BMW is looking at the future through Google Glass lenses. Its willingness to break away from the traditional approach that once bound it is testament to that.
Of course, there will always be those purists who bemoan BMW’s deviation from the strict recipe of rear-wheel drive, normally aspirated straight-six engines and regular body formats. But to stay germane in these times of unrelenting change, the German monolith simply had to shake things up dramatically. And pioneering alternative methods of propulsion is undoubtedly one of the cornerstones of this bid to stay relevant.
Enter the i8, undoubtedly the most unique expression of the classical sports car genre you can buy. It is very easy to gush like a sycophant about a machine like this — even though it is not totally free of criticism. We will leave that for the denouement. For now, allow us to dwell on its status as a technological masterpiece, as well as the significance it holds for the automotive scene overall. A decade from now, many are going to look back at the i8 and marvel at what a farsighted piece of engineering it was.
If this is a harbinger of things to come, then performance car enthusiasts can rest assured they will still be able to have their cake and eat it. Spending a week with the winged wonder from Bavaria taught us a number of things. First, the practice of ethical consumption is cool. Driving something like a similarly priced M6 would get you stares of disdain. It is loud, brash, loves to drink and cares little about Mother Nature and her ozone layer. But the parsimonious i8 garners true reverence and fascination from everyone who sees it.
Cruising in fully electric eDrive mode, the only thing you emit into the atmosphere is smugness — your conscience is soothed in the knowledge that you are pandering to your inner petrolhead without causing (too much) damage to the world around you. Being a featherweight, the i8 does not need copious amounts of power to get shifting. The boffins at BMW were liberal in their employment of light materials, with carbon fibre featuring prominently in its architecture. The chassis is entirely aluminium. And it all translates into an incredible sensation of poise and nimbleness that certain peers in this segment could only aspire to.
Directional changes are dispatched with astounding immediacy. On a recent comparative drive with two other venerable brutes, the fluidity of the i8 through sinuous successions made those alternatives look just a bit clumsy. But how potent is it in a straight line? BMW claims a sprint time of 4.4 seconds, but it ought to be noted that figures in that region will only be achieved when the battery sitting in the floor is fully juiced. The total output of the i8, with its 1 499cc turbocharged engine and electric motor is a healthy 266kW. With the two power sources working in unison, there is ample oomph to hold its ground against most machines.
It makes all the right sounds, too; you would never think there was a humble three-cylinder mill sitting behind you. Thorough acoustic fettling resulted in a tune not unlike that of an M4. It is a proper infusion; a bass- filled murmur turns into a hearty growl when you floor it — garnished with a novel electric whine. Now, be warned that when those charge levels are dwindling, best pick your battles carefully. You might find yourself with a bruised ego courtesy of one of the many hot hatchbacks that populate South African roads.
But you will find many points to console you should something like that happen. One of them is the ceremonious affair of merely getting in and out of it. There should be a pressure chamber-like “whoosh” each time those doors flap upwards just to complete the effect. It will take some practice to perfect the art of ingress and egress while still maintaining your dignity. Short skirts are not advised. Snugly ensconced in the cockpit, you will find that familiar BMW interior template, albeit with a typically futuristic sprinkling. The instrument panel is fully digitised. Blue lighting strips Flow throughout the cabin.
The fascia itself is pretty sparse, with the iDrive display dominating things. User-friendliness is a strong suit — you could hop into one of these things from a 3 Series and feel at home in no time. As a comfortable daily commuter, the i8 fares well. Needless to say, your fuel station visits will not be frequent either. Even if you do drive like our resident racer Thomas Falkiner — who was taken aback at just how frugal it is despite a heavy right foot through our Muldersdrift test route.
We were not trying to match the ambitious 2.1 litres per 100km claimed figure. Hustling the i8 along with exuberance, we saw numbers in the 7l/100km and 9l/100km regions — still pretty good. The one gripe I have is a lack of space. The boot is more like a cubbyhole and because it’s behind the engine, it will melt your groceries or frazzle your laptop. Storage compartments inside the cabin are limited too.
But do you care? The BMW i8 is not going to be remembered for its inability to safely hold a few packets from Woolworths. It will go down in history as the model that pioneered the intelligent-performance car of the future.
Power: 266 kW
Torque: 570 N m
0-100km/h: 4 .4 seconds (claimed)
Top speed: 250km/h
Fuel consumption: 2.1l/100km (claimed)
CO2: 49g/k m
Price: R1 790 000