Kyle Fortune recounts his first drive of the BMW i8 electric supercar, a vehicle he believes will go on to become a classic.
Rarely am I as excited about driving a car as I am in the lead up to getting behind the wheel of the BMW i8. Since BMW showed it back in 2009 at the Frankfurt motor show it’s intrigued me, beguiled too with those futuristic looks. Here now, today, blinking in the bright sun of LA after an 11 hour flight to LA, I’m catapulted into BMW’s I future and ferried to Santa Monica in the i8’s city car i3 relation, the bright, light and silent cabin in stark contrast to the white noise and darkness that’s been my reality over the Atlantic.
LA’s trafficscape is a rich, varied and exotic one, the bizarre is normality here. It takes a lot to excite the locals, but the i8 does this effortlessly, arresting passers-by in their tracks, stopping traffic and being the subject of every cameraphone shutter it glides past. It would make more sense if those skateboarders on the sidewalks were on hoverboards and it featured a flux capacitor, the i8 looking every bit like it’s just driven off a sci-fi set up the road in Hollywood.
In 15 years of automotive journalism the closest I’ve come to the reaction the i8 gets in LA was being in the first Audi TT in traffic on the M1, driving the then new Mini through congested London or having a short drive in Bugatti’s Veyron.
For a silent, electric car it’s certainly not stealthy then. Getting in is pure theatre, the doors opening up and forward butterfly wing style, revealing the door jams in naked industrial spec carbon fibre. The cabin’s like BMW 20 years from now, retaining many familiar elements from its contemporary range but adding twin screens to the driver-focused cockpit and a multi-surfaced and many layered dashboard.
It’s simple and easy to operate. Even though it offers four immediate drive modes it’s in many ways less bamboozling than BMW’s conventionally powered volume models.
If the BMW i8’s shape is one that demands a lot of attention then so too is its drive concept. Under the achingly pretty, many surfaced yet efficient body is a drivetrain of bewildering complexity. There are two motors under there, an electric one up front and a turbocharged three-cylinder 1.5-litre unit in the back. Combined they offer 363bhp, driving all four wheels, and allow a 0-62mph time of 4.4 secs – which is within 0.1 of a second of rivals like Audi’s R8 V8 s tronic and a 911 Carrera 4S PDK. Heady competition that, but on looks alone the i8’s already got them licked.
Start up is in Comfort, hybrid mode, the i8 defaulting to electric-only power as much as possible. It’ll drive up to 22 miles on battery power alone, at speeds up to 75mph. It’s impossible not to be impressed by that, the serenity of silence – with a very slight, futuristic-sounding electric motor hum under power. It’s brisk rather than fast when it’s at its greenest.
To match its 49g/km and 134.5mpg combined figures in anything else on sale today you’d have to buy a Toyota Prius plug-in. There’s no sense of smugness about that either, even though it wears its advancement quite obviously through its futuristic looks. The fact it’s green being just another facet in its make-up rather than completely defining it.
Snick the gearlever over to Sport and the i8 is pure sports car, with grip, poise and performance to match the best. Sure, at the very extremes of its abilities it lacks some of the dynamic polish of its key rivals, the nose pushing wide with understeer. That’s been picked up on by many, and used to beat down the i8 as not good enough, a car that’s merely good rather than brilliant. But that’s to completely miss the point of it.
Few, if anyone will care, the i8 is a entertaining, engaging and hugely capable sports car. There’s sophistication to the way it rides, the steering is quick and accurate and the ability to switch between canyon-charging sports car and serene and brisk electric or hybrid in traffic is utterly unique.
The attention will wane in time as the i8 becomes a familiar sight on the roads, but it’ll still feel special to drive. Ordinary too, for all the technology that defines it, the ease by which it’s all operated remains deeply impressive.
So too is the fact that BMW actually built it, turning the concept to reality in just 5 short years. One engineer admits that during its development they regularly hit obstacles that looked insurmountable, yet there was always a solution. The result is a triumph, a car that really is a landmark and makes all its sports car contemporaries look a bit prehistoric in comparison. If I had £100,000 to blow right now, I know what I’d be spending it on.