BMW i8: Australian Hands-On

In the last few months, the world has become obsessed with a new breed of sports car. The McLaren P1 and Porsche 918 Spyder are the two prime examples: they combine high-powered petrol engines with efficient electric motors, giving great standing acceleration, blistering top-end speed, and fuel-efficient low-power everyday driving.

The BMW i8 is Germany's own futuristic supercoupe, and it's headed to Australia very, very soon. I visited BMW's local HQ for an hour with its brand new six-figure hybrid supercar.

If you're the kind of person that buys and owns a supercar, you're going to spend as much time looking at it and enjoying its design as you are actually driving it. The i8 fits that bill quite nicely: it's absolutely gorgeous.

Front-on, it looks like something from Tron, but also reminds me vaguely of BMW's own 8 Series from the 1990s — it's that low, wide front, with the circular blue-and-white badge sitting above the brand's equally iconic kidney grille. That grille only lets in just as much air as is needed for cooling the car's radiator; you can tell from looking at it that maximum aerodynamic efficiency has been sought in the i8's design.

The BMW i8 sits at a hair under 1300mm tall, and measures 4689mm from bumper to bumper — it's low and long, sitting on 20-inch wheels wrapped with low-profile tyres; walking around it, you can tell it's built to be a proper sports car.

The most arresting visual element on the car has to be its U-shaped tail lights, sitting at the back of sharp, deep channels moulded into the i8's rear quarter panels. Like the i3, the i8 is big on selling itself as an entire energy efficiency package, and uses laser headlights, as well as a bunch of LEDs for its tail- and driving lights. No energy-sucking incandescent globes here.

When you're looking front-on at the i8, what becomes immediately obvious is the massive reversed bonnet scoop a la Ford GT40 — it draws air into the front of the car, cooling the electric motor and the petrol engine's front-mounted heat exchanger. Other than that, it's not a particularly flashy-looking vehicle, until you see it from a three-quarter perspective. The i8 looks best with its two scissor doors swung upwards and open, I think; that doesn't mean that you won't be disappointed walking around it from corner to corner.

Sit inside the i8, though, and you're transported. In the driver's seat, the pedals are far ahead of your seating position and two widescreen LCDs are aimed towards you — one in the centre of the dashboard (a 8.8-inch display with BMW's iDrive system), and a multifunction display with all the relevant driving information (battery charge, remaining fuel, overall range, and how much power you're consuming while driving, for example).

Other than that, the i8's interior is actually quite plain; there's plenty of modern-era switchgear, and BMW's usual plethora of buttons and dials make a welcome appearance. Air conditioning controls, for example, are good ol'-fashioned switches.

BMW's i8 is a true hybrid vehicle in the simplest sense; it has a 96kW two-ratio electric motor driving the front two wheels, and a fascinating 170kW/320Nm 1.5-litre high-pressure turbocharged 3-cylinder, running through a 6-speed automatic 'box to the rear. The electric motor's battery can be charged via plug-in, using your standard 10 or 15A wall socket at home or work. Around three hours of charge gets the battery back to its maximum capacity. BMW thinks DC fast charging is the future, so it's likely a new product development (which might be already in the works, I'm told) will cut charging times further.

If you're just shuffling around the city, stopping and starting in traffic, the electric motor can take care of business; the i8's internal 7.1kWh lithium-ion cell is good for around 37km before it runs out of juice, but can be automatically recharged by the petrol engine. The electric motor is perfectly capable and provides constant acceleration all the way up to a maximum of 120km/h, so you could even get onto a state freeway without the petrol engine kicking in. Overall range from petrol plus battery is in the order of 500km.

Above 120km/h, or as your selected driving mode and level of charge dictates, the rear-mounted petrol starts up. On its combined (US) fuel emissions cycle, the i8 sips petrol at an utterly frugal 2.1L/100km, so when you're not tearing along at its top speed of 250km/h (to which it is only electronically limited), it remains actually relatively cheap to run.

The i8's interior feels expensive, as you'd expect, but it's not ostentatious. Like the i3, special attention has been paid to the ecological impact of all the materials used inside the car, with the two-tone tan-and-beige leather on the dashboard and the black leather of our demo car's seats dyed using olive leaf extract — avoiding the use of any earth-damaging chemicals. There's a sense that just as much care went into building a vehicle that doesn't affect the environment (as negatively as other supercars) as to making a high-performance sports car.

The instruments panel on the i8 is perfect evidence of this. Select the appropriate driving mode — with a basic good-better-best spread of ECO PRO, COMFORT, or SPORT — and the instrumentation adjusts itself to suit your intended driving style. Choose ECO PRO, for example, and the amount of instantaneous power that you can wring out of the electric and petrol powerplants is limited — and this is made clear on the dashboard in front of you. Select SPORT and the taps are all open; the electric motor is set to instantaneous response and full power, the petrol engine is given its most aggressive tune, the dynamic dampers firm up and the automatic gearbox's shift timing is tightened. It's all appropriately high-tech, and it's reflected on the display you see.

In pure numbers, the BMW i8 isn't a world-beating supercar. The combination of petrol and electric motors produces 266kW, the car weighs 1485kg, and the result is a sprint from 0-100km/h in sub-4.5 seconds. I haven't been in an i8 that is actually moving just yet — stay tuned, though — but as with other electric and hybrid cars it's not all about the printed specs; there's a huge bonus to having so much raw, instantaneous torque on tap from an electric motor.

Because the weight of the electric motor and its battery park are down low, along the i8's centreline, the car has a low centre of gravity — this should aid handling, even for simple motoring around town, and contributes to the all-round supercar feel that the i8 exudes even when standing still.

The iDrive system is a little complex at first glance, but it allows reasonably quick access to both useful and less important information while you're driving, using the scroll-and-click iDrive nub that's been appearing in BMWs for several years now. Most interesting by far in our experimentation was the eDrive menu, which contains both a page that lets you track your instantaneous fuel and electric power consumption and regeneration, and a real-time display of which powertrain component is applying power to which wheel.

All that ties in nicely with the i8's multiple driving modes and the philosophy they enable. The front-rear electric-petrol split means that it's entirely possible to drive the i8 as a regular fossil-fueled sports car, with the petrol engine and 6-speed gearbox working away, but it's also possible to drive frugally and in an environmentally friendly manner (at least for a short distance).

If you plug in the i8 at home for a full charge, drive it the 37km or less to your office, and charge it there as well, you'll get away with paying virtually nothing in daily running costs. Not that you buy a car like the i8 to save on petrol, of course, but it's a pointer to what BMW considers the increasingly efficiency-focused future of motoring.

Even ignoring the i8's electric motor, the petrol engine is an impressive piece of engineering. 170kW from a 1.5-litre 3-cylinder is a high specific output, and comes courtesy of BMW's extensive experience turbocharging small-capacity engines for efficiency. The block itself is actually the same one found in the base 2014 MINI Cooper, where it is conservatively tuned to barely 100kW.

Front and rear cameras — for parking and for assisted cruise control — come as standard (as you'd hope) on the BMW i8. The front camera array helps with situational awareness through something BMW calls Side View, giving whoever's sitting in the low-down driving position a camera feed of what's ahead at bumper level just to the left and right of the car. When you're sitting on the freeway with the cruise control pushing you along, the combination of camera and ultrasonic sensors (the same parking sensors are on the car's rear bumper, too) can keep the i8 from crashing into the vehicle ahead of it, by alerting the driver to any oncoming hazards and also by applying the brakes when appropriate.

There is no doubting that the BMW i8 is a technological marvel and, like its hybrid supercar competitors, is the start of the Next Big Thing in motoring — cars that place an equally high importance on efficiency and environmental responsibility as they do on driveability and outright performance. Some part of me wishes that the i8, like the base-level i3 and other big-name EVs like the Tesla Roadster, was entirely electric, with a larger battery system and no petrol engine (although it's a brilliant achievement, getting so much power out of such a small engine). It's almost a certainty that an all-electric supercar will appear in Australia in good time, of course.

The i8 is not a cheap car. Of course — it's a supercar, it's a BMW, and it has a crazy advanced hybrid-electric drivetrain. While no official pricing has been announced by BMW in Australia, I was told that somewhere in the range of $300,000 to $400,000 was a reasonable ballpark figure; an interested party looking the car over while I was around was told to expect around $350,000. This is a huge amount of money, and it also means that the i8 is probably the most expensive car that I've ever had the privilege of sitting inside.

BMW has in the order of two dozen reservations placed already, though, all of which up until today were sight unseen — there are plenty of people in Australia clamouring to get hold of the i8. I can't wait to see one out on the street.

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