Like all good hybrids, the i8 starts up silently. Tug the joystick gearlever down to Drive and it moves off quietly, too, in electric mode, which is good for about 35km and a top speed of 120km/h.
The test route around Santa Monica was either too congested or curvy for me to verify the i8’s speed credentials. But it feels sublimely quick, with acceleration that leaves little doubt it will match a standard 911 in a quarter-mile sprint.
Over a day’s drive, the car averaged 11.76km per litre. It is far from the 47.6km/L declared by BMW, but is still pretty amazing for a car of its performance. Also, the i8 wasn’t driven with fuel economy in mind at all. For most daily road journeys in Singapore, it is quite possible to drive in electric mode alone.
To-and-fro trips for work, with errands thrown in, might not even add up to 70km. In which case, a charger at home and one at the workplace will be all you need for stylish commutes, with no tailpipe emissions and low cost (around $6 for 70km at today’s electricity rates).
In the i8, you sit low down in the “sunken” cockpit. Visibility is excellent for such a car, though, and its doors are also lighter than the gullwing and scissor types found on certain supercars.
Tap the throttle and the car’s powerful front-mounted electric motor dishes out 250Nm of instantaneous and uninterrupted torque. This is more than enough for any city commute. But should you want to pick up the pace on an open highway, the combustion engine takes over just as the electric motor’s peak torque starts to taper sharply from about 3850rpm.
When you put pedal to metal, though, both engine and motor combine to produce extra shove. Not only that, the car’s unique starter-generator has a boost function. It sends more than 100Nm of additional torque to the engine for close to 2 seconds.
At higher speeds, the electric drivetrain goes into second gear for better efficiency. The combustion engine itself is mated to an excellent Aisin 6-speeder, which more than measures up against multi-cog units with its urgent lower gears and long-legged fifth and sixth ratios. The transmission was chosen for its compactness, but its qualities far exceed its size. Gearchanges are smooth and synaptic.
Most amazingly, the gearbox is able to preempt each and every turn along Mulholland Highway – a long stretch of serpentine mountain road off Santa Monica that would have been a motoring paradise for a hot hatchback.
On the other hand, supercar shapes usually do not fare as well on tight, twistier roads. To its credit, the i8 is able to keep well ahead of a souped-up MINI Cooper S on the mountain stretch. And it does so elegantly, too. There is none of the loud and jerky histrionics associated with supercars, which are often full of sound and fury that signify nothing.
The i8’s 50:50 distribution of weight between the axles, its low centre of gravity (lowest among all BMWs, in fact) and its 96kg bank of lithium batteries lined along what would have been a transmission tunnel all conspire to make it more graceful around bends.