Three-cylinder engine and Prius-beating consumption, but BMW’s i8 packs sports car punch.
There's nothing ordinary about the car I'm about to step in to. Sleek two-door body covered in swirls of blue plastic disguise. Years of hype on its tail for the first of a new breed of guilt-free sports cars. And a tiny three-cylinder engine that's a far cry from the often fuel-hungry engines usually lurking beneath such sleek lines.
Indeed the i8 is like no BMW before it. Or no car before it.
I've only got about 40 minutes behind the wheel, the first couple of which is spent getting in. The scissor doors reveal a high sill in unfinished carbon fibre that requires some acrobatics to slink over; dresses and skirts may not make the leap as elegantly.
In some ways it's indicative of the car. BMW says the i8 is about having your cake and eating it too - delivering sports car performance while using little or no fuel. But at the same time there are compromises.
The instruments and controls are BMW-esque but with a futuristic tinge. The instrument cluster, for example, is a computer screen rather than physical dials and needles.
Like the exterior there are familiar BMW cues inside - switchgear, buttons and colour schemes - but there's the occasional sweep or line that suggests designers had more latitude for a car that was developed outside the usual BMW processes.
Push the start button and shift the lever to D (for drive) and I'm ready to go. It's time to pull out on to the freshly laid track that is the new centrepiece of BMW's Miramas test facility in the south of France.
With top secret security it keeps prying eyes from the likes of the i8, the production version of which will be revealed next month at the Frankfurt motor show. A year from showrooms, though, there’s still development work to be done.
I get the first sense of that after only a few corners. A mild clunk shivers through the cabin as the petrol engine and electric motor share duties under acceleration. The engineer who is my passenger reassures me those niggling issues are all part of an ongoing development program that will be perfected within months.
Unlike other hybrid systems the two powertrains aren't linked, mechanically at least. While electronics monitor which is doing what, the electric motor powers the front wheels only, while the petrol engine looks after the rears.
Getting them to work in tandem is a challenge given the different characteristics. The electric motor is almost instant in its delivery of effortless torque, or pulling power. The petrol engine needs a moment to collect its thoughts and get its turbocharger boosting for similar torque. Helping it along is a tiny 10kW electric motor, which as well as firing the engine (it kicks in and out depending on the conditions and driver inputs) is used to quickly bring the engine up to speed.
It doesn't take long for the full 520Nm to be thrusting the diminutive body along. At only 1490kg the i8 is a featherweight sports car. It’s also the most aerodynamic of its ilk, with a drag coefficient of just 0.26, better than some fuel misers. Those aerodynamics are helped by the tailored shape that tapers at the rear and the relatively few air intakes, a legacy of its electric motor and compact three-cylinder engine. The duo doesn't need anything like the cooling of a traditional sports car engine.
Acceleration is brisk without being fiery. It doesn't have the outright shove of a Porsche 911 Turbo or BMW's own M5, but with a claimed 0-100km/h time of 4.5 seconds it should be similar to the legendary M3 from the same brand.
So it's athletic and builds pace quickly and with the sort of urge that suggests it means business. It's not as frenetic as an M3, instead relying on its muscular mid-rev response and across-the-board pull.
A glance at the digital speedo as it clicks over to 170km/h confirms the i8 is no slouch, but it's the hearty sound that is the biggest surprise.
Three-cylinder engines have a distinctive note, but this is like nothing I've experienced. There's a deep thrum that intensifies with speed, amplified because it's just inches behind the passenger compartment (plus there's some artificial sound pumped through the sound system). Shifting through its six forward gears at about 6000rpm it relies more on all the torque rather than the 266kW of combined power. Still, engineers are hopeful of more petrol punch, with the rev limit set to be increased to between 6500 and 6700rpm.
There's a faction more pull once you select Sport mode, which keeps the engine running permanently rather than shutting it down when full thrust isn’t called for. It also selects a lower gear and shifts the electric motor's focus more to performance than energy conservation (something achieved in how it feeds charge into the batteries). Part of that equation is ensuring the batteries that run down the centre of the car low on the floor with more charge, so they’re ready to power the motor.
Through corners the i8 feels remarkably agile, which is perhaps unsurprising given the sub-1.5-tonne weight. A low centre of gravity (BMW says at 450mm it's the lowest of any of its road cars ever) ensures almost no leaning through bends, and the light but responsive steering points the nose accurately.
Only once you begin pushing hard do the front wheels start to run wide, pushing and squealing as the limits of adhesion are reached. Quick direction changes do little to faze it and the two-plus-two sports car is beautifully composed under brakes. It's a wonderfully athletic machine, although engineers are already looking to tweak the set-up to reduce some of the understeer, or front-end push.
The i8 runs on relatively narrow 20-inch wheels, although our test mule was shod in the wider sport pack tyres that up the width from 195mm at the front and 215mm at the rear to a gripper 215mm and 245mm respectively.
Engineers claim the wider rubber won't radically impact the claimed sub-2.5 litres per 100km fuel figure radically but concede the real world consumption would take a hit; hence the choice.
Of course how much fuel you use will vary wildly depending on how you drive it. With an electric-only range of up to 35km it's conceivable many will rarely use fuel for darting around town. But in its more aggressive Sport guise the thirst can surpass 10L/100km.
But the i8 also has the ability to use its charge when you want it. As more cities consider bans on emissions in the CBD the i8 can store its charge until it reaches the zero emissions zone.
You can then switch purely to electric propulsion, relying solely on the 96kW electric motor driving the front wheels.
Performance with no petrol propulsion is more than acceptable, without the sports car feel when both powerplants are working together. It's also quiet and with a decent dollop of torque for easy and quick response to throttle inputs.
When in its electric-only “e-Mode” the i8’s electric motor also shuffles between two gears, designed to deliver better response (for the hybrid modes it remains in the taller of those two gears, with the petrol engine making up the shortfall).
It adds up to a car that promises to change people’s thinking. The sort of car that proves there’s plenty of life left yet in the sports car – even with stricter emissions regulations and inevitably higher fuel prices. But it delivers on the fun factor with plenty in the way of usable performance.
The circa $300,000 price tag is likely to ensure it will be very much a niche, a technical showcase rather than something to upset the supercar status quo. For now, at least.
Price: $300,000-plus (estimated)
Body: 2 door, 4 seat sports car, carbon fibre body, plug-in hybrid car
Powertrain: 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo (170kW/320Nm) and electric motor (96kW/250Nm)
Driven wheels: Petrol engine powers the rear wheels, electric motor powers the front wheels
Total power: 266kW
Total torque: 570Nm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic (petrol engine), 2-speed transmission (electric motor)
0-100km/h: 4.5 seconds (claimed)
Top speed: 250km/h
Fuel use: Less than 2.5L/100km
Electric-only driving range: Less than 35km
Combined range: 500km