There was a time when cars were made of wood. Then someone hits upon the idea that an exotic material called ‘steel’ might work better. Flexible and strong with a classic “less-is-more” proposition, cars are suddenly safer and more efficient. There is only one problem. The material is so new that there is not enough of it for large-scale use.
Some years back, German carmaker BMW found itself on the same page when they assembled a team of futurists to imagine tomorrow’s mobility needs. Instead of steel, the exotic material they identified was carbonfibre, the ultra-light, ultra-strong stuff that Formula One racing cars are made of.
At a glance, it is an all-wheel drive, 362bhp eco coupe that sprints to 100km/h in just 4.4 seconds. Yet its fuel consumption is rated at just 2.1L/100km, possibly using even less fuel because the i8 is two cars in one. As a petrol-electric hybrid, it is an athletic and surprisingly raucous machine to drive, yet it has enough battery power on board to deliver 37km of pure electromobility at up to 120km/h. The average Singaporean driver does 50km a day so a charger at home and another at the office could mean weeks, perhaps even months before needing to stop at a petrol station.
That said, while it performs the urban crawl perfectly well, it is at its absolute best out on country roads. On the twisty canyon passes outside of Santa Monica, California, where we headed for some fun, the BMW i8 attacked corners with ferocious grip from the tyres and showed no sign of being upset when flicking between sharp bends. Nevertheless, it was on the straights that the car becomes a breathtaking behemoth, firing out of corners with bullet-like acceleration. Essentially, this car has it all - all-wheel drive, the lowest centre-of-gravity of any BMW, and two engines – all of which conspire to give it devastating traction, acceleration and poise.
Aesthetically, the i8’s overall silhouette might suggest the typical supercar, but there are styling details everywhere to signal that it is an unconventional machine under the skin.
The plastic body panels look taut but also multi-layered, perhaps to remind onlookers that both electricity and petrol provide the propulsion. The tail end of the car has unusual buttresses that slim it down aerodynamically, which helps to save fuel, and for the same reason there are no large grilles or air intakes. They are unnecessary anyway, since there isn’t a huge engine requiring large radiators to cool. Behind the passenger cell there is only a 1.5-litre, 3-cylinder thrumming away, perhaps the kind of engine you’d expect in a small family hatch and not a super coupe that is artificially limited to 250km/h.
Turbocharging and plenty of fine-tuning give the little engine 231bhp, but the rest of the car’s propulsion comes from the 131bhp electric motor that drives the front wheels. Together they give the i8 plenty of power, of course, but more importantly they work together seamlessly, so you’re never aware that two different systems are operating in tandem.
But the greatest achievement with the i8 is how little it weighs. It has four seats, two drive systems and a large bank of batteries, but at 1,485kg it is lighter than BMW’s own Z4, a smaller, less powerful car with only two seats. You can thank carbonfibre construction for that, and even then, BMW has been remarkably complete about its approach to building the i8.
Because the market for carbon strands that make up main components of the i8’s shell is still undeveloped, BMW invested in a joint venture that manufactures them. And because there is no point building an eco car in a pollutive way, the factory that makes the i8’s carbonfibre is run solely on hydroelectricity, while the final assembly plant for the car itself operates on wind power.
What the i8 amounts to, in essence, is not a just a new sort of performance car, but a new way to think about performance cars. It is by no means perfect, of course. It has four seats, but a four-seater, it is not. And the two-drive systems eat into boot space, so it’s unlikely you’ll be able to lug a set of clubs around in one. But driving one does convey a sense of the extraordinary. After this, driving a petrol-fueled car feels like going back to a tennis racquet made of wood.
Performance Motors is at 303 Alexandra Road, Singapore, 159941. Tel: +65 6139 0100. www.pml-bmw.com.sg/