BMW's i8 supercar casts an electrifying presence

The BMW i8 is, to some, clearly an out-and-out supercar. There's that low-slung silhouette, a glorious set of figures (0-100km in 4.4 seconds, top speed restricted to 250km/h) and a you-wish pricetag ($299,000 plus on-road costs) to put it beyond doubt.

Artistic types, meanwhile, are drawn to an utterly unique design that's more motorshow concept than any road-legal car has a right to look, with startling scissor-lift doors and a fussy series of wings and cutouts that look anything but practical.

Tech-heads peer past such window dressing at the feat of engineering beneath the surface, where a tiny 1.5-litre, three-cylinder petrol engine at the rear combines with an electrical motor at the front to punch out a stunning 266kW and 570Nm.

And car lovers with a green conscience see the i8 not so much as a car, as a signpost to the changing face of motoring; a poster child for a future in which electrically-charged performance is achieved without range anxiety or significant environmental penalty.

I know this because across just three days of living with the i8, I chatted at length with all these types; or rather, they to me.

The rules of attraction

This is a car that should come with a warning sticker: "Objects in the mirror may in fact be following you." At least twice I was pursued to my destination and bailed up by strangers, emboldened by a sighting of the automotive equivalent of a white whale. Many others crossed carparks and roads for a closer look.

A car conceived to such outrageously disparate ideals risks being fatally flawed by compromise as designers, engineers and marketers typically all pursue conflicting agendas.

To that end, the i8 isn't without quibble. The boot space (145 litres) is so token you may as well not bother; there are some surprising equipment omissions given the price; clambering in and out is a major effort even for the upwardly mobile; and genuine performance car enthusiasts may find the driving experience less engaging than others in its competitor set.

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There are many countering upsides, however. The back seat – yes, it has one – is spacious enough to be comfortable for two children under 10, or can double as a place to stash the shopping bags or luggage that won't fit in the tiny boot.

It's easy (unless you are wearing a short skirt) to forgive the gymnastic act required for ingress and egress every time you release the clever doors that hinge diagonally upwards, creating one of the most original-looking automotive outlines ever conceived.

Engineering chicanery

And if the feat of engineering chicanery that makes a three-cylinder engine snarl and rumble like a V8 doesn't bring a grin or at least a raised eyebrow to your dial, then you probably need to reset your priorities.

Inside, there's a generous serve of BMW's trademark coolly efficient, sports-themed luxury – stitched leather seats and dashboard surfaces, large and glossy screens featuring sophisticated graphical displays, a high-end Harmon/Kardon sound system, and ergonomically and tactilely pleasing touchpoints such as the handsome automatic gear shift lever and steering wheel-mounted paddles.

Although BMW has packed plenty of kit into the i8, there are things missing that are frequently found in cars one-fifth of the price. Two such items were a proximity key to unlock the car without needing to remove the keyfob from your pocket, and adaptive cruise control, which automatically adjusts your speed to match slower traffic ahead. Balancing that miss is the valued inclusion of a low-speed collision warning and braking system.

Impressive standard features include front, rear and side parking cameras which combine to produce an artificial 360-degree "top view" as you manoeuvre in tight spaces, digital radio, a head-up display plus a satnav rendered on an 8.8-inch (26cm) screen. There's even cupholders and a few small storage compartments for personal items, although door pockets are understandably absent.

When the going gets tight

Speaking of tight spaces, the i8 doesn't fear them. Traversing the multi-storey carpark at a shopping mall proves ridiculously stress-free, if you don't count the obstacle course of people stopping in front of you to gawp. The i8 is easy to manoeuvre in tight spaces, and its flip-up doors require less lateral space for opening than conventional ones.

Many supercars have something of a glass jaw when it comes to parking and speedhumps, but the i8's front spoiler just clears a standard-size gutter, meaning road furniture can also be negotiated at not-ridiculously-low speeds.

So it's intoxicatingly fast, appropriately sumptuous, undeniably eye-catching, yet not without a few foibles. Does it hold the key to the future of electric cars?

The answer depends on how you drive it. With a light foot in its greenest 'eDrive' mode, the all-electric range of between 30-35km can be achieved or even bettered with brake regeneration if there's plenty of stop-start on your route.

But who drives a car this sexy and this potent in pure electric mode all the time? Bunting the gear lever across its gate into "sport" mode fires up the petrol engine, which ironically is also the best mode for recharging the electric battery on the move.

Fuelish games

Do this a few times to sample the i8's delicious acceleration, and fuel use will quickly rise well above the 2.1L/100km quoted by BMW. We still recorded an average of 5.6L/100km, a stunning figure in return for such prodigious performance.

Our drive also took in a significant traverse on freeways with the cruise control set. The car's computer revised its estimate of the i8's total range – the sum of its electric and petrol reserves – from a starting point of 568km up to beyond 650km if we continued the same consumption pattern.

Over three days we covered 244km and sampled all of the i8's modes. By the end a remaining range of 476km was estimated, which indicates that 152km had been topped up by the i8 - either through recharging or regeneration.

These are somewhat rubbery figures, though – the car makes a best estimate of remaining range based on your current driving style, and this can change from one minute to the next.

The exception to the rule

Driving a genuine supercar is a buzz everyone should experience at least once in their life. Most of them, though, are so heavily blighted by the things that matter in life – ergonomics, practicality, noise, ride quality or a combination of all of the above – that you're usually delighted to hand back the keys after a few excruciating days.

The i8 was different. In just a few short days I quickly became used to plugging it in at home, to the duck-and-dive manoeuvre required to get in, to the stunned stares of all who beheld it, and – most easily of all – to its astonishing turn of performance.

I might think less fondly of it the first time I needed to get a lump of 4x2 home from the hardware store, or to hand-wash its multifarious crevices, scoops and wings. Its tendency to attract a very forthright brand of admirers is also a potential drawback if you're not the chatty type.

Even so, BMW's i8 remains a fascinating case study into how the disparate worlds of performance, technology, design and green sensibility can find common ground in one very super car.

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