First Drive: BMW i8

BMW's stunning i8 could not be mistaken for anything else.
BMW's stunning i8 could not be mistaken for anything else.

WHAT’S NEW?: Considering the quantum leap in design and approach to performance motoring, it would be easier to list what wasn’t new about BMW’s i8. The car’s carbon composite structure has much in common with the firm’s smaller i3, while the mix of petrol and electric power in the form of a plug-in hybrid should ensure maximum flexibility regardless of the driving conditions.

Furthermore, the i8’s appearance is a world apart from BMW’s familiar, more conservative, family of conventional cars. Despite the presence of child-size rear seats, the i8 is realistically a two-seater — something the car’s dramatic, sleek profile makes no apologies for.

Undated Handout Photo of 2014 BMW i8. The i8's combination of electric and petrol power means incredible performance. See PA Feature MOTORING Road Test. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature MOTORING Road Test.

Undated Handout Photo of 2014 BMW i8. The i8's combination of electric and petrol power means incredible performance. See PA Feature MOTORING Road Test. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature MOTORING Road Test.

LOOKS AND IMAGE: Taking the definition of dramatic to new heights, the i8 isn’t a car for shy and retiring types. Some sports cars downplay their potential, but that’s not the case here. Pick a light coloured car and you can really see all the various styling details. It’s clear that considerable effort has gone into designing the car with the intention of making a bold statement.

And while BMW is no stranger to producing potent performance cars, the i8 is its first attempt at a hi-tech plug-in hybrid sports machine. Not content with just a token approach to producing an eco-friendly car, the firm has pulled out all the stops: high power small capacity petrol engine, advanced materials and construction methods; the potential for huge economy and emissions gains, and the convenience of short recharging times.

SPACE AND PRACTICALITY: You can’t expect any car at this end of the performance spectrum to be child friendly, but the i8 with its two-plus-two seating arrangement strikes an acceptable balance between macho performance and accommodating the occasional need to transport those of pre-school age. And with the petrol engine at the back, the car’s boot is also modest, so no room for the golf clubs sadly. Up front, there’s sufficient oddment space for mobile phones and associated clutter.

BEHIND THE WHEEL: For all the i8’s green credentials, it’s first and foremost a sports car. That’s obvious from the low-slung driving position and the handful of electronic modes available to fine-tune the experience. That said, the default starting mode is electric, with the i8 offering an eerily quiet way to travel around town. Be more enthusiastic with the throttle and the petrol motor joins in automatically. Opt for Sport mode and the default configuration is the reverse: petrol power with electric assistance.

Undated Handout Photo of 2014 BMW i8. The i8's cabin mixes new and also familiar design. See PA Feature MOTORING Road Test. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature MOTORING Road Test.

Undated Handout Photo of 2014 BMW i8. The i8's cabin mixes new and also familiar design. See PA Feature MOTORING Road Test. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature MOTORING Road Test.

The result is a supercar-like elastic power delivery allowing you to minimize gearshifts and concentrate on spearing from one corner to the next. And spear along the i8 does; the car is rapid enough to demand your full concentration and sufficiently composed at speed to take even the worst road surfaces in its stride. Switching between driving modes serves to fine tune the experience, while for added excitement the rorty engine note apes that of Porsche’s 911.

VALUE FOR MONEY: It’s hard to put a real world value on a car like the i8. Yes, it does cost close to six figures in basic trim, but the technology underpinning the car is pretty clever and tech-savvy early adopters will no doubt be motivated by what the car can do, not what it costs. That said, it’s generously equipped even by BMW’s standards, although there’s still ample room to personalise the cabin trim. One thing’s for sure, you don’t buy an i8 to save money on your fuel bill or annual road tax, although it is a nice bonus.

WHO WOULD BUY ONE?: The i8 has ‘early adopter’ written all over it. If you’ve got the cash, enjoy performance motoring and appreciate the technology underpinning this rapid sports coupe, then you’ll likely want to be one of the first in the queue. And what better way to make a statement regarding your green credentials than by driving one of the most dramatically-styled hybrids on the market.

This car summed up in a single word: Futuristic.