful piece of road, and let it do the job it was born for.
More information: BMW i8
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