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Driven: BMW's i8 is electrifying

By: Jesse Adams

Los Angeles, California - BMW has come up with a sweet sugar coating to counter some of modern motoring’s bitter pills of efficiency. Anaemic engine capacities, battery power and electric motors are all a little easier to swallow when glazed in a sexy skin complete with supercar-requisite butterfly doors and a height low enough to almost sneak under a boom gate. Just look here.

The BMW i8 is a plug-in hybrid with a total system output of 266kW and 570Nm.0-100km/h happens in a very un-Prius-like 4.4 seconds.Swing-up doors are one of the dramatic i8 party tricks.The i8 will creep around city streets for up to 37km on guilt-free electric power alone.BMW i8 launch photography.BMW i8 launch photography.BMW i8 launch photography.BMW i8 launch photography.The dash layout is truly futuristic.The dash layout is truly futuristic.

In a way, the new i8 which had its international media launch in the USA last week is BMW’s long-awaited return to the purebred sportscar segment – a place it hasn’t truly occupied since 1981 when its classic M1 was discontinued.

But for this project, the second in its new eco-conscious “i” range after the i3 hatch, the Bavarian brand has taken a lean-’n-green approach and the car that will inevitably be compared to Audi’s R8 and Porsche’s 911 can actually be considered environmentally responsible. No, really. The new i8 is a hybrid. Or, a plug-in hybrid to be more specific.

GUILT-FREE CRUISING

Which means that after using a cord and wall socket to replenish the lithium-ion battery packs tucked into the centre tunnel, the car will creep around city streets for up to 37km on guilt-free electric power alone.

A neat trick this, especially for a car that looks like it could melt an icecap with a single throttle blip. I’d say it’s unlikely the i8’s full EV mode will get much use in the hands of most buyers, but when active it employs a 96kW/250Nm electric motor hidden under the front bonnet that drives only the front wheels in near silence and at speeds up to 120km/h.

But wait, there’s more. If the foyer’s strictly business, the back yard’s where the party is and when needed a 170kW/320Nm three-cylinder turbopetrol can kick in at the rear axle to liven up the place. It’s the same 1.5-litre triple as used in the new Mini, but with obvious performance enhancements to give the i8 a total output of 266kW and 570Nm. The petrol motor can also help to charge the battery packs when brake and overrun energy recuperation aren’t enough.

QUICK OFF THE MARK

The whole hybrid system is a complicated one and we’re not going to get into all the synchronous drive flows and algorithms that make it work here. Just know that when all’s playing in unison the i8 uses its four wheels to grip the road and claimed acceleration from 0-100km/h happens in a very un-Prius-like 4.4 seconds. The kicker though, is BMW’s Prius-bettering claimed average fuel consumption of just 2.1l/100km.

Fair enough, that number will be hard, if not impossible, to attain in the real world and while blasting the i8 up and down Mulholland Drive just outside of Los Angeles I saw a more realistic 8.7l/100km. Still an impressive average considering the sort of performance available. BMW’s quoted performance stats are much more believable, and even if 4.4 seconds is a bit ambitious I’d say the i8 is certainly in the realm of V8-powered R8s and Carrera Ss in terms of punch.

CORNERING TRADE-OFF

It’s hard not to think about all the complex drive systems happening underneath when cornering hard, but for two separate power sources linked only by the tarmac shared between them the i8’s a decent handler. But efficiency comes at a price. BMW has fitted a set of very narrow tyres to save in rolling resistance, and while it takes a fair amount of cornering pace to find their traction limitations, I’d say it falls way short of aforementioned rivals with wider rubber. A hybrid supercar is a trade-off by nature.

There’s also an obvious compromise on aural pleasure with only 1 499cc worth of capacity to bellow through the exhaust system. So, as it does with some of its other cars (including the M5), BMW supplements the noise via the car’s stereo speakers and from inside the i8 sounds a bit like a gruff 4-litre bakkie through a Playstation. Outside it most resembles half of an old air-cooled Porsche turbo.

The doors swing up diagonally in a very “look at me” way, but you’ll wish for some privacy to board and disembark because it can be a clumsy affair. I witnessed a few bumped heads over the media launch’s two days. I also witnessed an enthusiastic BMW PR man cram himself into our i8’s so-called “back seat” for more than a short journey, but couldn’t help but notice his relief upon departure. This is technically a four-seater, but the back’s better suited for toting a set of custom Louis Vuitton bags – which are indeed available as an option.

Expect the i8, and its i3 sibling to arrive in SA next March. Local pricing’s not yet available but don’t plan on much change from R2-m.

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