The BMW i8 costs $300,000 here in Australia - that’s $100,000 per cylinder. But, to be fair, at least they throw in a free electric motor. Let’s go for a test drive.
The BMW i8 is what you get when Greenpeace designs the next Batmobile in Munich, against a set of contemporary benchmarks: sustainability, stuff like that, ratified by a committee dressed from head to toe in hemp. And I absolutely can’t believe how much response it gets in traffic - and all of it friendly. What is the world coming to?
So, as Adam West and Burt Ward once said, memorably: Atomic batteries to power, turbines to speed. Roger, ready to move out. Let's go for that test drive.
DOES IT TICK THE BOXES?
I guess when you spend $300,000 on a car, you want a few things. You need to tick a few boxes. It has to go like a bat out of hell. Correction: Make that two bats. Correction: Make that two bats on a cocaine and amphetamine-fuelled three-day weekend in Las Vegas. Big tick there. And it has to look the part, so … no problems with that. And the final thing is exclusivity because you don’t want to turn up at King Farouk’s 376th birthday bash and have to park next to another BMW i8. You want to feel like you’re one of a kind. I guess that’s where the BMW i8 has it all over the Aston Martins and Maseratis of this world. It’s pretty exclusive.
This is a very fast car: 4.4 seconds to 100km/h. Just as quick as the Porsche Cayman GT4, and far more technically sophisticated. Petrol powertrain down the back, and battery-powered electric motivation up the front. Combined output: 266kW and 570Nm - with slightly less than two thirds of it at the rear. I expect there's a great deal of computer communication between each end.
The end result is superbly sure-footed performance between bends. It’s blindingly fast on a favourite stretch of twisty road. Just brilliant. You’ll even forget the i8 is a hybrid.
The petrol engine certainly is worthy of a special mention. It sounds better than any 1.5-litre three cylinder has a right to sound. Turbocharged. 1.5 litres. 170 kilowatts. So let’s just think about the specific power output of that engine. If you built a 6.0-litre V8 engine with the same specific power output, it would be pumping out almost 700 kilowatts. And I tell you what - even though this is only three cylinders and 1.5 litres they’ve made it sound outstanding.
It's the sort of noise that gets you from zero to ‘lose your license' in 4.5 seconds, and it just sounds so good. What a pity it’s fake. BMW calls it ‘Active Sound Design’, but they really mean: fake engine noise. There are actually three different fake engine noises, one each for Comfort, Sport and Eco Pro drive modes. Sadly, they’re about as authentic as a downloaded ringtone. But they sound amazing. I hate that; that they sound so good. And of course the electric motor is silent, as you’d expect.
CHARGE AT HOME
So I played with the home charging option. I plugged the i8 into a standard wall socket using the charger that comes with the car, for three or four hours. The trip computer tells me that doing this added just 12 kilometres to the range - up from 368 to 380 kilometres. You might say to yourself ‘Why bother - it seems like a lot of effort for such a small distance?’. I guess the main reason for me was: Big, spirited drive on the agenda this morning, and with a depleted battery you’re going to be 96 kilowatts down on power. Nobody wants that.
The inside is cramped but well appointed, and the i8 comes with all the expected BMW Connected Drive goodies. It’s quite cramped, of course, and getting in and out is never going to be wholly dignified - especially if you’re a chick in a micro-mini. If you look behind you, on the way in, there even appears to be a back seat.
I think we’ll call a spade a spade here. It’s not really a back seat at all. I mean, it might be in Guantanamo Bay, but here it’s just a parcel shelf with a seatbelt and upholstery isn’t it? I’m so looking forward to getting back out.
The back seat might be a cruel and unusual punishment clearly not ratified by the Geneva Conventions, but it does come with ISOfix attachment points. Come to think of it, fitting a baby capsule is probably the only kind of reproductive activity possible in that incredibly cramped environment.
Noise, vibration and harshness is very apparent in this car, but it might be a little unfair to whip it too heavily as a consequence. At times the petrol powerplant up the back end isn’t turning and burning, so it can’t offer any vibrations that tend to mask things like tyre noise and road noise. And then there’s the platform itself. We’re essentially sitting in a box made of plastic, reinforced by carbon fibre. I’m tipping it’s pretty rigid. So every time you drive over even the most minor defect in the road, you’re going to find every loose filling in your head.
Amazingly, the production version is very close to the concept car that debuted in 2011 at the Frankfurt Motor show, and then toured the world. Realistically, the i8 not designed to be comfortable or luxurious. That’s good news, because it’s neither of those things. Bitching about that is just as dignified as buying a house near the airport, and then protesting about the aircraft noise. The compromises go with the territory: either embrace them, or buy a couple of M3s and a motorcycle instead.
One of the things I just didn’t expect was for the steering to be this light. It’s not imprecise; it’s just light. I own a RenaultSport Clio and it’s got pretty good performance steering. In fact, it’s a lot better than the steering in this i8 - and you can buy eight RenaultSport Clios for the price of one BMW i8. The other thing is: the standard Recaro seats in the RenaultSport Clio are both more comfortable and offer more support than the seats in this $300,000 BMW supercar.
Thankfully the steering does get a bit heavier in Sport mode, which is just a left-ward nudge of the gear lever away at any time. That stiffens the suspension and keeps the petrol engine continuously alight. Sport is the most engaging of the five different driving modes you can select in an i8.
ARE YOU IN THE MARKET?
I test drove the i8 for two days, and the over-arching question that I haven’t exactly been able to answer is: What exactly is it, and who exactly is going to buy it, and why? Taking those questions in order: What exactly is it? It’s a rolling showcase of new technology. Drivetrain technology, battery technology, materials technology. All of that advanced stuff. And it’s beautiful, in that Batmobile way.
Who’s going to buy it? Well, obviously somebody with a great many boxes already ticked in his or her life. So the price is somewhat irrelevant. The i8 is something you can just afford, at that level, and you say: ‘I want it. I’m going to have it.’
What you can’t do though is tell me it’s a green option. It’s absolutely not a green car, and if you buy it for those reasons, you’re a kind of well-heeled environmental fraud in my view. If you have $300,000 to drop on a car, you are one of society’s biggest consumers of resources and energy. And no amount of alleged greenwashing your life with a car like this is going to overcome the fact that you are, per capita, one of the biggest consumers of resources and energy on the planet.
You’ve got your real supercars, which are intimidatory and sometimes downright scary - like 120kg of bouncer in an Armani suit, with a certain sadistic gleam in his eye. If that’s what a supercar is, then the i8 certainly doesn’t qualify. This BMW i8 has all of the trademark cramped supercar compromises, but ultimately it lacked the demeanour that boils down to: ‘mess with me and you’re dead’. To me, the i8 felt more like a downloaded supercar app than the real thing. And in some ways, that made it better, more practical. It’s certainly distinctive and exclusive, it’s a technical knockout, and it’s got the look. BMW M3s and M5s … they blend right in, except to those in the know, but the i8 is not the kind of car you could ever drive under the radar. It sticks out like the nuts on a rearward facing Great Dane. Pleasingly, though, there was only friendly interaction in traffic. Lots of phones taking lots of shots of the new i8, lots of inter-car conversations in gridlock. And I did get a lot of suggestive looks from chicks. I don’t normally get that - go figure.