Is BMW's i8 the ultimate superhero?

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

No, it's a super hybrid…faster than a speeding Porsche, more efficient than a fuel-sipping Prius and able to turn heads quicker than a stunning Aston Martin.

It's a big claim, but BMW says its new hero, the petrol-electric i8 coupe, has a range of superpowers that other sports cars don't yet possess.

 It is the German brand's new technological flagship and the first of a guilt-free range of eco cars to arrive in Australia under its new i brand. With a price tag of $299,000 (plus on-road costs) it bookends the immediate line-up at the opposite end to the i3 city car that launches next month. BMW has yet to confirm precisely what will fit in between, but it is expected to create both an i-branded mid-sized sedan and compact SUV within the next few years.

Firstly, to see if the i8, which does look as though it has arrived from another planet, can lead BMW's justice league to save the earth – and whether it lives up to the German brand's hyperbole – we're pitting it against the already established heroes of economy, performance and style.

Is it as efficient as a Prius?

There are more efficient cars on-sale in Australia today than the Toyota Prius, but there is no denying the Japanese hatch is the poster child for fuel economy.

It does so by virtue of being one of the pioneers of the petrol-electric revolution, having first arrived in local showrooms in 2001, and thanks to its status as the original green machine among Hollywood celebrities.

The third-generation Prius i-Tech we're testing combines a 1.8-litre petrol four cylinder and an electric motor to produce a total output of 100kW and 142Nm.

More importantly for this exercise, the Prius' claimed average fuel consumption of 3.9L/100km is what the BMW has to beat.

The i8, in comparison, is more than twice as powerful and yet twice as efficient with a claim that it can consume just 2.1L/100km thanks mostly to its ability to plug-in and recharge the battery pack and then drive on its electric motor for around 37km - and up to 120km/h - without accessing its 1.5-litre turbo charged three cylinder engine.

The Prius can also run on electricity, but only for short distances and at a maximum speed of 50km/h.

To find out how they match up in the real world we set up a mixture of everyday driving conditions – a 50km-odd journey around inner city Melbourne and out to Tullamarine Airport on the freeway – driving both cars at the same time, in the same traffic conditions, and using as much of their fuel-saving smarts as possible.

With a full battery in the i8, the digital dash display indicates it has around 34km of guilt-free driving range, which is an encouraging sign. It's also enough of an invitation to set off from our South Melbourne starting point in the pure electric e-Drive mode.

It's an eerie sensation as we sail through peak hour traffic on a wave of seamless and instantaneous torque with only a synthesised electric soundtrack whispering through the sound system. But, while it is smooth and fuss free, the stop-start nature of the traffic chews through the battery and three-quarters of the way through a 22km loop along the beachfront through St Kilda to Brighton and back it automatically reverts to its conventional hybrid mode and needs the engine's support to keep it moving.

While not quite the 37km BMW claims it is easily enough for an inner-city commute.

The Prius is just as easy to drive, momentarily crawling through slow-moving traffic silently on its electric motor, but it is quick to tap into the petrol engine with anything more than a dip of the toe on the accelerator. When it does, it obviously lacks the same degree of pulling power or aural delights as the i8 but it just as smooth thanks to its CVT automatic, which quickly flares to access the engine's mid-range torque.

Both cars exhibit an unnatural feeling during light braking as they use the retardation to recharge their battery packs, but both are able to cruise effortlessly at freeway speeds.

Reaching the airport, officially covering a distance of 51.6km of at an average of 43km/h, the BMW ends this first test with an average of 5.8L/100km while the Prius' readout says it has used 4.9L/100km over the same distance.

With ideal traffic conditions it seems likely the i8 could produce even better numbers – and drive longer on its electric power alone – but not today. That both cars failed to match their claims showcases how unrealistic official fuel economy figures are in everyday conditions, but the fact that the Prius was better overall – and much closer to its mark – is a strike against the i8 in this test.

Is it as fast and as fun to drive as a Porsche 911?

The again, the i8 is, first and foremost, meant to be a sports car and should therefore appeal to the heart before the head, right?

Well, on paper it does. It might not have a big engine like a conventional sports car, but its 1.5-litre triple generates a more than respectable 170kW at 5800rpm and 320Nm of torque at 3800Nm with the electric motor filling in the holes by adding an extra 96kW/250Nm, equating to a combined output of 266kW and 570Nm.

With that power spread over all four wheels – the petrol engine drives the rear through an eight-speed automatic and the electric motor sends power to the front with a two-speed gearbox – BMW says the i8 can accelerate from 0-100km/h in 4.4 seconds.

Even though that doesn't place it in genuine supercar territory, they are impressive numbers nonetheless. And ones that put it in the same league as a Porsche 911 Carrera – the iconic sports car with which all others, the i8 included, are ultimately compared.

So, to see if the BMW is any match for one of the world's most accomplished cars, we drop the Prius at the airport, pick up a Carrera S and continue on to the flowing back country roads around Sunbury

Firstly the Carrera S is the closest match for the i8 in body style as a 2+2 coupe and also in performance with its 3.8-litre flat six producing 294kW/440Nm and slingshotting it to triple figures in 4.1 seconds when built to its sportiest guise (fitted with the optional seven-speed dual-clutch automatic and Sport Chrono package like our test car). It's also close on price too, with our test car costing $272,500 plus on-roads having been fitted with $27k worth of options that are mostly standard on the i8.

On the road, the cruise to Tullamarine has recharged the i8's battery to just over half full, which ensures it can use both the electric and petrol engines for maximum attack when switched to Sport mode. Before we hit the first set of twisties, the i8 immediately feels more lively than it did in the city modes as the throttle is sharper, the steering is heavier and a chubby exhaust note is being piped through the cabin.

While it doesn't feel all that quick from a standing start as the computers work out how to apply maximum thrust while the turbo builds boost, it has a plenty of shove while on the move, making it a genuine match for the 911 between the bends.

But it can't match the Porsche for sensory overload. The i8 is precise and well balanced, but its electric power steering feels like it's straight out of a video game with little in the way of feedback, unlike the 911 which feels fluid and has a more natural weighting. Similarly, the BMW has plenty of grip and uses its torque vectoring trickery to great effect but it never feels as though it is overpowered, nor challenging to drive.

The Porsche, despite having its engine hanging behind the rear axle, hangs on to the road with just as much tenacity but with much more charm and engagement. It is ultimately more rewarding to tame and offers a greater emotional attachment; from the sound of its glorious flat six at full noise, the tactility of its steering and its magical blend of ride comfort and road holding.

If anything the BMW proves that there will still be fast machines well into the future, but at the moment the Porsche is still a better sports car.

Is it as head-turning as an Aston Martin Vanquish?

One thing that can't be denied when driving the BMW i8 is its ability to turn heads faster than anything in recent memory.

It looks dramatic from every angle and at any speed, which gives it a magnetic ability to draw a crowd when parked and spark hurried smartphone happy snaps from fellow motorists when on the road.

But is it beautiful? That's the final question we intend to answer in this oddity.

With an eye-watering starting price of $479,995 plus on-road costs, the Aston Vanquish is in another league in terms of price but there are very few cars that can match it as a statement in style.

So on the way back, we leave the 911 behind, collect a Vanquish and head into the fashion-centric centre of Melbourne to find out.

As the two meet for the first time it is apparent that the Vanquish and i8 couldn't be further separated along the style spectrum. The British coupe is the definition of hand crafted, old school beauty – like a Savile Row suit – while the BMW looks like the future has been fast forwarded to today – one of those crazy headline grabbers from a Jean Paul Gaultier fashion show.

As we crawl through the crowded CBD streets, not even the sweet growl from the Aston's 6.0-litre V12 is enough to drag attention away from the near silent BMW. Its crowd-pulling ability is amplified even further when we park the two cars outside a major department store and simply walk away to watch what happens. The i8 immediately has passers-by from all walks of life – young and old, men and women, from hipsters to businessman – stopped in their tracks while the Aston is virtually invisible.

The end result is a surprisingly convincing win for the BMW.

Is the BMW i8 a superhero or not?

Judging by the mixed results of our three tests, it really depends on how much weight you place on its strengths and weaknesses. Yes, it can be amazingly efficient and, yes, it can be genuinely quick but it is not entirely perfect at being either a guilt-free city commuter or a thrilling, engaging sports car – and certainly can't be both all of the time.

It is a head turner, and if anything it fast forwards the sports car of the future and proves that, no matter how tight emission regulations become over the next decade, that speed and style will still be around for years to come.


Aston Martin Vanquish

Price: $479,995 plus on-road costs

Engine: 6.0-litre V12

Power: 424kW at 6500rpm

Torque: 630Nm at 5500rpm

Transmission: 8-spd automatic, RWD

Consumption: 12.9L/100km

BMW i8

Price: $299,000 plus on-road costs

Engine: 1.5-litre three cylinder turbo/electric motor

Power: 266kW at 5800rpm (combined)

Torque: 570Nm at 3800Nm (combined)

Transmission: 8-spd automatic, AWD

Consumption: 2.1L/100km

Porsche 911 Carrera S

Price: $245,000 plus on-road costs

Engine: 3.8-litre flat six cylinder

Power: 294kW at 7400rpm

Torque: 440Nm at 5600rpm

Transmission: 7-spd dual-clutch automatic

Consumption: 8.7L/100km

Toyota Prius i-Tech

Price: $45,990 plus on-road costs

Engine: 1.8-litre four cylinder/electric motor

Power: 100kW at 5200 (combined)

Torque: 142Nm at 4000 (combined)

Transmission: CVT auto, AWD

Consumption: 3.9L/100km

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