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First drive review: BMW i8 (2014)

BMW’s new hybrid supercar is so easy on the eye and the road that not even Jennifer Lopez and her entourage could upstage its launch

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BMW i8, £99,895

BMW’S DECISION to pick Los Angeles as the host city for the launch of the new i8 certainly paid dividends. It enabled journalists to put this low-slung supercar to the test in a number of busy, complex urban settings and then more freely on the twisty canyon roads that unarguably set the world’s entertainment capital apart from other plausible car-launch locations such as Lowestoft. And later, during lunch at a restaurant in Malibu, it enabled us to find out what happens when Jennifer Lopez goes to the lavatory. But more of that anon.

First the i8, a product BMW is bold enough to label “the future of the supercar”. If the company’s right, tomorrow’s supercars will have bodies built from ultra-light carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic and will be plug-in hybrids whose rear wheels are powered by modest 1.5-litre three-cylinder engines and whose front wheels are looked after by 129bhp electric motors.

Tomorrow’s supercars will be like the i8 — an attention-seeking two-plus-two sports monster with a price tag just shy of six figures yet whose eyes are fixed soberly and responsibly on our oil-short future.

The vehicles in question will use the surprising combined might of these two power sources to generate a somewhat staggering 357bhp and be capable of accelerating from zero to past the 60mph speed limit in less than five seconds. All this while consuming fuel with laughable frugality and leaving in their wake nothing more noxious than a waft of lightly applied aftershave.

Furthermore, in pure electric mode they will potentially be able to carry you the plausible daily commuting distance of 22 miles, emission-free and at speeds of up to 75mph, although bear in mind that driving at that kind of pace is a) likely radically to foreshorten the all-electric range and b) illegal.


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In summary, tomorrow’s supercars will be like the i8 — an attention-seeking two-plus-two sports monster with a price tag just shy of six figures yet whose eyes are fixed soberly and responsibly on our oil-short future. How fast the world moves on. Who imagined when the Toyota Prius first moved primly among us that the hybrid dream of cleaner, more sustainable mass mobility would so quickly expand to encompass things in which rich people can go really fast?

The i8 is the second model in BMW’s new electric catalogue after the i3 city car. And like the i3, the i8 appears to have been designed by people who believe the real battle for promoters of an electric future lies in making old-school machines look not like politically objectionable relics, but simply dull.

2014 BMW i8 interior

Charismatically broad and low, and with dihedral doors that swing outwards and upwards, like an insect’s wings, the i8 is unashamedly eye-catching, its overlapping body panels offering mild hints of a snap-together cereal toy.

To slide into its deep and wide cockpit was to notice a less than earnest helping of soft leather and lustrous stitchings, although as in the i3 there is a “sustainable” theme here too, with cloth panels formed from what BMW declares to be “recycled materials”. Does the owner of a £100,000 supercar expect or hope to be surrounded by reconstituted trousers from Oxfam? Perhaps not, but at the same time do they expect to be driving a lump of plastic? It’s all about changing existing preconceptions.

And so to the canyons, although not before a few words from Officer Lashoey of the Los Angeles Police Department who urged us to respect all speed restrictions and stop signs, and to ensure in the event of our failing to do so and being pulled over by his brethren that we remained in the car with our hands visible on the steering wheel as “a courtesy to the approaching officers”.

At one point we were flagged down by some road workers who were clearly entranced by the i8 — as millions will be — and appeared convinced in particular of its power to magnetise women. “You wouldn’t even have to say anything,” one of the road workers suggested.

All this was delivered in a light and easy-going tone of voice, though with the effect merely of underscoring how nothing says “Don’t f*** with me” more efficiently than an LAPD officer speaking in a light and easy-going tone of voice.

Duly chastened, we left Santa Monica in humble electric silence before reaching the freeway and switching into Sport mode. At which point the dash lights changed from cool blue to priapic red and the turbocharged engine kicked in with a decently throbbing low growl, albeit not the whining cry of the wounded rhino that supercar drivers have historically responded to.

And then it was up into the hills where Steve McQueen had a lot of his fun — and no wonder. Those canyon roads could very easily drive a man to collect sports cars. McQueen would have been pleased to know that the i8 has relatively tight steering and a lower centre of gravity than any other BMW, and accordingly can be handily slung from precipice to precipice. Yet the abiding sense at all speeds is of an uncanny lightness, the car taking corners and cutting through the air with a relaxed waft rather than a purposeful, muscular thrust.

Two hours of blithe, possibly futuristic, gliding ended eventually by the ocean in a restaurant car park containing an unignorably non-futuristic Rolls-Royce, belonging, it would emerge, to JLo. The actress dined upstairs. However, even Hollywood royalty must answer nature’s call, so down came Ms Lopez, accompanied by a handmaiden and sandwiched between two dark-suited bodyguards, one of whom blocked off furthur entrants to the lavatory.

Had she nipped in on her own, few of us would have noticed. But at these rarefied levels the starry kerfuffle is its own guarantee. Drawing attention to yourself even while ostensibly denying your desire for attention is the point.

The same goes for the i8, of course. At one point we were flagged down by some road workers who were clearly entranced by the i8 — as millions will be — and appeared convinced in particular of its power to magnetise women. “You wouldn’t even have to say anything,” one of the road workers suggested.

This may have been wishful thinking, though. Moreover it may have been wishful thinking dating back to approximately 1974. And this car isn’t the past, remember — it’s the future.

BMW i8 review

 

Verdict ★★★

A big plug for the future

BMW i8 specifications

Engine: 1499cc, 3-cylinder turbo and electric motor
Power: 357bhp (petrol and electric combined)
Torque: 420 lb ft (petrol and electric combined)
Transmission: 6-speed auto / 2-speed auto (electric)
Acceleration: 0-62mph: 4.4sec (estimated)
Top speed: 155mph
Fuel: 135mpg (combined)
CO2: 49g/km
Vehicle tax band: A (free)
Price: £99,895
Release date: On sale now

 

BMW i8 rivals

Porsche 911 Carrera S, £83,545

For Exciting performance; great handling and noise; practicality Against No hybrid option; quite thirsty

Tesla Model S Performance, £68,700

For Awesome performance; up to seven seats; no petrol needed; more than 300-mile range Against Needs to be recharged; conservative styling

 


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