Gareth Butterfield has a thrilling ride in BMW’s hybrid i8 supercar
THIS is the BMW i8. Just look at it. It looks like something straight out of the future. And that’s pretty much what it is. This is one of the most cutting-edge sports cars ever built.
For starters, it doesn’t just have any old engine. It’s got a 1.5 litre, three cylinder turbocharged engine throwing out a frankly inconceivable 231bhp.
And then, as if that wasn’t enough, there’s an electric motor powered by a massive bank of batteries, which chucks out 131bhp. So this one and-a-half tonne lightweight has 262bhp. That, by the way, is good for 0-62mph in 4.4 seconds.
The cleverness doesn’t stop there, either. It’s not just a hybrid, you see, it’s a plug-in hybrid. You can top the batteries up to a range of just shy of 20 miles by plugging it in at home or at a charging station. And, even if you can’t do that, you can get the car to charge its own batteries up by kinetic energy regeneration.
All this wizardry adds up to what is essentially a supercar, with supercar looks and supercar pace but with tax-busting emissions figures of 49g/KM and a theoretical fuel consumption of 113mpg.
But wait, I hear you cry; how many hundreds of thousands of pounds will this technological tour-de-force cost? Well, just the one. It’s about £104,000 in fact.
And yes, I know, that’s still a lot of money and out of reach of most normal folk, but it’s a similar price to a fairly special Porsche 911 these days. And this thing makes the Porsche look like it’s powered by coal and steam.
Just in case you still think it’s overpriced, consider some of the futuristic kit that’s gone into it. Aside from the fact that it has all the BMW gadgets and gizmos you’d find in a top-spec 6-Series, it’s made of carbon fibre reinforced plastic, something else called thermoplastic and (this might be the best bit) even has “butterfly” doors that lift on hydraulic struts.
So it’s as dramatic as a Lamborghini, as quick as a Porsche, as frugal as a Prius and costs less than anything with a prancing horse badge on the bonnet.
But how does it work? Frankly, I’ve no idea. Sure, I’ve read all the technical descriptions of how the triple-turbo engine works with the motor and how different driving modes can offer up more power, or charge the batteries quicker, but the truth is it’s very complicated.
And it’s the fact that so much complicated trickery is going on beneath your buttocks that mesmerises you as, the only thing you can feel going on when you hoof the throttle, is an instant surge of torque from the motors, helped along by the generous shove and evocative noise from the engine.
And when you’re in sport mode, when all this is turned up to 11 and you’re giving the thing a workout on a twisty stretch of A road, it just works flawlessly. It’s one of the most remarkable sports cars I’ve driven – and not just because of all the cutting edge technology, but simply because of how well such a complex brief comes together to give such a wonderful, enjoyable and sensational driving experience.
Flaws? It has a few. It’s not easy to get in and out of, but that’s forgivable given the supercar looks. It also has awful rear-three-quarter visibility, which is less forgivable in this day and age.
I also noticed a tendency for it to become a little skittish under very heavy braking and, incidentally, the brakes on a 911 or Audi R8 are significantly better than the Bimmer’s.
I’m also disappointed by the fact that one of its most addictive offerings, its fantastic engine note, is largely synthetic. A deepened, beefed-up version of the soundtrack is pumped into the cabin through the stereo speakers. I don’t know why, but that bothers me a bit.
It’s also going to take a lot of concentration and effort to get anywhere near the claimed mpg rating. But I don’t actually care about that. Sure, it’s possible to do more than 100mpg, but it’s also possible to mow your lawn with scissors. Just because something’s possible, doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile.
In practice, without being in any way restrained, I saw just under 40mpg during my day-long test of the i8 and I think that’s pretty impressive for a car of this calibre.
It’s also worth pointing out that, unlike the Porsche 911, you can fit adults in the back of the BMW. Well, they’ll be happy for half an hour or so at least. But how many mid-engined cars can you think of that come with vaguely useable rear seats?
I wondered, when I first saw the pictures of the i8, whether it was just BMW showing off. A PR excercise. A show-stopping stop-gap to keep the eco-bureaucrats off its back.
But it isn’t some half-baked concept at all. It’s actually one of the most accomplished, impressive and astonishing cars on the market. I’m not convinced hybrid technology represents the long-term future of motoring and I’d not be surprised if BMW feels the same way, but it’s as far as technology has come.
And BMW hasn’t just embraced this technology, it’s torn up the rule book and made it into something genuinely thrilling that goes some way to changing the game in the sports car world.
If you want to have some thrills and save the world at the same time, buy one. It’s brilliant.
But even if you don’t want to save the world, buy one anyway. At least you’ll have a clear conscience.