BMW's i8 is both a car and a preview of the marque's future. This is fitting, because everyone who sees the i8 assumes it is, in fact, from the future. But before we deconstruct how the car is built and its singular driving manners, it's only right that we celebrate BMW's sheer chutzpah in building a production machine so faithful to the company's beautiful 2009 Vision EfficientDynamics concept. When was the last time a production car looked so much like it had escaped from an auto show stand?
Maybe that wasn't a brave decision, merely ambitious. The styling, after all, was right, and by 2010 the light was green to build a plug-in hybrid sports car with a carbon-fiber-intensive chassis housing two electric motors, a tiny internal-combustion engine, and a performance package encompassing zero-emissions cruising and supercar-pace canyon attacks. All this from a company that, until recently, backed hydrogen fuel cells as the new automotive dawn. It was a massive undertaking.
Some have compared the i8 to BMW's last mid-engine sports car, the M1 of the late Seventies. This is rubbish. The M1 was homologated simply so BMW could go road racing in the FIA's Group 5, but the i8 exists to change minds and win hearts. And while the car looks like a max-attack performance machine, Munich has made it clear that this is no record breaker. The i8's mission is to shape an entirely new idea: the driving engagement of a Porsche 911 on half the fuel.
It's a bold goal, and BMW has essentially bet the farm that the car and its variants will be the future's ultimate driving machine. The least I could do was fly to Los Angeles to see if they were right.
The second thing you notice when you see the i8 is that you've stopped breathing, because the first thing you notice is that it is gorgeous. BMW wisely styled the i8 to reflect the car's unconventional construction. There's a general perception that the i8 uses a carbon-fiber tub, but that's incorrect; the safety cell for the occupants is indeed carbon, but the lower chassis and the backbone onto which the suspension and powertrain are attached are aluminum. Shown naked, the rolling chassis is immensely impressive, and you get an immediate sense of just how low the center of gravity is.
The main hardware is strewn throughout the car. The lithium-ion batteries, which store 7.1 kWh of energy, run through the center tunnel. A three-cylinder gas engine sits behind the small rear seats. By sports-car standards, the engine is laughably small, just 1.5 liters. But it's turbocharged to produce 228 hp, more horses per liter than a 911 Turbo S. The engine drives the rear wheels through a conventional six-speed automatic gearbox and also spins a generator to charge the batteries when needed. A 129-hp electric motor rests in the nose and channels drive torque to the front wheels via a two-speed gearbox.
It sounds like a lot of stuff, doesn't it? Our test car weighed 3380 pounds, which is relatively light—less than the current BMW M3, more than a Porsche Boxster—yet doesn't yell bantamweight. But in the context of everything under the car's skin, it seems a mighty achievement.
As is the modern-hybrid way, the i8 has more preprogrammed personalities than an international Bible salesman. There are three main driving modes: full electric, hybrid, and Sport. With fully charged batteries, the electric mode can silently propel the car up to a claimed 23 miles at speeds as high as 75 mph. The hybrid gasoline-electric mode offers a few different programs, depending on usage. When you select the hybrid strategy, the default mode is electric. The gas engine rouses to life if the driver demands extra thrust via the throttle pedal or if battery charge falls below 25 percent. When the latter occurs, the i8 switches to a Hold State of Charge mode that keeps the three-cylinder thrumming in the distance, to keep the batteries' charge constant—even while stopped.
But Sport mode is the one you care about. Isn't it always? Here, we enjoy the full benefit of the turbocharged three-cylinder and its 236 lb-ft of torque. It's also boosted by the instant torque delivery of that electric motor (184 lb-ft), channeled to the front wheels, so the i8 has the ability to deploy torque in a way that not only affects velocity but also handling balance. More on that later.
In Sport, the battery is kept at a higher state of charge and is more aggressively replenished under braking. While BMW has carefully downplayed expectations with this car—the company line during development was always that the i8 would be "quick enough"—in reality, it's a rocket: 0–60 mph in just 3.8 seconds. And while acceleration falls off significantly at very high speed, the car can still tickle its 155-mph limiter. EPA fuel-economy figures are not yet available, but based on my drive, 40 mpg should be no problem. Welcome to the brave new world of fast hybrids.
So much of the i8's appeal comes from the fact that the experience of the car is something entirely foreign to most drivers; Chevrolet Volt owners won't bat an eyelash at the silent getaway, but they might once the i8 is strolling along in Sport mode.
Personally, I love the i8's silent, low-speed theater. This, more than any other aspect of the experience, may be what persuades people to try something new. Much of our motoring life is spent at a dawdle, so why not enjoy the glowing smiles of other people in traffic, or the undeniable heart-rate reduction that comes with electric-only propulsion? You instinctively feel less aggressive, less hassled, and more tolerant of others. Don't ask me how this is possible, but between the absence of noise in situations where noise doesn't add to the experience and an interior that feels like chill-out music made tangible, I felt the presence of a calm, young Skywalker.
Beyond the striking origami styling and the impressive 0.26 drag coefficient, the i8 is really a vast and ambitious exercise in calibration. Clever people with computers were charged with taking the sort of components widely regarded as the natural enemy of sporty driving and fashioning them into something both intuitive and enjoyable.
And at around-town speeds there is much to enjoy: instant electric torque for nipping into gaps, ghostly serenity. There are also less edifying traits. In full-electric and Comfort modes, the i8 creeps insistently against the brake pedal. The idiosyncratic pedal modulation—lift your foot gingerly, let the car roll, then apply throttle—takes a little time to learn, and I had the odd jerky moment even after a day behind the wheel. It's a small point, but noticeable. Likewise, ride comfort in town isn't quite where you'd hope it would be. At first, I wondered if the silence was forcing my ears to seek out new noises for punishment, but no. The car is very firm. Dynamic dampers vary their responses with the driving mode you select, but even in Comfort, the i8 is, if you'll forgive the technical jargon, too jiggly.
No matter for this first meeting, though. I was too busy feeling like a superhero and playing with dashboard toys, of which there are many. The cabin is a beautiful amalgam of familiar BMW bits and sci-fi displays. The main dash screen looks fantastic, but I struggled to read it, especially when it changed to orange in Sport mode. (Sadly, that's also the only mode that shows a tachometer.) But for showing off to your mates and feeling like you're driving something extraordinary, it's a great cabin. Standard sports-coupe caveat: The rear seats are for tiny kids, or more likely, holding a bag. The trunk is very small.
Onto some canyon roads, I pulled the gear lever left into Sport mode, pushed the throttle a little further, and the car responded. It doesn't so much accelerate as place itself farther down the road. However often I drive cars with electric motors, I'm always a little stunned the first time the torque deploys. It's just so effective.
I climbed away from the coast, the little three-cylinder booming into the cabin with the help of acoustic witchcraft. It really wants to rev, zinging easily beyond 4000 rpm. If you use the paddles, the transmission holds gears beyond 6000. But above all, it's the relationship between the electric torque and the gasoline power that defines the experience. There's significant torque-fill at low rpm, with the motors stepping in to help out while the turbo spools, and this catapults the car out of slow turns so well that a Subaru STI was repeatedly left wheezing behind me. In terms of cross-country pace, the i8 is massively fast.
If the engineers were tasked with fashioning an analog driving experience from various digital components, they've done a fine job. But it's clear they also let their imaginations run a little—as well they should have, given this car's potentially pivotal role in the story of the sports car—to introduce some new characteristics.
I've already mentioned the first: unfettered speed. In Sport mode, the i8's combination of torque, traction, and agility are astounding. At one point during this test, an interested observer asked me what it was like to drive. My instinctive response was "fast." That's telling—we drive a lot of quick things in this line of work, and very few of them leave you gibbering about speed.The other main point of celebration is the relationship between grunt and right-foot action. You'll need to hear me out here, because this is where the i8 becomes complicated. It doesn't take long to realize that, for people like you and me, managing the arrival of torque is the i8's hub. Leave the transmission in automatic, and the six-speed does a decent job juggling those different power sources, occasionally performing a slow downshift but mostly blipping the perfect blip and leaving the driver time to find the line.
Switch to paddle shifts, though, and you can play more. For starters, whatever gear your head tells you is optimal because of the tachometer reading, try one higher, and you'll almost certainly go faster. It's freakish. Initially, you think second-gear hairpins are just that. But then you try third, the dash indicator impishly flashes "Boost," and electricity takes hold. Third is the new second. (Repeat, ad infinitum.)
If electricity's influence in such conditions is unquestionably positive, the benefits are less clear in faster, more open turns. I found myself anticipating apexes, much like you would in an old-school turbo car, because at higher speed, there's less power available up front to mask the combustion engine's inherently slower response. And because the electric boost is delivered through the front axle, the continually varying ratio of front (electron) torque to rear (engine) grunt means chassis behavior also varies continually.
READ MORE: The 11 best Chris Harris videos on DRIVE
When torque arrives up front, the car becomes four-wheel drive and the chassis goes neutral. Switch traction control off (which you should, because it's a little intrusive) and the rear axle will initially make pleasing suggestions. But use the electric torque, and the car just bolts forward, neutral, like a Nissan GT-R.
Of course, the opposite is true if you stay in a lower gear—where there's more fossil power available to the rear wheels—and avoid using the electric boost. Then you can rev the little motor higher, enjoy the sound, and relish the fact that the car feels more rear-drive, because it is. This is a machine whose chassis behavior varies according to the driver's gear selection and torque demands. It remains to be seen if BMW wanted the car to feel like that, but it sure makes things interesting.
A small, one-word caveat: understeer. For all Munich's talk of balanced weight distribution and a center of gravity just 18 inches off the ground, the front tire choice shows that BMW has been cautious with the i8's fundamental grip. Those tires are a weeny 215-section, and that's only if you choose the optional wide ones. Standard fit is a 195 front on a 20-inch rim.
I'd love to see how the handling balance changes on thinner rubber. In most cases, on the optional tires, the i8 gradually pushes its nose wide. Nothing too unpleasant, but it's not that adventurous, either. The narrow paws should bring delicious steering, but with the i8's electrically assisted steering rack—as with most of this type—there's little sense of connection. You never feel blinded by it, but you can't read the road surface through the jingles in your hands, because there are no jingles.
I've mentioned the dynamic dampers that alter their response according to the drive mode. Curiously, although I found the ride too firm in town, it felt significantly better on faster roads. Vertical movements are well contained at sociable speeds, and there's little body roll. I suspect that things grow more ragged beyond nine-tenths, but without the luxury of track time in this evaluation, that theory will have to remain untested. And given the car's purpose, a test like that probably isn't relevant.
Or maybe it is. Once I had time to digest some of the i8's startling behavior, it dawned on me that this car needs to be judged not only on its precocious cleverness, but also in the context of basic recreational driving. BMW's smaller i3 city car has it easier; that machine's rivals speak a language of efficiency, so it simply has to out-efficient them, then more crucially, out-showroom them. But the i8 has to persuade the 911 owner that he wants to drive the car the way he drives his Porsche.
Wait—or does it? Because this car is undeniably fast but not a standard sports car; because BMW has decided the i8 is the brand's first step down a new performance path and has fully committed itself to that pursuit; because the car almost contemptuously refuses to tick the high- cylinder-count and massive-horsepower boxes ... because of all this, a single drive leaves you with questions. You contradict yourself. And you realize that, over the next few decades as the industry changes, questions will continue to arise.
By the numbers, the innovative, brilliant i8 is not as quick, fast, or grippy as any equivalent Porsche. And it comes with its own dynamics, mostly entertaining but also markedly different.
READ MORE: The BMW i3: Does it feel like a true BMW?
Which leaves us with two last questions, at least for now: In its own way, is this car good enough? And how does it compare to other very good cars that aren't meant to be The Future?
For all the BMW's newness, and for all the fun I had driving in those canyons, I have to conclude that I would have had more fun in a Carrera or a Cayman. Or anything conventionally propelled and rear-driven. The sensation of trimming your line with your right foot, of taking the rear axle to the edge of adhesion and having the car talk back to you—in the i8, those are a little skewed. Maybe I just need more time to learn the car. And my concerns will undoubtedly be addressed in future versions of this machine, or possibly even this version, given the flexibility that its computing power allows. But sports cars trade on connection, and there's something missing.
Of course, back roads constitute a small part of the sports car's life. For cruising, posing, sipping fuel with unparalleled parsimony, and—this is the strange one—simply going crazy fast, the i8 is a triumph. If nothing else, it represents a relocation of the core expectation for this type of car. BMW's work here isn't perfect, but if you consider the effort and the technology the i8 embodies, the ideas it forces you to reconsider, and the smile it puts on your face, there's only one conclusion: This is a remarkable achievement.
This article originally appeared at RoadandTrack.com