There were more than a few raised brows when BMW made the announcement that a BMW I8 hybrid supercar was in development. “Light the raging fires of hell” are words never said about a car that runs on batteries.
At $322,903, the BMW i8 Hybrid supercar will be for the kind of bloke for whom price is irrelevant. This isn’t the sort of car where affording it means not getting the Comfort Pack or unticking SatNav. BMW make no apologies for the price so what do you get for it?
You get a fabulous 2 door coupe with movie-star looks and the performance of Usain Bolt strapped to a rocket. The chassis and exterior skin are aluminium and the passenger cell is carbon fibre. It is simply gorgeous, but it isn’t all lightweight practicality, oh no. The interior is furnished with lashings of cow highlighted with even more aluminium. Just to put an exclamation mark after “hi-tech”, parts of the interior are left unpainted to proudly display the carbon-fibre reinforced plastic construction.
The lighting is courtesy of a shedload of bright LEDs, but if you’re feeling decadent you can pay a few extra shekels and have headlights with even brighter reflective lasers, yes, lasers. The rear of the body has a beautifully sculptured taillight in two parts. The stop/tail light cluster is in the main section of the panel, with the indicator in a voluptuous fold of bodywork which is part of the rear window above. The rear fender bulges muscularly outwards barely containing the 20” alloy beneath it. It looks fast even when standing still.
The super-light scissor doors are made of aluminium and carbon fibre and hinge forward, outward, and upward supported by a substantial gas strut. Such doors in the past have been so heavy that they were almost impossible to open even harder to close without half getting out of the car. You struggled even more in tighter spaces.
The i8 door handle is concealed at the rear of the door in what looks like yet another aerodynamic fold of aluminium. You can leave your key secreted about your person because both the door ignition can be operated merely by touch. The car knows you’re approaching and switches on the puddle lights so you don’t dirty your loafers. It allows you to push the button causing the door to pop out where a gentle pull brings it out, up and forward in a single swift motion.
The car is very low and the door aperture somewhat more bijou than I’m used to. Getting in takes a bit of practice if you’re not to look awkward. The man at BMW said “put your bum on the sill then turn and slide”. I took him at his word and like magic I slipped straight in. After a few days I mastered getting out virtually the same way.
Opening the door attracts looks, then you have to get in or out. The reason they open the way they do is so that you don’t bang the door against the curb. The sill is so low that even a modest slope would see a normal hinge leaving you wedged against the footpath. In fact, you’ll notice that no matter what you do or where you go people will be gawking at you. Every time you stop someone will want a selfie or ask “Is it a V8, V10 or V12” as one crusty old gent did. Quick as a flash I said “That’s so last century. This is a twin turbo 3 cylinder 1500 with a couple of electric motors tossed in for good measure”. With that, I pulled down the door, waved, and glided regally into the sunset. The only sound was lightly crunching gravel because we had built enough charge to do a few k’s in pure electric.
The 1.5 twin turbo petrol engine drives the rear wheels through a 6 speed paddle shift auto. There is an electric motor driving the front wheels through a 2 speed auto and a second charging the batteries. At various states and in various modes they operate together to push the BMW to 100 in 4.4 seconds. If 170kw/320Nm for the petrol engine and 96kw/250Nm for the battery powered motor doesn’t sound like much, remember that the torque of the electric motor is always available. From the moment you press the Bally into the Axminster i8 torque will try to rip your face off, very gently. BMW claims you’ll get up to 600ks from a combined full electric charge and 42L tank, but I doubt it. Then again, who cares? The more you have to call into a rest stop the more people will see you.
If it all looks sounds terribly cutting edge, it is. However, the real shock is how normal the i8 is to drive. You see, if you can drive any other hybrid you can drive an i8. Press the start button and the dash comes to life. The instrument cluster is a single LCD with another sitting tablet-style on the top of the dash. They share Satnav and other such functions. The heads-up display also shows speed, navigation directs and music details. They’re hard to see if you wear polarized sunnies but such is life. There is no instruction needed especially if you’re already familiar with BMW controls. The interior may look like a fighter jet, but the function is pure BMW.
The I-drive has been refined and has a touch pad on the top of the central control knob. Input is easier using voice commands especially in the navigation system. For a change, it actually works but is still not as intuitive as Siri. Unlike Siri, the voice control is self-contained and works without the aid of cell service.
The mood lighting is particularly attractive at night where discrete blue lines highlight doors, dash and centre console contours. The entire cabin is bathed in an eerie but tasteful glow. Our nine-year-old honorary-nephew squealed “Oh, Tron” which made me feel about a thousand years old. He loved the green creds which come with hybrid technology and suggested mum and dad buy one and get solar panels to charge it. Smart kid. First the first time since he started riding shotgun on test drives, the i8 scored multiple “Ollie Approvals”. Usually it is a simple yes or no, so I suspect i8 is approaching schoolboy pinup status.
Unlike super-cars of the 70’s, this one is completely practical. You can use it as a daily driver but then all super-car makers say that don’t they? While it’s true that i8 doesn’t have the driver aids of cars a tenth of the price, you can still toss a couple of Coles bags in the boot. If you’ve popped in to DJ’s on your way home, there’s a back seat for those Hounds-tooth-wrapped packages. When you get home, you’ll want to reverse into your garage where all round sensors and a multi-view rear camera which can simulate 360° views will prove invaluable. The rear view isn’t bad considering the type of vehicle i8 is but I still wouldn’t want to tackle parking just with mirrors alone. Even with the Cameras and auto-dipping passengers mirror the process can be a trifle nerve wracking. The last thing you’d want is to leave a 300 grand car marooned on a central reservation.
The Drive: It is almost impossible to put into words exactly what driving BMW’s i8 is really like.
The seats are surprisingly comfy even though they’re firm. You quickly get the Goldilocks position just right. A press of the start button and you’re ready to go, just like a normal car. As you move off, the handbrake releases itself and at car park speeds you’ll be in electric mode. You skulk down the rows like a Ninja assassin in complete silence. You don’t notice the electric whine until you get a bit of speed up.
We decided to use the car exactly as an owner would. A well healed homo isn’t going to catch public transport to the symphony. He would book his Festival of Sydney tickets to the Opera house and decide on the night whether to drink, and take Uber Black or not. I rather think “or not” when an i8 is waiting. In fact, we took every chance to use the BMW even when going to get a carton of milk from Coles 200 metres away. Many have seen the Sydney Opera House but far fewer have seen the iconic double-helix car park. It is a massive free standing concrete structure in an enormous sandstone pit. Like the i8, it was ahead of its time. Going down one of the helixes is a matter of coasting, building charge as you go. The regenerative braking ensures nothing is wasted.
More importantly the energy you stored on the way down can be used to go back up the other helix, again, in complete silence except for a slight futuristic whine. As you’re ejected into Macquarie Street, pressing the accelerator presses the rasping turbo petrol engine into service. A flick of the steering wheel and in a thrice you’re on the Eastern Distributor.
It’s about now you’ll wind down the windows for that enthralling exhaust. Slipping the pistol grip gear selector into SPORT means the engine won’t cut out. It has the added advantage of adding extra charge to the batteries and the hoarse sound track. It’s especially mesmerizing late at night when you’re alone and you allow a little temptation. Pulling back on the paddle drops a few cogs and a gentle press on the accelerator turns the little 4 pot into thunderous monster. The raised adrenalin may cause a spontaneous tear of joy. It’s a near religious experience.
To round off a perfect evening, you could go home and have a Courvoisier or five, but a run down the freeway to the Royal National Park will reward you with an epiphany of galactic proportions. It also gives you a chance to try out the automatic high beam. Annoyingly, bright reflective signs can fool it into thinking a B-double is approaching so it dips when it shouldn’t. The suspension is tight, there is no doubt about it. However, it’s not uncomfortably so and yes, the tyres make a bit of a hum but it’s just another stitch in i8’s rich tapestry.
As you make that final turn off the freeway the atmosphere has built to a thrilling crescendo. The near-psychic steering seems to sense every thought. It’s the eeriest feeling to have a car go round a corner at almost any speed as if it is held to the surface by a force field. The temptation of course is to continue to push but many have tried and failed. The park is littered with the shattered dreams of those who overestimated their ability and underestimated the danger. Staying within the modest speed limits will help protect Huey, Duey and Louis, my remaining demerit points. More importantly it makes the experience much less frantic. The stability control stayed on throughout but the clever sports shift stayed in SPORTS.
The straights felt graceful and elegant, more like a GT than a super-hard-core-sports-car. I took the opportunity to switch between COMFORT and ECO PRO via a button on the console. Doing so makes the gear lever move sideways back to normal driving position. It causes mysterious alchemy under the skin, and the BMW shifts between full electric, or boost, or a combination of engine and electric all done without the driver being aware. Shifting back to Sport brings the petrol engine online and there it stays. As the straights give way to twists and turns, you can leave the gear selection to the 6 speed transmission or shift yourself. The latter is far more rewarding. Each corner is taken completely flat with the tyres never pushed so far as to complain. Even the final 15kph turn is no challenge. Each kilometer is proof that every dollar spent on the i8 was spent wisely.
To my surprise, leaving the SPORT mode engaged built up 22k of charge so the remainder of the coastal journey was done in silence, a spooky experience. Even the final steep 4 kilometre mountain pass elicited only a faint hint of electric whine. Although the electric motor produces under 100kw, the 250Nm of torque seemed to will us up the side of the mountain. Of course this kind of work drained the 22k of charge in about 10k but it’s surprisingly rewarding.
The run back into Sydney shows how brilliantly the cruise control keeps the speed down. There is no radar assistance so the braking is provided via electric regeneration of the batteries, again nothing is wasted.
Yes yes yes, oh YES: looks, looks, looks
Oh dear me no: no apple car play, limited luggage space, few driver aids
There are simply no words to convey a proper picture of how brilliant the BMW i8 really is. Of course really rough surfaces present a challenge but she still proved to be thoroughly charming and completely captivating. There is enough space for shopping or for a couple of small weekend bags. You can commute to work or drive just because you want to, but every centimetre is unbridled pleasure. You find yourself creating reasons to drive even if only a few hundred metres. There are plenty of super cars but few are hybrids and even fewer are usable on a daily basis.
Price:$322,903 (drive away NSW)
Electric: 96kw/131Nm, hybrid-synchronous motor with integrated electronics, charger and generator mode for recuperation with 2 speed auto transmission driving front wheels
Petrol: 1.5l 170kw/320Nm, 6 speed auto driving rear wheels
Performance:0-100 4.4 seconds
Economy: combined 2.1L/100k claimed, 49gms CO2, 42L fuel tank
Weight: 1485 kg