Egomaniacs, listen up, because when it comes to the war for attention, the BMW i8 wins. Yes, you’ll get plenty of looks in a Bugatti or Aston Martin. A Tesla will earn you many questions from curious bystanders. But BMW’s brand-new space car, er, sports car, garners more iPhone photos and shout-outs than any other I’ve tested in recent memory.
The i8 coupe is a plug-in hybrid that can slip around town silently in all-electric mode or go buck wild using a combination of power from the electric motor and the gasoline engine.
In any mode, it’s a wild-looking machine that could have been stolen off the set of a science-fiction movie starring Tom Cruise or Will Smith — probably one of those in which the hero uses the i8 to outrun robotic bad guys. I spent a long weekend in the car, driving in and around New York, and by Monday I was craving anonymity. When New Yorkers want to know about a new car like the i8, they get pushy.
Let me give you an example. Picking up a friend who lives off Fifth Avenue, just north of Washington Square Park, I parked the i8 on the street. I got out and stood next to it. A double-decker sightseeing bus pulled alongside, its open top rimmed with tourists.
I knew what was coming. I heard murmuring from above and the distinctive digital click of mobile-phone pictures. Embarrassed, I tried to ignore them. Then the guide got in on the act, saying, “Folks, if you look to your right.” At that point I figured I might as well play to the crowd, so I leaned over and popped the passenger door.
The i8’s doors open like scissors, lifting upward and angling smartly out of the way. It’s a very exotic sleight of hand. The door did its thing and the tourists actually broke into applause. Times Square’s Naked Cowboy has nothing on this BMW.
The two-door Bimmer started life as a concept car, and the Munich-based automaker has managed to retain its startling, high-concept appearance. A synthesis of sexy, swooping shapes, it has a short hood and long body that converges dramatically in the rear. Most unusual are side panels toward the aft, shaped like flying buttresses. Air funnels through the gap, ostensibly aiding aerodynamics while definitely adding visual pizazz.
Its internal mechanics are no less sci-fi — or complicated. A 96kW electric motor powers the front wheels. Meanwhile a turbocharged 1.5-litre three-cylinder gasoline engine runs the rear wheels. Each power source has its own automatic transmission (a two-speed for the front, six-speed in the rear) and each motor can run on its own or in tandem with the other.
The driver opts between distinct driving modes. You can tool around town using only power drawn from the lithium-ion battery pack, which is in the tunnel between the front seats. The car is silent like this and runs as a front-wheel drive. BMW says you can travel as far as 35 kilometres on a full charge and reach a top speed of 120km/h.
Once the charge drops to a certain level, the gasoline engine kicks on. This transforms the i8 to a standard hybrid, often relying on the electric motor to propel the car from a dead stop and then turning on the engine at higher speeds. The three-cylinder has 170kW and 320Nm. As for fuel economy, the EPA gives the i8 an estimate of 3.1l/100km combined — when both the motor and the engine are used and with the battery pack fully charged. Running on the gasoline engine alone, the i8 gets an estimated 8.4l/100km in the city.
The car is relatively benign right up to the moment you knock the shifter level leftward and put it in sport mode. Then both power sources combine for as much as 266kW and 569Nm of torque. When both sets of wheels are turning, the car becomes an all-wheel drive. The engine sounds rougher and more raw and the digital gauges go all red. This isn’t supposed to be an all-out supercar, despite those doors and a top speed of 250km/h. You wouldn’t take it out on the racetrack. But the i8 is a delight on back roads, blurring cleanly through curves and feeling very well balanced.
Many new cars simply outmatch a regular road — including BMW’s new M3 and M4. You feel like there’s more power than you can really use. Not so with the i8. There’s a level-headedness to its might on a tight curving road. And that makes it more fun. You have to keep your momentum going. And despite the complexity of the driving modes, it doesn’t feel complicated to drive. You’ll certainly notice the engine waking up, but you don’t have to think about or worry about your level of battery power. (When necessary, the engine will help recharge the batteries on the move.)
The controls, layout and gauges will mostly be familiar to anyone who owns a modern BMW. And I even got a thumbs-up from other BMW drivers — an oddity indeed, as Bimmer guys never seem to acknowledge one another. It’s inevitable that people will compare the i8 to Tesla’s Model S. It’s a fatuous comparison. Yes, they’re both futuristic and run on some measure of electricity. However, the Tesla is all-electric. You have no choice but to plug it in, but you’ll never have to spend a dollar on gas. As for the i8, you don’t have to worry about range as long as you pump gas into it.
And while the Tesla is very quick, it is also a roomy sedan. It has four doors and seats as many as seven people. There’s ton of storage space. In many ways, it’s a very practical car. The i8 isn’t practical at all. It’s a cool-looking sports car. It does have two rear seats, but they are tiny and cramped. Not that you can’t pack people into it — I got my wife, my mother-in-law and a toddler car seat inside for a jaunt to the Bronx Zoo. (The BMW proved a bigger attraction than the Asian elephants.)
The Tesla is better suited for a daily commute over reasonable distances, while the i8 is the car I’d take out for a spirited Sunday drive. You’ll get plenty of reactions in either. And I suppose that if you are a true trendsetter, you could double down and own both.
-Jason H. Harper is a motoring correspondent at Bloomberg. The BMW i8 is expected to arrive in South Africa in 2015. Local pricing is yet to be confirmed.