x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Does groundbreaking BMW i8 live up to expectations?

Kevin Hackett contorts himself into the cockpit of BMW's groundbreaking hybrid sports car.

The BMW i8 may only use the same basic engine as a Mini Cooper, but thanks to lightweight construction it can hit 100 kph in 4.4 seconds. Its electric technology means that its fuel economy is an impressive 2.1L per 100km. Courtesy BMW
The BMW i8 may only use the same basic engine as a Mini Cooper, but thanks to lightweight construction it can hit 100 kph in 4.4 seconds. Its electric technology means that its fuel economy is an impressive 2.1L per 100km. Courtesy BMW

An acquaintance of mine in Dubai, a rather dapper freelance engineer who dabbles in aircraft and car design, found out that I was due to drive the latest BMW in Calforinia and informed me that his name was down for one, deposit paid. Could I, he enquired, let him know what it’s like to drive?

How many new cars could entice buyers to the showrooms, cash in hand, before anyone’s actually driven it? I’m not talking about the latest Lambos or Ferrari models, because they all have previous form and if you like an existing model, it’s a safe assumption that its replacement will knock your socks off. But the i8? This is uncharted territory, not just for BMW, but for the industry in its entirety. This, BMW reckons, is the future of the performance car – and the company has been spending tens of millions making sure that it’s well placed to steal a march on the competition. No matter what it’s like to drive, there’s nothing else out there anything like this. And that, in this region at least, means that it will surely sell in healthy numbers, despite our current lack of recharging infrastructure.

If you’re looking at these photographs and thinking “how much?” I can tell you that the i8 starts at Dh635,000. For that, you get yourself a veritable science laboratory on wheels. Dig a bit deeper and you’ll be able to specify laser headlamps (they’re extraordinary by the way) and all manner of extra kit. For the price of a nicely spec’d 6 Series Gran Coupe, you could have something truly unique sat on your drive – and that’s because BMW has made the i8, as well as its diminutive i3 city car, attainable through a more modern approach to building with carbon fibre.

We’ve already looked (only last week) at the factory in Washington state, where the carbon fibre is formed, and we’ve toured the Leipzig plant in Germany, where the cars eventually come together. But this is the day of reckoning: is the i8 a trailblazer for a new generation or simply another so-called sports car paying lip service to environmental responsibility?

It’s touted as a supercar and the basics are certainly there. It has a twin-turbocharged engine that’s mounted in the middle, right behind the occupants; it will reach 100kph from a standstill in just 4.4 seconds; it looks like something from Buck Rogers and has doors that open outward and upwards just like a McLaren; it has pitifully little in the way of luggage space and, while it does come with two rear seats, you’d need to be a small child to comfortably fit in them. But there are, indeed, things about the i8 that could potentially deny it supercar status.

For starters, about that engine. It’s the same basic unit that Mini fits in the new Cooper (no, not the S), which means it is a 1.5L, three-cylinder job. Yes, this supercar has half the cylinder count of a Porsche Boxster. Then there are the details that you might normally miss at first glance, like the relatively skinny tyres, the lack of any visible exhaust pipes and the fact that when you start it there’s no blare of intoxicatingly obnoxious revs – it’s completely silent and remains so as you start to move. Then, too, consider that it’s entirely capable of returning fuel economy to the tune of 2.1L per 100 kilometres and, if you only ever use it for shortish commuting to and from the office (no more than 37km per day), your tank of fuel could last a lifetime.

The i8’s hybrid power train is easily the most impressive that I’ve yet seen. Granted, cars like the McLaren P1 and Porsche 918 Spyder are even more “out there”, but they’re four-wheeled unobtainium in comparison to this BMW. In essence, the tiny engine is supplemented by two electric motors – one up front and the other at the rear – which come on stream as and when the car’s on-board computers decide that it needs them and dependent on what driving mode that you personally select. For instance, you can choose for everything to work in tandem at the same time for ultimate performance or you could simply pootle about in all-electric mode.

It’s the way that the i8 shifts between these different power sources that’s impressive. There’s nothing agricultural about it, nothing jarring or uncouth; rather it seamlessly gets on with it, maximising either efficiency or performance dependent on its driver’s inputs.

And, as we’ve already examined, the i8’s carbon-fibre-and-aluminium construction makes it incredibly safe, with inherent structural stiffness more normally associated with F1 cars and airplanes, as well as light. All up, including all that battery technology and fluids, this BMW tips the scales at 1,485 kilograms, which makes it lighter than a 911 Turbo. If it had been formed entirely from metal, the weight would have been prohibitive, but, with all that cutting edge carbon in the mix, it’s not a problem – the i8’s underbody design is such that it has perfect 50:50 weight distribution, too.

So far so good, then. Already it has much more potential than other so-called “green” sports cars – it will never give you range anxiety like the all-electric Tesla Roadster does (it’s also supremely well built, unlike that Lotus mash-up) and it’s better designed and built than the undeniably gorgeous but fatally flawed Fisker Karma. The i8 is a plug-in hybrid sports car for the thinking, discerning owner, coming with the benefit of all of BMW’s research and development expertise. But with it being marketed as a sports (née super) car, it must hold its own against the established competition. Cars like the Porsche 911 and Audi’s R8 are available for the same sort of money, so how does it stack up as a viable purchase if you put to one side the whole efficiency thing? The twisting canyon roads that snake around the Malibu hills should give us some clarity.

Here, as in the UAE, a car only turns heads if it’s truly outrageous and the i8 is proving to be a massive draw to people surrounded by the rich and the famous. Camera phones are whipped out, passing joggers wolf whistle and shout “Heeeeyy, that’s prettyyyyyyy,” while they almost go running into lampposts. So it scores extremely well on the wow factor, if nothing else.

Getting into the i8 isn’t a particularly glamorous affair. With the doors swung up (do allow plenty of room for this, as they need 552 millimetres of space to open outward and upwards, meaning that you could end up in a spot of bother in one of this region’s ridiculously tight parking spots), you enter posterior first. Once your derrière is in place, you bring your legs up and over the wide sills, and you should be good to go. It takes a couple of tries to perfect it, but it’s the only way to do it, without being a ­contortionist.

Snug in your seat, pull the doors down and you’re surrounded by a beautifully appointed interior. It’s slightly reminiscent of the 8 Series, but much cleaner in design, and when you’re in a dimly-lit area, you’re treated to the sight of beautifully cool blue light bathing the interior surfaces. The gear shifter looks familiar, despite the fact that it doesn’t really need one, because of its unconventional drivetrain, and there are shift paddles mounted in front of the nicely thick steering wheel. An analogue power indicator nestling within the driver’s main instrument binnacle displays electric power inputs and outputs, as well as showing what’s left in reserve.

Despite all the visual drama surrounding the i8, starting it and moving it couldn’t be less exciting. But the silent electric propulsion soon gives way to a pleasing rush as the air passes over the cabin and, unusually, you can hear every single clunk of the suspension, brakes and all the rest, which are normally drowned out by combustion engines. Get on the power and there’s an uninterrupted burst of acceleration as the i8 gains speed at an impressive rate, with the three-pot engine joining in whenever you’re in danger of completely flattening the batteries.

It’s when this happens that the i8 sets itself apart from all others, because that engine sounds utterly terrific. Expecting it to come across as tinny and ineffective, instead it sounds gruff, like a proper sports car should. “You should have heard it when we first started the project,” a BMW executive told me earlier, while making a face that left no misunderstanding. “We spent a lot of time and money in making it sound like this.”

It’s a bit fake. The sounds are channelled into the cabin via the i8’s speaker system, but you’d never know it – the entire cabin ends up being filled with the noise, but it seems to be coming from behind you. And anyway, so what? With practically every sports car coming with active exhaust systems that increase and decrease noise levels at the touch of a button, this is something that we could all live with. What could never be faked is the way that this car moves when you keep the throttle nailed. Its performance is, err, electrifying.

A veritable tidal wave of torque pushes you along in either silence or rude and rorty noise. It’s incredibly quick, especially on the canyon switchbacks, and feels boundless in its energy. And as it whooshes and roars along, I cannot help but think to myself that BMW has got this entirely right. This, right now, really does feel like the future of sports-car driving and California will no doubt soon be crawling with i8s. At last, a sustainable sports car is here that gives enthusiasts what they desire – whether it’s just environmental credibility, engineering prowess, desirability, sheer performance or a combination of all those factors – and it’s all wrapped up in a package that you know will go the distance because it’s been developed by one of the very best in the business.

It’s not all perfect, though, and the i8’s handling prowess isn’t quite the match for a 911 or R8 that I was hoping for. Maybe it’s the skinny (and run-flat) tyres, but you’re able to breach its traction limits far sooner that with some other sports cars and it doesn’t take much to get the rubber squealing when you’re really getting on it in the twisties. But it’s almost there and I don’t doubt for a second that its maker is intently listening, already planning for its next generation, which could, if this is anything to go by, completely rewrite the sports-car rule book.

khackett@thenational.ae