Lightning fast but frugal
THE performance hybrid is not a new concept but the BMW i8 has pushed the envelope and created a car that breaks new ground in the areas of design and construction.
This stunningly styled 2+2 coupe is a plug-in petrol-electric hybrid sports car that has the power of a conventional high-performance model but the fuel consumption of a compact car.
As a first step, the i8 has a lightweight body, one utilising aluminium and carbon fibre instead of a conventional steel structure: A carbon fibre-reinforced plastic shell with a thermoplastic outer skin is bolted on to an aluminium chassis.
The low-slung car is also very aerodynamic, with an impressive drag coefficient of 0.26. There are no openings in the familiar BMW kidney grille, while the large V-shaped bonnet vent forces the air that enters below the front bumper to flow over the top of the car and increase downforce at high speed.
More downforce is created at the back with "airstream channels" at the rear pillars and the "flow-through" tail lamps.
But it is the powertrain that is, perhaps, the most exciting part of the i8. BMW has a turbocharged 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol engine behind the two back seats with 231hp and 320Nm to drive the rear wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission.
In front, a synchronous electric motor with 131hp and 250Nm drives the front wheels through a two-speed auto transmission.
So the i8 is not only an all-wheel-drive but also an all-wheel-drive model with an eye-popping total system torque of 570Nm, or something you would normally associate with a much bigger turbocharged V8 engine.
But there is no mechanical connection between the two power sources, unlike in normal hybrids - only an electronic one, which BMW took two years to refine.
The result is an extremely smooth drive, with none of the usual engine-motor coupling or decoupling evident.
The front motor works seamlessly with the rear engine to give the i8 blindingly quick acceleration, especially when exiting a fast corner. This is because the motor is instantly able to "pull" the i8 out of the corner.
The great grip and power also contribute to the swift 4.4-second zero-to-100kmh sprint.
But all that power also comes with great range - fuel consumption is rated at a mere 2.1 litres per 100km. With the battery fully charged and the 30-litre tank filled to the brim, the i8 is good for 600km. And the lithium-ion high-voltage battery can be conveniently recharged when stationary using a household socket.
But most of all, the BMW i8 is not an ordinary drive. Lift the wing door and slide into a cabin that is funkier and more driver-focused than the usual BMW. The centre console is angled four degrees more towards the driver, who gets a virtual instrument cluster and optional laser light headlamps - a world first.
With the car's battery cells placed in the transmission tunnel in the middle, the driver sits low, with an even lower centre of gravity. The feeling of stability is race car-like. There is a great sense of plantedness when driving through sharp corners and sweeping curves.
The electric power steering is also fast to exploit the 1,485kg i8's nimbleness.
But there is, of course, a catch.
The BMW i8 will be launched here in July, with delivery expected as early as a couple of months after that. The price has yet to be determined but it should cost a bit more than a BMW M6, or about $600,000 with COE. But with all that high-tech, you can be sure you will get what you pay for.