A concept that became reality | by Andrew Frankel
We landed at Inverness Airport and they’d positioned the i8s on the Tarmac, just across the apron from the aircraft.
Parked under artificial light at numerous motor shows, BMW’s new supercar had always seemed more concept than reality; but seeing seven of them lined up at a windswept airfield in the north of Scotland, with right-hand drive and number plates, some small fragment of the future seemed to have broken loose.
It was a Miura moment. My age at the time of the seminal Lamborghini’s launch was best measured in months, but you don’t need much imagination to guess how the show-going public greeted that car. It looked otherworldly, and quite brilliant too.
The return of such futuristic design would be cause on its own to celebrate the arrival of the i8, because I think we’ve seen a few too many traditional coupés in recent times, but the i8’s looks are more than matched by the technology beneath its skin.
The construction method is faintly reminiscent of a Porsche 904 insofar as both have a base platform onto which a structurally enhancing body is fitted, but where Porsche used steel and glass fibre, BMW now favours aluminium and carbon fibre. More unusually still, most of its power comes from a British-built, three cylinder 1.5-litre petrol engine based on that found in the latest Mini. It is the smallest engine to drive the wheels of any production BMW and surely the smallest ever to be appended to anything within a shout of the title of ‘supercar’. With a tiny turbo, it directs 228bhp to the rear wheels while a further 129bhp flows through the front courtesy of a nose-mounted electric motor. In addition there’s an additional 20bhp electric motor in the back that triple-tasks as a starter, alternator and filler of holes in the petrol engine’s torque curve. Make no mistake: this is clever stuff.
But in essence what you’re looking at is a 357bhp four-wheel-drive supercar, capable of 0-62mph in 4.4sec.
The dihedral doors flip up. BMW insists they’re built this way to save weight rather than provide additional Gotham-appeal. What it doesn’t mention is they make the i8 needlessly difficult to enter and rather inelegant to exit. And middle-aged Americans – perhaps some distance from their sporting peak – must make up a sizeable constituency of this car’s intended clientele. I fear they’re not going to like this aspect of the car’s character.
Once inside, you’ll find a brilliantly airy and spacious cabin. Write off the rear seats as anything other than additional storage space and focus instead on the large glasshouse giving spectacular all-round visibility for a mid-engined car. And the controls are simple enough for anyone who’s driven a recent BMW to operate immediately. Amid all this post-modernity it’s important that the car makes you feel at home, and it does. The electronic dash is a disappointment, however. Normal analogue clocks would look as absurd in here as digital dials in an Isetta, but their first duty is to be easy to read, and they’re not.
The i8 has four different drive modes (including all electric, which will accelerate the car quite smartly up to 75mph), and a sport setting that runs the petrol engine all the time, but the comfort default is fine for most journeys. Even here it’s powered by electricity most of the time and will genuinely run for about 20 gentle miles before the petrol engine kicks in. If you choose to charge the car from the mains (and I bet most will not, unless they’ve got friends visiting), you’ll fill 80 per cent of the battery in three hours from a wall socket, or two if you buy BMW’s fast-charge station.
At first this revolutionary new BMW feels, well, a touch odd. The ride on its unfashionably skinny low rolling resistance tyres is a little stiff at low speeds, the steering accurate but entirely artificial in its lack of feel. It’s also very quiet unless you’re on a coarse surface, where the lack of competing noise sources can make the tyres sound unreasonably intrusive.
But if you raise the effort level a little, the i8 starts to come alive. The suspension becomes much more supple when given only a little additional work, and you’ll start to feel the character of its performance (which is pretty much the reverse of what you might imagine, having read its specification sheet). You do not expect a tiny, three-cylinder turbo to respond like a large-capacity normally aspirated V8. But, with the seamless aid of all its electrical assistance, that is precisely how the i8 feels. Power delivery is instantaneous, even from idling speed: it just goes and goes hard. The petrol motor has an entirely split personality, too: almost inaudible at a high-speed cruise but sounding like a finely tuned V6 when asked to deliver its best. More than once it made me think of the Honda NSX. And the six-speed gearbox is a smooth, self-blipping triumph.
The i8 is, of course, nothing like the paragon of environmental saintliness its absurd official figures (134.5mpg and 49g/km) suggest, but you can’t blame BMW for exploiting the insane way in which it is allowed to make these calculations. I drove it hard and fast for a few hours around the Highlands and got 29mpg, so I expect you’d achieve nearer 40mpg in normal driving.
By Porsche 911, Aston Martin Vantage or Jaguar F-type V8 standards, that is still exceptional.
What it won’t do is indulge your inner frustrated racing driver like these more conventional cars, but if you drive sensibly, and comfortably briskly, the i8 is genuinely excellent.
Does it matter that this veil of composure slips if you decide to push it as hard as it will go? I doubt it will trouble the majority for a second. Even so I’d not be doing my job if I didn’t point out that grip levels are modest by the standards you might expect of a modern, mid-engined supercar. When they are exhausted, you get 50 shades of understeer, none conducive to having a good time. It shows little desire to re orientate itself when you snap the throttle shut, either: it just understeers a little less. I regret that the i8 is not better balanced, but acknowledge that this is hardly the most important priority for such a car.
And this is the key to understanding the i8. It is so different, so complex and so good at letting you leap to the wrong conclusions: only time at its wheel will reveal its true character.
This is a sporting car, but not a sports car. Nor is it a Grand Tourer in the Mercedes SL tradition, for it is much too sharp for that. It combines elements of both and does so very well, but adds a third component of its own, a 21st century savvy that no current rival can match. It is the odd one out, but only because it is so demonstrably far ahead of its time.
It has the field to itself and its every success will be deserved.
Engine: 1.5 litres, three cylinders, turbocharged plus 129bhp electric motor
Power: 357bhp @ 5800 rpm
Torque: 420lb ft @ 3700 rpm
Transmission: six-speed automatic
Top speed: 155mph