Driven: BMW i8 hybrid sports car

An eye-catching shape and plenty of hype mean the BMW i8 is an unprecedented head-turner.
An eye-catching shape and plenty of hype mean the BMW i8 is an unprecedented head-turner. Photo: Supplied

BMW will have a tough time selling its i8 supercar to celebrities that want to steer clear of the paparazzi.

That's because I have never driven a car that garnered as much attention as the German company's new hybrid-powered halo.

Scissor-lift doors look futuristic but add complexity and discomfort to ingress.
Scissor-lift doors look futuristic but add complexity and discomfort to ingress. 

No matter where I went during the first local drive in and around Melbourne over the weekend – whether it was stopping at the lights in the middle of Toorak's fashionable Chapel Street, cruising along the Westgate freeway or even in a car park at the top of rural Mount Macedon – the radical-looking, scissor-doored sportscar had people scrambling for smart phones and then jamming their social networks with status updates and pictures.

For tech heads, not rev heads

Which is pertinent, because on first impressions the i8 plug-in hybrid is a sportscar for tech heads rather than rev heads.

At $299,000 (plus on-road costs) it is unlikely to have buyers camping outside dealerships in the days before it arrives, but it is the kind of car that will appeal to the iPhone generation more than traditionalists, to those early adopters that appreciate what it can do rather than what it feels like to drive and, more importantly, to those that just have to have the latest gadget.

Familiar controls and switchgear draw heavily from the BMW parts catalogue.
Familiar controls and switchgear draw heavily from the BMW parts catalogue. 

Game-changer?

That's because it is an impressive piece of engineering and one that accelerates the sportscar of tomorrow into today. Under its futuristic skin – which looks even more striking in real life than it does in photos, particularly from behind where the aerodynamic cut-outs between its LED taillights and floating C-pillar stand out like nothing else – there's even more substance beyond its style and the numbers it can theoretically deliver are genuinely game-changing.

With a rear-mounted turbo charged 1.5-litre three cylinder engine that produces a remarkable 170kW of peak power and 320Nm of maximum torque driving the real wheels through a six-speed automatic and a 96kW/250Nm electric motor (with a two-speed gearbox) powering the front wheels, the i8 has a combined output of 266kW and 570Nm – more than a base Porsche 911 Carrera – and can accelerate from 0-100km/h in 4.4 seconds.

Yet, with the ability to travel up to 37km on electric power alone, BMW claims it can consume on average just 2.1L/100km.

The rear design is highly distinctive and looks even better in the metal.
The rear design is highly distinctive and looks even better in the metal. 

Duck, step, drop, swing

To produce any of those numbers, firstly you have to climb into its equally-radical looking 2+2 seater cabin, which, in truth, is a bit of an exercise, having to duck your head under the winged doors, stepping over the wide sill of its carbon-fibre body with one foot, dropping your bum backwards into the thinly-padded front seats and then swinging your other leg into the footwell. Again, not the most pap-friendly entry process, especially for women in short skirts…I imagine.

But, once there, the cabin has an fair degree of familiar controls from within the BMW family as well as a host of elements exclusive to the i8, such as its fully digital instrument panel and blue ambient lighting strips. As you'd expect from a sportscar costing $300k, the cabin is draped in top-quality materials and the driving position is set low. Similarly, it brings all the compromises of a traditional mid-engined coupe, such as limited headroom and restricted vision, little in the way of storage space – both within the cabin and the tiny boot behind the engine – and the back seats are cramped and only suitable for small children.

Seamless shove

Moving away in the default Comfort setting – one of five different drive modes – there is an eerie (and synthesised) whirr from the speakers and a seamless shove from the electric motor. The little three-pot chimes in early in this mode, adding to the effortless acceleration with smooth shifts from the six-speed auto and a chubby, but slightly muted, exhaust note.

Technically, a good drive; emotionally, there's something missing.
Technically, a good drive; emotionally, there's something missing. 

Switching it to Eco Pro instantly removes the petrol engine from the equation – as well as a noticeable drop in pressure from the air conditioning to save electricity – and brings a stiffer throttle pedal to prevent you from re-igniting it (except when required such as heavy acceleration for overtaking) for maximum efficiency.

To use battery power only, simply activate the e-Drive mode – with individual Comfort and Eco Pro settings - below the starter button.

In all of its commuter-type modes, the i8 is easy to drive around town, with none of the lumpiness or crankiness of a typical highly-strung sportscar. The steering is light and yet precise, the suspension is sharp and busy but reasonably supple and the transition between petrol and electric power is almost seamless. The regenerative nature of the braking system, however, means it often lurches at low speeds as it mixes the drag of the electric motor with the conventional rotors.

Turn it up

But the i8 is meant to be a sportscar, so accessing its full potential in Sport mode requires flicking the gearlever to the left, which ensures the engine stays alive all the time and brings with it a louder exhaust note, stiffer suspension and more weight to the electric power steering.

It is in this mode that the i8 becomes exciting rather than just interesting. While it doesn't feel all that quick from a stationary start, it has a massive surge of in-gear thrust that makes blasting between the bends an intoxicating experience with the three-pot revving hard to its 6500rpm and emitting a guttural growl while the electric motor fills in the holes in its torque curve.

And because they drive the wheels at opposite ends of the car, there's a very neutral balance through the bends and good traction out of them too, which makes it relatively easy to push hard and reach its limits.

But, it all feels a bit too digital as the computers react to work out how to balance the torque between the engines and across the axles and the steering, while precise, lacks any feel and feedback.

Something missing

Because of that, it doesn't have the kind of sweat-on-the-brow intimidating factor that makes conventional sportscars so exciting and rewarding when pedaled hard, the tactility of their analogue controls and the emotional elements that come from unleashing a screaming, powerful engine.

At the end of a day of mixed driving conditions – admittedly with the majority of it in Sport mode – the i8 was nowhere near matching its claimed fuel consumption figure, but still recorded a more than respectable figure under 9L/100km.

While it's not likely to steal the hearts of traditional enthusiasts, what it does prove is that, if the ever-tightening noose of emission regulations does eventually strangle the sportscar as we know it today, then at least there will still be fast cars well into the future. They may not be as exciting to drive, but if they look anything like the i8 then they'll certainly continue to turn heads.

BMW i8

Price: $299,000 (plus on-road costs)

On sale: November 2014

Engine: 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol/ electric motor

Power: 266kW (170kW petrol/96kW electric)

Torque: 570Nm (320Nm petrol/ 250Nm electric)

Transmission: 6-spd automatic (petrol)/ two-speed direct drive (electric), AWD

Consumption: 2.1L/100km

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