The ‘everyday sports car’ is a genre that has always been somewhat self-nobbling. The needs of ‘sport’ always undermining those of ‘everyday’, exacerbated by the never-ending march of progress; the pursuit of ever-more impressive figures, faster lap times, more astonishing levels of grip and greater top speeds and the compromised ride comfort and driveability that resulted.
As some of that was somewhat overcome by tech and we moved immediately in to the era of environmental concern and the mental fuel prices and taxes that came with it, running costs increasingly became the hurdle one had to clamber over to justify ownership of a car that was more than an A-B movement appliance.
So let’s set out the stall straight away: BMW’s i8 blows these problems out of the water. Makes them an irrelevance. Solves them. It is the perfect road car: the definitive everyday sports car.
The thing that makes so many of the sports cars that share the i8’s (somewhat stratospheric) price bracket a nuisance is that they are largely defined by their performance capabilities: more horsepower, greater cornering speeds and so on. While this certainly makes for appropriately ghast-flabbering figures with which to show off to ones mates at the bicycle shop, plenty of simile-laden copy and smoky cornering shots for the helmsmen and pointlessly mind-bending lap times around a toll road in Germany to torment competitors for the manufacturer, that rarely translates in to a satisfying driving experience for the owner. It’s a willy-waving competition.
But the i8 sits outside the norm, so it doesn’t have to conform or compete in the traditional sense. The i8 is a hybrid, you see. It’s powered by two engines: a 1.5 litre twin turbo three cylinder petrol engine developing a smidge over 230bhp, which drives the rear wheels, and an electric motor developing just about 130bhp (or the equivalent of) driving the front.
362bhp isn’t a great deal of power for a car that costs over £100k, but it really doesn’t matter.
The way it delivers that power is something truly magical to experience. The electric motor gives you instant torque everywhere, all the time (turns out there is a replacement for displacement) so you get an instantaneous kick up the backside that is almost impossible to find in any other sports car. It’s powerful enough to feel quick, but not so fast that two gears after burying your right foot you’re at the kind of speeds that would have your licence fired in to space by your local magistrate. And that make this car FUN. It genuinely is a hoot – it makes your smile. Keep your foot in, throw gears at it, revel in that great three-cylinder sound track and all the techy wooshes, buzzes, zips and syewzzzzz of the electric stuff doing its business and simply enjoy driving.
And when you are pressing on you find another layer of loveliness. Because this is an ‘eco’ car, BMW has fitted it with tyres designed to reduce rolling and aerodynamic resistance rather than provide outright grip so the car actually moves around a little bit at speeds that are not completely antisocial. Basically, you can feel like you’re giving the car (and yourself) something to think about without behaving like an arsehole on the public road. The structure is stiff, the damping is firm but feels very lovely and expensive, and the steering is light but pure. I’m sure it’s a bit naff on track but really, who cares?!
The i8’s next triumph comes when you take the gear lever out of ‘sport’: this is when you realise that you’re in the perfect every day sports car. Oddly, this is when the want takes real hold.
While Sport mode in the i8 definitely eggs you on – it’s combustion engine-lead: it runs off the petrol motor, is always recharging the batteries, and gives you a dollop of electric torque-fill when you ask for some POWER. The dashboard is red. The noise is noisy. But, as you go into ‘Comfort’ (or default) mode, the combustion motor falls silent, the suspension softens slightly, the dash switches to a serene blue and the rev counter is replaced by a power/recharge meter. You feel yourself relax in to the car’s new mood. In Comfort the car uses its electric motor as much as it can, only bringing the internal combustion engine in to play (seamlessly I might add) when you need a bit of extra poke or the battery runs low.
Drive a 911 or an Impreza STi, or GTR, or even an M3 (V8 I mean - I’ve not driven the new one yet) or pretty much any car that claims to do the split personality trick of being nice to use day-to-day and suitably bonkers when the mood takes you is that when you’re doing what you’ll be doing in the car for 99.9999999% of the time you own it – pootling or commuting - there’s an over-riding feeling that this is emphatically not what it actually wants to be doing. Maybe it’s the Hulk in me, rather than the car, but whenever I’m Bruce Bannering in one of these, I feel goaded. Impatient. The ride, the engine noise, the red on the dials. It feels like a frustrating waste of fuel and money when you’re invariably stuck behind someone doing 40mph down a great road or crawling on the M4, and it’s irritating.
In the i8 you simply relax in to the flow of the traffic and enjoy the quiet efficiency, the lovely cabin and the fact that you’re not paying any road tax whatsoever.
Aside from any of that driving nonsense though, would you just look at the thing?! It’s like they put some number plates and a price tag on it and pushed it off the motor show concept car stand. And it has gullwing doors. GULL WING DOORS. In the immortal words of Phillip J Fry: “shut up and take my money.”
There are a few bad points. Its incessant creeping against the brakes make coming to a smooth halt difficult, sometimes the throttle response at the electric/petrol crossover was less than buttery smooth, the gearbox is a bit slow from paddle operation to gear change and the brakes could do with being a touch more powerful. But, weirdly, all these little foibles somehow made it more endearing. Despite the crisp dials, futuristic design and Germanic efficiency, this is a genuinely loveable car. It’s a puppy. It’s a charming little sports car and I want one.
The i8 is not good because it’s a hybrid. It’s not good despite being a hybrid. It is, quite simply, just great. The future’s bright.