Back in December 1983, Car and Driver magazine reviewed a Lamborghini Countach. That V-12 powered supercar clocked 0-60 mph in 5.4 seconds and a top speed of 150 mph. It was one of the world's fastest cars. But, there's a certain three-cylinder hybrid that's faster, demonstrating how far the state of the supercar has advanced during the past 30 years.
Elvis dancing The Hula with Michael Jackson on its roof wouldn't garner the i8 much more attention than creeping through traffic or zapping electrons on the Interstate. People don't even hesitate to stop their cars to take photos or demand drivers to drop their windows for a peppering of questions. They get it's a BMW when they see the twin-kidney grille and famous blue-and-white logo, but this carbon fiber and aluminum alien with body hovering over the rear fenders seems from another time. It doesn't immediately compute. Is it electric, gas, or what?
Well, it doesn't run on dreams and it's a bit complicated. The drivetrain consists of a mid-mounted turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine, electric motors, and lithium-ion batteries. Sophisticated all-wheel-drive employs the gas engine to drive rear wheels while electric motors drive the front. The system can be adjusted for Comfort (saves power), Sport (toasts power), EcoPro (frugal), or eDrive (uses both gas and electric to their fullest). That all works with a lightweight carbon fiber body structure and aluminum chassis for blistering performance.
All in, the system delivers 357 horsepower, 0-60 mph in 4.2s, and top speed of 155 mph - a significant bump up from the old Lamborghini. Unlike the gas-hoovering Italian, the i8 achieves 76-MPGe combined or 28/29-MPG city/hwy on gas. Charging occurs in 1.5 hours with a 240v charger or 3.5 hrs. on household current for 15 miles of emission-free driving before the gas engine fires up. The engine and re-gen braking replenish batteries on-the-fly. All nice, but the real purpose of the battery pack is to kick you in the seat.
There's a smoothness to driving an electric car that is so serene. You hear nothing but tires rolling and torque is instantaneous. That power can be applied delicately or with the furry of a peeved weed-eater. It allows the i8 to creep through traffic without burning fossils or storm through rising canyon roads or blitz between corn fields using full power. Make the most of the mid-engine lay-out, even if the low-rolling-resistance tires will eventually give up. For a car with limited wheel travel, it absorbs bumps with not a squeak, creak, nor loosened tooth.
After you crawl across the carbon fiber transom, the cabin is surprisingly normal. Sure, sliding under the gullwing doors takes practice and the dash and console swoop like the exterior, but if you've driven a BMW recently, it's all intuitive. The cabin is loaded with heated leather seats, iDrive infotainment, harman/kardon audio, voice controls, and head-up display with navigation directions. My daughter fit in back, but adults shouldn't try it. Two can easily get away for a week and enjoy the ride, but will have to master the one-armed push-up-and-turn to exit (should have seen my mother getting out).
After visiting my parents one evening, my husband, daughter, and I popped the doors to be welcomed by ambient blue lighting flowing from every crevice, beaming like a space-set starship. Beautiful and oh so elegant. We programmed navigation for our house in Broadripple and were off. Strafing two-lanes and freeways, using the head-up display to avoid tickets and mis-taken exits streamed to my inner fighter pilot. Everything feels so normal that you forget how extraordinary this car is. It was one of the most enjoyable drives I've ever taken.
The i8 has limits, but you can't help thinking it's the car DeLorean would have designed today and the car that really belongs in movies like "Back to the Future" and "Demolition Man." This is how all cars should always have been and will soon be. And, unlike a Tesla, you can drive coast-to-coast without ever looking for a plug. Expect to pay at least $136,500 or closer to $140,000 as-tested.
Be sure to check out Casey's video review of the BMW i8 and follow him on Twitter: @AutoCasey.
2015 BMW i8
- Two-passenger, AWD coupe
- Powertrain: Li-ion batteries, 1.5-liter I3 - 357hp
- Suspension f/r: Ind/Ind
- Wheels: 20"/20" f/r
- Brakes: regen disc/disc fr/rr
- Must-have features: Style, Performance
- Elect. driving range: 15 miles
- Top speed: 155 mph
- 0-60 mph: 4.2s
- Fuel economy: 76 mpg-e
- Assembly: Leipzig, Germany
- Base price: $136,500