SANTA MONICA, USA – Two years ago Carsten Breitfeld was belting around a private test track in an early prototype of the BMW i8. The burly, plain-talking head of BMW’s project to build a sportscar for the 21st Century was apparently going like gangbusters.
Naturally, this led the colleague sitting next to him at the time to remark upon how fast the car felt, in spite of its concept as an eco-coupe.
“On the contrary,” replied Breitfeld. “This car is fast because of its concept, not in spite of it.”
Two years later and it’s CarBuyer’s turn to have a go. But where to start with the BMW i8? Nearly all cars are simply made of steel and powered by an engine, but the futuristic i8 takes that recipe and rips it to pieces.
Instead, the BMW has a body made of carbon, an aluminium skeleton and plastic skin. That reduces weight dramatically, so it can have two separate propulsion sources without being an elephant. Even its nuts and bolts eschew steel for aluminium, to save precious kilos.
Its architecture is so revolutionary that to make the raw material used for the i8’s body, BMW spent US$100 million (S$125 million) to set up its own carbon processing plant, and then built a 400 million Euro (S$694 million) facility to assemble the rest of the car.
Those new factories are either hydroelectric or wind-powered, because there’s no point building a clean car in a pollutive way.
And fewer cars are cleaner than the petrol-electric i8. Officially, it emits just 49 grammes of carbon per kilometre, about a third of the emissions from a regular family car, and far less than a comparably swift car.
“This is without doubt the most innovative vehicle that BMW has ever produced,” says Breitfeld. And yes, the i8 is as fast as it looks.
HYPE OR HYPERDRIVE?
Easing my rump over the high sill of the i8’s ‘Life module’ passenger compartment, I pull the gullwing door shut and settle into a cabin that’s cosy without being cramped, and very sportscar-like in a number of ways.
Like, if your spine is older than 45 (or your bladder happens to be full), you won’t like clambering in and out. And forget about using the rear seats to carry full-grown people. Otherwise, there’s an air of BMW familiarity to the controls, and if anything the interior isn’t as daringly forward-looking as the exterior styling.
But instead of the sound of an engine firing up, pressing the ‘Start’ button causes the i8 to whirr to life, giving you a soundtrack like something from a small spacecraft in a sci-fi movie.
It’s there for effect, because you’re immediately aware that you’re driving something different.
By pressing the ‘eDrive’ button you can force the BMW into a zero-emissions, all-electric mode. That gives you a range of up to 37km and a top speed of 120km/h, all done in eerie silence.
It’s lovely to drive in this mode, actually, the i8 accelerating smartly and wafting along like a magic carpet. It’s not hard to imagine driving to work every day in such a soothing manner because as an electric car, the i8 is fast enough for Singapore.
If you have the BMW i Wallbox charger at home, plus a place to top up the batteries at work, you could actually go from Monday to Friday without using a drop of petrol. The Land Transport Authority says that the average Singaporean car does 55km a day.
In that scenario, your fuel consumption would be ludicrously low, and certainly much lower than the claimed 2.1L/100km. Incidentally, BMW says the car consumes 11.9kWh of electricity per 100km, which would cost you $3.06 at current juice tariffs.
Yet, I think most people will regularly use the ‘Comfort’ setting, which blends petrol and electric power.
In that mode the i8 is all-electric up to 65km/h, beyond which the car’s 1.5-litre petrol engine fires up to help things along. That happens smoothly, although you can certainly hear the engine burst into life.
For all that, the i8 is a sportscar at heart, so this Comfort business just isn’t going to do for anyone for long.
As soon as I leave the crowded lanes of the Los Angeles suburbs and head into the hills of Mulholland Highway, then, I get a chance to engage ‘Sport’ mode and put my foot down properly.What happens next induces an instant fit of giggles, the i8 surging ahead in a way that reminds you of those corny sci-fi moments when the crew has to hang on to something while the captain engages hyperdrive.
The sprint to 100km/h is excitingly brief, at just 4.4 seconds, but the rolling acceleration is buttock-clenching stuff. 80 to 120 takes only 2.6 seconds, and with that sort of punch the i8 really does pin you to your seat like a spaceship firing its rockets.
Though tiny, the three-cylinder engine is turbo boosted to 231bhp, while the main electric motor sends 131bhp to the front wheels, so the i8 isn’t exactly lacking in muscle. It has a combined 362bhp to play with. Put all that punch to work in a car that weighs less than 1,485kg, and it’s no surprise that the BMW picks up speed like a monster.
The handling is similarly effortless, meaning it lets you throw the i8 through corners with little fuss. There isn’t much steering feel as you twirl the wheel off the centre position, so you don’t quite get the level of involvement that a Porsche 911 might confer on the proceedings, but the BMW makes fast driving breathtakingly simple.That’s because it’s perfectly balanced (with 49 percent of the weight on the front axle) and because it has the lowest centre of gravity of any BMW.
So even if you yank sloppily on the steering wheel to try and unsettle it, the i8 never feels anything other than unruffably stable. Indeed, it can be devastatingly quick, especially if the road is twisty and tight.
For starters, the i8 feels slimmer than the average supercar, and visibility from the driver’s seat is good, so driving it quickly doesn’t immediately try your courage.
The tyres cling on gamely enough, but even if they let go the car’s stability control system cuts in unobtrusively to keep everything on the tarmac. With that faith-building cornering behaviour on your side, you can then make use of the i8’s fearsome acceleration to simply demolish the straights.
There’s practically no body roll too, so if you find yourself on a series of switchbacks you can get a great rhythm going to dance through them.
Ultimately, that characteristic is down to how everything is packaged in the car.
The lithium-ion batteries that give the car its instantaneous bursts of acceleration weigh 98kg by themselves, but they sit in the car’s chassis between the passengers, which gives the i8 the low CG that makes it so stable.
Putting the heavy batteries there was, in effect, a clever way to turn a potential disadvantage into a plus.
TRICK OR TREAT
But then the i8 is full of such clever, obsessive thinking. In the Sport mode, for instance, the engine goes from being fairly hushed to making all sorts of rorty, hotsy-totsy sounds.
That’s due to a flap in the exhaust that bypasses some of the muffler routing, as well as sound generators in the cabin that play up the three-cylinder’s vocal similarities to a six-cylinder. And there are external sound generators, as well—purely for the benefit of bystanders as you blast past.
And how’s this for a delicious detail? To stop and start the engine automatically, there is a 10kW electric motor connected to the crank by a belt, but it serves two extra functions: to top the batteries up on-the-fly with any excess kinetic energy, and to give the petrol engine a 100Nm boost of torque so you don’t have to wait for its turbo to spool up before you get a kick.
Driving the i8 does leave you the sense that the project team did think obsessively about the car.
Engineers created a new lighting system based on laser diodes for the car’s high beam. It’s complex enough to have earned 12 patents, but it uses 30 per cent less energy than regular LED lighting.
The boot is hopelessly small (at 154 litres), so the Germans commissioned Louis Vuitton to create special luggage shaped to fit it perfectly.
In Singapore, BMW even has a screening process for buyers. If you can’t show that you have somewhere to have the Wallbox installed, or even if the wiring in your house isn’t up to charging the car, then sorry, you can’t have an i8.
Nevertheless, Singapore’s entire first allocation is sold out, even though buyers don’t know the price yet. Neither do I, but a good guess would be roughly $600,000 with COE, or BMW M6 Coupe money, and then some.
What is it about the i8 that commands such money-no-object enthusiasm? Ultimately there are two ways to approach the car.
One of these is to think about it as a sportscar. The leechlike roadholding and thumping acceleration are certainly available in other cars for less money, but the BMW’s performance is both readily accessible and genuinely fun.
The other way is to consider what it brings to the sportscar game that is either new or unique. You can’t buy a similar car with a zero emissions mode that lets it feel more magic carpet than car. There’s nothing designed to be so holistically clean, and nothing that will sip fuel like a small car even when it’s doing a damn fine imitation of a cannonball.
The i8 is, from a sustainability point of view, a source of enormous pleasure that’s essentially guilt-free.
The lucky early buyers will take delivery of their i8 in the fourth quarter of this year, but if you like what you see and place your order today, you won’t get your car until the middle of 2015 at least.
And who knows how long before the technologies that make the i8 special filter their way into more mainstream cars, so that more than a handful of people will be able to experience it? In that way, this BMW looks set to be effectively a car of the future for some time yet.
NEED TO KNOW BMW i8
Engine 1,499cc turbocharged 12V in-line three
Power 231bhp at 5,800rpm
Torque 320Nm at 3,700rpm
Electric motor 131bhp at 4,800rpm, 250Nm
System power 362bhp
System torque 570Nm
Battery 7.1kWh Lithium ion
Charge Time <2 hours to 80%
Gearbox 6-speed auto (rear), 2-speed auto (front)
Top Speed 250km/h (limited)
0-100km/h 4.4 seconds
Fuel consumption 2.1L/100km
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