Posted: Thursday, November 13, 2014

In Sport mode, the car makes a symphony of wonderful sounds both high-tech and low. There’s a Jetsons-esque whistle from the electric motor, another whistle of forced air from the turbo, and a thunderous growl from the… 3-cylinder engine. It’s completely incongruous for an engine this small to make this much noise. It’s accomplished in part with exhaust tuning, and in part by artificially enhancing the engine sound through the i8’s speaker system. Yes, the noise is fake. No, I don’t care. It sounds great, it sounds like a sports car is supposed to sound. It’s music to the ears, and if you didn’t know what was going on, you’d swear it was the genuine article. There will come a day in a decade or three when adults are accustomed to fast, silent sports cars, but until that day comes, BMW has carte blanche to make this gas sipper sound like a guzzler, as far as I’m concerned.

There’s also a mode that BMW calls “eDrive,” selected by pressing a button next to the ignition, which tries really hard (but doesn’t promise) to run the car on electric power alone. The i8 reminds me of other gas-dependent plug-in hybrids in that it’s not really intended to run in an electric-only mode for an extended period of time; it cuts over to gas if you go above 75 miles per hour (which, to be fair, will cover your legal activities on the overwhelming majority of American roads). More to the point, BMW quotes a maximum electric range of just 22 miles, and I never saw the range gauge go above 11, which isn’t going to get you very far unless you use your German exotic exclusively for tragically slow, short jaunts around the isle of Manhattan. I couldn’t fully test the i8’s chops as an EV — the company supplied me with a European-spec model and warned me not to plug it in, if for no other reason than the fact that the supplied charger had a euro plug on it. Sport and Comfort mode both partially recharge the batteries automatically while you drive, but I was never able to fully replenish the pack. (If I had, it would’ve happened in about an hour and a half on a standard Level 2 charger, according to BMW’s literature.)

BMW has carte blanche to make this gas sipper sound like a guzzler, as far as I’m concerned

In Sport mode, BMW claims a 0-60 run in 4.2 seconds, which feels about right; even eDrive, which doesn’t benefit from the gas engine’s extra punch, feels fast. Acceleration isn’t instantaneous, though. I’d mash on the pedal expecting to be immediately glued to the back of my seat, only to be let down; it was almost as if the car was saying “wait for it…” before lighting the afterburners. I imagine it’s a side effect of an extraordinarily complex drivetrain that needs to coordinate power from two completely different systems — a two-speed, 129-horsepower motor in front and a six-speed engine with 228 horsepower in back — but there are lots of cars on the road, many at the $100,000 mark or below, that could smoke the i8. It’s easy to get cocky in a car that looks like this, but it’s not recommended.

It does handle well, which doesn’t really come as a surprise: it’s a low-slung supercar, after all. There’s also BMW’s fanatical demand for 50:50 weight distribution, putting a nearly identical amount of mass fore and aft. It’s not particularly light — curb weight is listed at 3,455 pounds — but it would’ve been even heavier had the company used a traditional construction technique instead of the carbon fiber-reinforced plastic that comprises the entire frame. You can see bits of it in the door sills and around the trunk; it’s not as beautiful or as meticulously laid as a traditional carbon fiber weave, but it still looks different and cool.


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