By Glenn Brooks | 30 September 2014

Carbonfibre scissor doors are amazingly light to pull closed

Carbonfibre scissor doors are amazingly light to pull closed

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If you like being looked at, you will love the i8. It turns the heads of seemingly everyone who sees you on the road, and even more so in carparks. To drive, it’s like no other supercar - BMW has created something very special.

As we know, this is a plug-in hybrid 2+2 seater, and the effective successor to the long discontinued Z8. That one was a front-engined, rear-wheel drive roadster powered by a V8. This one couldn't be more different: it's mid-engined, has a turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engine sending torque to the rear axle, plus electric charge to the front wheels. As the i8 can also run in EV mode, it's officially squeaky clean for emissions rating purposes. The official average CO2 output is just 49g/km and the Combined consumption is 135mpg. Top speed? 155mph. Zero to 62mph? 4.4 seconds.

There were multiple design studies which heralded the eventual production model. The first was the Vision EfficientDynamics concept, which had its world premiere at the Frankfurt motor show in September 2009. BMW claimed that it was powered by the combination of a 1.5-litre three-cylinder diesel engine and two electric motors. The i8 Concept then appeared at the 2011 Frankfurt IAA, with the i8 Spyder following at the Beijing show in April 2012. The i8 Concept Roadster then premiered at the LA auto show in November 2012. Finally, the production version of the i8 had its global debut at Frankfurt in September 2013 but cars didn’t come to the UK until this summer. Back in May, BMW said it had already sold all 250 vehicles allocated to the British market for 2014. 

Like other full hybrids, the i8 moves away silently from standstill, which isn’t what people nearby will be expecting. Floor the throttle and the 1.5-litre engine fires up behind you. This is the first three-cylinder unit to power a BMW and in the i8, its turbocharger boosts power to 170kW (231hp). The electric motor has an output of 96kW (131hp). The claimed EV mode range is up to 35km (22 miles). The car's combined maximum power is 266kW (362hp) plus 570Nm of torque. It certainly feels that powerful. Acceleration is super-smooth but slingshot-like. And the best news? Somehow BMW has made the petrol engine sound like one of its in-line six-cylinder units. Incidentally, it’s built at the Hams Hall powertrain plant in England.

The contrast to driving this, as opposed to a 911 or R8 couldn’t be more marked. While neither of those is exactly brutal, the BMW is just so incredibly civilised. Perhaps it’s the silence of its powertrain and drivetrain, or maybe it’s the fully digital instrumentation that just transfixes your eyes - either way, it's as if you’re piloting something from the future. It’s surprisingly easy to get into and leave, the lightweight doors rising high to give you lots of room, and they even have conventional electric windows so carpark and tollbooth tickets are easy to collect. The carbon sills are wide but covered in dark grey plastic. On the test car, this was scratched, probably from the metal buttons on some other journalist’s jeans. Some rubbery plastic would have been a better choice.

The expected iDrive controller is there at your left as you take your seat, as is the usual BMW automatic shift lever - the transmission is a six-speed automatic, which is a bit low-tech/old-tech, I thought. You can’t help but be aware that the target buyer will also be looking hard at a Tesla Model S, and from next year, at the Model X too, and the S’ interior is something very different from the i8’s. There’s no giant touchscreen for the controls; instead lots of plastic buttons, just as you’d find in a 1 Series. Or to be fair, in a 7 Series as well. It might feel as though you're in the 2020s, but by contrast, it somehow looks very now when it really needs to be next. The softly illuminated lines (blue, or you can change them to orange or other colours) which flow around the cabin feel very premium, but again, these also feature in other BMWs. Other BMWs that don’t cost anywhere near GBP94,845.

This car is so exciting to drive that I feel a bit guilty for giving the interior a less than white-hot rating. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautifully put together, the materials are first class and the various curves and straight lines all integrate well, it just could do with some added panache. I guess I got spoiled by the stunning interiors of all those concept cars.

The bonnet doesn’t open, at least not outside the service bays of your friendly BMW dealership, so to top up the washer fluid, you lift a subtly hidden flap which lurks at the base of the windscreen. The boot is accessed via the rear hatchback, and it’s not too generous but perfectly adequate compared to other similarly sized supercars. I probably shouldn’t draw your attention to the roominess of the Model S, but I want to, as despite what BMW says, people in places such as San Francisco’s Bay Area and south of there in Silicon Valley, will be cross-shopping these cars. Maybe the answer for many of them might be a Model S and an i3? Or an i8 for those fun drives and a Prius PHEV for when you need more luggage space?

Let’s talk tech, especially as I mentioned the i3. This model shares electric motors, power electronics, and high-voltage lithium-ion batteries with the i8 and both are assembled at Leipzig in Germany. The battery pack is mounted low and in the middle of the car and kerb weight is 1,490kg.

This is the world's first volume production car to be fitted with chemically hardened glass, or Gorilla Glass. It’s supplied by Corning and the technology comes from smartphones. The partition between the passenger compartment and the boot consists of two layers of this glass, each of which is just 0.7mm thick with acoustic sheeting sandwiched between. A weight saving of 50% is claimed, compared to conventional glass. It looks strange at first when you cast your glance in the rear view mirror. Almost like looking at a fish tank, but just like one of those, after a second, your eyes adjust and you don’t see the glass any more, just what’s behind it.

Sadly, I spent too much time in standing traffic during my time with the car but there again, it was a good test for the i8. The lack of a clutch pedal was much appreciated and the silence was wonderful. Visibility is better than you might imagine and somehow, you’re not looking around the A pillars, as you must do in so many cars. That typical BMW cockpit is perfectly laid out and you feel somehow snug but with lots of room to breathe. Surprisingly, until you remember how much weight reduction was a priority in this model’s development, the steering wheel adjuster is manual. This component isn’t quite what you’d call flimsy but somehow Audi manages to make the same mass-saving measure look and feel a bit more premium in the R8.

Something else that the Audi and BMW share is the option of laser headlights. They are in fact the first vehicles in the world to offer this technology. These light units are said to be around 30 percent more energy-efficient than the i8’s standard LED headlights. Not only that, but they are claimed to provide considerably more powerful road illumination, with a range of up to 600 metres. Concentrated beams from high-performance laser diodes act on a fluorescent phosphor material inside the headlight, which projects a sharply focused beam of light onto the road. The laser headlights, which are supplied by Osram, produce a light similar to natural daylight. They are to become available later in the fourth quarter.

Perhaps the best way to sum up this new model is to simply note how easy it is to jump in and drive it. What other supercar can you say that about? Floor the throttle and it won’t bite you; in fact you could easy toddle around in EV mode feeling you’re in some rather amazing looking Prius. Except that a Prius is perplexing to sit in for the first time - there are so many strange things about its interior and the controls. Not so the BMW. Sure, it’s wide and low, and approaching multi-lane roundabouts you tend to let the HGVs go first, as they tower over you. I know how strong carbon fibre is, I just see no need to test it. What would make the i8 perfect? Perhaps a targa body style. Good job that’s said to be on the way for around this time next year. But don’t expect much change out of a hundred big ones for that version.