An Ode to the BMW i8

The Asphalt Jungle

Arthur St. AntoinewriterAndrew TrahanphotographerTim Marrsillustrator

For years, whenever I've been asked the inevitable "What's the coolest car you've driven recently?" I've usually blurted out any one of several brands that end with an "i." Sure it's obvious, but approving nods and even an awestruck whistle are all but guaranteed when you share the titillating details of a fling with a Lamboferrapaganugatti. Yet for the last six months or so, my act has changed. Lately, I've been enthusiastically responding to the "coolest car" query by naming a model where the "i" comes first.

Let me not mince words: BMW's i8 hybrid exotic is a masterpiece. And I just love the thing. This is one of those rare automotive achievements that reaches way, way out to the cutting edge but delivers as if it's been honing its act for years.

Moreover, there's an "ahead of its time" aura to the i8 that's almost startling, as if—whoa, look at that!—the car just escaped from a lab. You expect to see a machine this forward-thinking only on an auto-show stand, a hand-built one-off surrounded by pulsating multimedia displays heralding the mind-blowing wonders awaiting us in Tomorrowland. Yet poke your head into a BMW dealership, and there the i8 sits right now, today, next to the 3 Series and the X5s—a slice of science fiction with a VIN.

The BMW i8 blasts the jaded corners of my soul all to hell. See, as a grizzled veteran of this business who's attended, conservatively, at least 500 million auto shows in my career, by now I'm all but immune to the pomp and puffery of concept cars. Many of the wheeled showpieces on view around the globe are little more than sheetmetal hucksters full of breathless promises and life-changing gizmos. In fact, they are about as grounded in reality as Gary Busey. Even worse are the pure design studies, which purport to offer "sneak peeks" of future production models. Inevitably, three or four years later, what was an alien spacecraft in concept form comes out looking like a Toyota Corolla.

The BMW i8 is different, though I didn't know that at first. It was 2009, at the Frankfurt Auto Show, that BMW unveiled its Vision EfficientDynamics concept—a swoopy, glassy, two-door plug-in hybrid boasting two electric motors and a three-cylinder turbodiesel. I remember loving the voluptuous wedge shape, grunting at the impressive projected fuel efficiency and lofty performance claims—and then not giving much of a damn. "Who cares?" I thought to myself then. "In four years it'll just be another bar of soap."

Then came Frankfurt 2013 and the arrival of the production version, now called i8. And the car looked—I rubbed my eyes, squinted for a better view—pretty much the same. Examining the data sheet, I noted that the official factory numbers for economy and performance weren't on par with the Vision concept's—they were better. Scanning the details further, I actually laughed out loud: As optional headlights, the i8 was going to offer frickin' lasers. (U.S. officials haven't yet decided whether to allow them.) The car was almost too cool to be true, and it was coming stateside in a year. Forget holding out for a jetpack. I couldn't wait to fly this new extraterrestrial.

First impression: The BMW i8 is a wondrous piece of industrial sculpture, full of presence, clearly from an advanced civilization.

My first hands-on i8 encounter, at last fall's 2015 AUTOMOBILE All-Stars competition in southwestern Michigan, delivered that rarest of gratifications: reality equaling hype. First impression: The i8 is a wondrous piece of industrial sculpture, full of presence, clearly from an advanced civilization. The moment I laid my eyes on it I started behaving like one of the apes at the foot of the monolith in "2001." I touched the i8 and ran away. I returned, touched it longer, ran away again. (I also might have shrieked.) Finally, confident the car wasn't in fact radioactive, I pried up the driver's scissor door and climbed in.

The cockpit is as arresting as the exterior, a tour de force of delicious swoops and curves and gleaming materials. An icy blue hue bathes the central digital displays. The thick leather steering wheel is ringed with a thin contrasting line of trim—more modern art. Just being inside the i8 is exciting. It looks and feels special. This is no Corolla.

If it's impressive that BMW transformed the Vision concept into the i8 production car with little to no loss in style and charisma, it's simply astounding how well the i8 performs given all the whiz-bang tech packed into its carbon-fiber and aluminum bod. Depending on which of five driving modes you select and how aggressively you prod the go pedal, the i8 can be a front-drive, plug-in electric car that reaches 75 mph on volts alone while producing zero emissions. It can be a rear-driver with a turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder that produces the highest specific output (152 hp per liter) of any current BMW engine. It can also be an all-wheel-drive hybrid with 357 total horsepower that flashes to 60 mph in under 4 seconds and on to a top speed of 155 mph. And it can deliver 40-plus miles per gallon of gas, easy.

Wringing the best from the BMW i8 requires almost no fuss from the driver either. Choose your preferred mode and let the various systems seamlessly hustle you along with maximum efficiency and ease. At last, this is the 21st-century stuff we were promised decades ago.

Oh, and don't be fooled by the "hybrid" label on this beauty. Switch into Sport, and the i8 is a pure gas to drive. You can paddle-shift the six-speed automatic hooked to the fossil-fuel mill. You can power around a race circuit with your head pinned back and your spine manipulated by g forces, the electric motors gushing with torque, and the engine screaming with revs. And you can arrive at your destination and step out dressed in a bubble helmet and a silver pressure suit, and no one will find your attire inappropriate.

That's what I love most about the i8: It's a dream machine come true. Flash back to the Motorama shows of the 1950s, and you can almost picture this avant-garde BMW right alongside Harley Earl's razor-winged Firebird concept cars. It's that theatrical. Add the fact that you can actually own and drive it (if, of course, you've got a spare $136,000 or so) makes the little kid in me positively giddy. I can hear him checking out the i8 now: "Whoa! Cooooo-ellll!"

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