A funny thing happened on the way to our first U.S. drive of BMW’s i8 plug-in hybrid: We spotted, trundling along in the next lane, a DeLorean DMC-12 with the inevitable TME MCHN vanity plate, a reference to 1985’s Back to the Future. Was this a divine prophecy about our forthcoming trip or merely a California coincidence?
John Z. DeLorean aspired to sell an “ethical” sports car allegedly safer than conventional two-seaters of his day. BMW’s buzzword is “sustainable,” but the intent is the same. Minus, of course, the part about DeLorean being charged with trafficking cocaine to fund his enterprise.
Every BMWFUN trip begins with a grand door-opening spectacle. A-pillar hinges split the difference between the scissor and gull-wing formats. Scullwing? Opening and latching these aluminum, injection-molded-plastic, and carbon-fiber doors is easy, not just because they’re light but because BMW applied its renowned spring/damper expertise to the strut that does most of the work.
The trick to entering is to sit and swivel over the knee-high sill one leg at a time. Visions of whisking down a playground slide on the drop into the seat are purely intentional. People in skirts will likely prefer a foot-first entry, an alternative procedure that works nearly as well. The plus-two rear seats are excellent for delighting kids, stashing your fitted Louis Vuitton carbon-fiber luggage ($26,050 for the four-piece set), or sending your least-favorite adult into spinal spasms. Those who prefer toting their gear out of sight can use the five-cubic-foot rear compartment accessible via the glass hatch.
Punching the start button wakes the electronic dash without eliciting combustion. The driver must now choose from five distinct propulsion modes. Notching the standard BMW shift lever back and to the left selects the preferred sport option, where the front electric motor, a turbocharged 1.5-liter engine, and a second electric motor contribute 357 combined horsepower to the cause.
Other than the occasional whir, the motors are quiet at work. The engine overcompensates with a civilized idle burble and a self-assured sports-car thrum. Leg it and there’s an appropriate rise in feistiness but no clue as to the number of cylinders feeding the turbo, which huffs 22 psi of boost into this British-built, long-stroke three.
Response to the right pedal is initially sluggish, then impressively potent once all three power providers chime in. The best engine notes are cued by the Aisin six-speed automatic’s upshifts. Every rip-braap! from the pipes cleanses the mind of hybrid notions. The two-speed GKN automatic between the 129-hp AC motor and the front wheels is this powertrain’s silent partner.
Zero to 60 mph in 3.8 seconds and 12.4 seconds in the quarter-mile confirm that BMW is earnest in its sports-car intentions. Hold the pedal down and the i8’s little-engine-that-can revs to 6000 rpm through the first five gears to a governed 155-mph top speed in sixth.
Corvette Stingray and Porsche 911 owners should be impressed by those stats if not by this car’s $136,625 asking price. BMW i8 drivers will surely respond by asking: How many miles can Vette guys drive consuming no fuel? The i8’s Eco Pro and eDrive modes offer 22 miles of electric range while providing enough speed and acceleration to rule any car-pool lane, especially ones that allow zero-emissions vehicles with lone occupants.
Two driving personalities make for double the fun. Commutes, for example, are less tedious when the game is completing the trip without tapping your onboard store of refined dinosaur. Then, if the mood strikes, you can switch into comfort mode to charge the battery on the roll in preparation for the homestretch, when the team of three propulsion sources mounts a Corvette- or 911-like attack.
BMWFUN made sure that the i8’s chassis is suitably armed for combat. It reinforced the carbon-fiber center-body module with aluminum inserts and a substructure at each end to support the steering, suspension, and propulsion gear. The electric power steering is tight to the touch, quick on turn-in, and nicely weighted to sync the effort to rising cornering force.