BMW's i sub-brand is as much a public relations exercise as it is a commercial venture. BMW wants to change the way we think about hybrid and electric cars. Having so far produced the quirky-looking i3 hatchback and this striking i8 sports car the German company is proving that clean, fuel-efficient cars needn't be worthy and uptight. They can be desirable. Glamorous, even. The i8 is BMW's sportiest and most lust-worthy hybrid model yet, looking as theatrical at the kerbside as a supercar.
With its look-at-me Lamborghini-style doors, punchy two-tone paint schemes and floating rear buttresses the i8 plunders the decades-old supercar lookbook for design cues. Resembling an exotic performance car is one thing, though; driving like one is a different thing altogether. BMW's liberal use of aluminium and carbon fibre throughout the structure and bodywork means the i8 is fairly light, or at least not quite as heavy as a car with an engine, an electric motor and a stack of batteries might otherwise be. It weighs 1535kg, against which it is armed with 369bhp. Two-thirds of that comes from the fluttery turbocharged 1.5-litre petrol engine that nestles behind the small rear seats, with the final third coming from the electric motor that sits on the front axle. The i8 is quick, as long as the batteries hold some charge, but it doesn't have quite the straight-line punch that its six-figure price tag and mid-engined silhouette might suggest. Uniquely, though, it can cover 23 miles on electric power alone. With the petrol engine shut off the i8 is just about nippy enough to avoid getting swamped in the busy urban rat race.
Which is all well and good, but is it actually fun to drive? In its own particular way, it really is. Its four tyres are super-skinny by modern sports car standards, so when you untether the car and let it flow through a series of bends it seems to rise up on its narrow rubber and float gracefully through corners, like an old racing car on cross-ply tyres. The steering is spookily light, but after a few miles you do tune into it and begin to trust the front axle.
A conventional sports car - one that derives its motive force from a more substantial petrol engine - may well be noisier and more focused and better able to wrap you up in all the excitement and intensity of a flat-out drive, but the i8 is no fraud. Crucially, it does back up its theatrical styling with a rewarding driving experience.
Its cabin, meanwhile, is marked out by real quality and the complex, flowing dashboard architecture perfectly captures the car's pioneering nature. To drive an i8 at night, futuristic mood lighting illuminating the cabin around you, is to be reminded of your childhood visions of space travel.
Ultimately the i8 is less thrilling than, say, a Porsche 911, but it does things no other sports car can. It's more fuel efficient than its rivals and on shorter journeys it won't burn a drop of fuel. The i8 is ahead of its time. Soon enough, every other sports car will follow its lead.
|Engine/power unit||Turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engine, 1499cc, plus electric motor Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, four-wheel drive|
|Transmission||Eight-speed automatic, four-wheel drive|
|Electric range||23 miles|