The 2016 BMW i8 attracts attention for its exterior looks, but the technical wizardry in the plug-in hybrid powertrain should turn heads just the same. It could be powered by coal and ground-up baby seals and it'd still be viewed with awe and admiration by the crowds that gather to watch the striking "bird wing" doors pivot up and away, rising well above the roof.
The running gear is very unique. When's the last time such a stunning coupe came with a charging cord to plug it into the wall? AND a three-cylinder engine? The classic design cues are merely there to point out that it's possible to blend energy efficiency with both style and performance. And that makes the i8 a car unlike any other.
Its mission is to respond to the need for "a new era of sustainable performance," BMW says. And its highest-tech features may be its construction, with a body shell made of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic that attaches to an aluminum chassis that absorbs crash energy and carries the powertrain. Then there's the battery pack, the electric motor, and the three-cylinder engine too.
It's about as far from the usual BMW template as you can get. The engine is a tiny 1.5-litre turbo three-cylinder, mounted transversely ahead of the rear wheels. Tiny, but mighty: it produces 231bhp. There's a 131bhp electric motor up front and a big plug-in electric battery to give it serious potency. All this is packed into a carbon fibre tub and wrapped in stunning thermoplastic bodywork; it looks like a concept car that's escaped from the motor show stage. Radical? You bet.
Put to rest any doubts you may have. It's radical and other-worldly but the BMW i8 works like a charm as a sports car. You'd almost never believe it was an eco-chomping hybrid, doing an amazing impression of a 340bhp straight six rather than a little turbo triple (although synthesised, the noise is surprisingly convincing). It doesn't quite feel 911-fast, despite a 4.4-second 0-62mph time, because high-rev drama and violence is lacking. But it's still ruddy quick, and traction is fantastic.
Cornering is equally wonderful, despite the mish-mash of power sources and options for front and rear axles. It's roll-free and very agile, while the steering is terrific. Consistency is high, which means so too is confidence, and it's only on rare occasions that you feel a trace of understeer.
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