Futuristic, Fantastic, BMW i8

Futuristic, Fantastic, BMW i8

Futuristic, Fantastic, BMW i8
Martin Pretorius

First, let’s set something straight here: The i8 isn’t a super car. It’s a sports car. An R8 V10 is a super car, and so is a F458, and a 650S. In terms of bare performance figures, it’s competition for higher-rung sports cars like the lower-level 911s, though they are philosophically miles apart, and a brace of hyper hatches. That said, it’s a highly innovative take on the high-performance hybrid car, and it does a brilliant job of emulating a proper sports car in the process.

Now you’re wondering what I mean with “emulating”, right? It’s simple: video gamers will love this car, because it brings GT6 to life. It’s a machine from a digital future, it’s TRON crafted from carbon fibre, aluminium and the finest leather. And some squeaky plastics too, unfortunately: a hidden panel around the central iDrive display rattled a bit over certain roads, a condition emphasised by the rather abrupt ride quality over some secondary roads. It’s not uncomfortable, it’s just… Busy.

That firm ride does have a pay-off line when the road gets twisty, though: the i8 stays resolutely planted when you start pushing on through the bends, with minimal body roll and excellent control of body movements. Make no mistake, the i8 offers extremely grippy behaviour on the road. It stays predictable and co-operative until well past the point where its Bridgestone Potenzas start howling. When it does let go, the breakaway is gradual and controllable, with the stability control being very unobtrusive in its operation, smoothly bringing it all back under control.

Part of the credit also goes to the all wheel drive system, which uses an electric motor that drives the front axle through a two-speed autobox. The control electronics allows the electric motor to perform most of the initial torque delivery, meaning that gentle pullaways and moderate cruising can happen almost solely on electric power. It’s an eerie feeling, piloting this futuristic machine down the highway in mid-morning traffic, using only electric power. The clever bit is the way the electric motor acts as a torque filler for 1.5-liter turbo. Because, as you’d expect from a little 1500 that’s been tuned to produce 170kW and 320Nm, there is a little bit of throttle lag – even at higher RPM. Luckily you only notice this when the battery is low, something that doesn’t happen very often because the brake energy regeneration system “tops up” the batteries pretty well during the downhill runs of a 200 km road trip.

Either way, the integration of electric and petrol motivation is seamless and very effective: there were very few moments where the switching between modes were noticeable or ill-timed. The drivetrain engineers certainly went over every aspect a hundred times to make sure it all went seamlessly. And while the petrol motor is busy building boost and sorting out which gear in its 6-speed auto needs be selected, the electric motor unleashes a wall of torque to get you going in the mean time. As a result, throttle response is immediate, with the i8 being particularly lively between 40 and 150 km/h. Overtaking is a cinch, though the acceleration kind of loses its bluster on the north side of 150 km/h. You will also have to do a fair bit of energy regeneration from the brakes: the performance will be noticeably more muted the next time, because you just drained half the battery…

But the nicest thing about the electric motor in front is the way it helps the car around corners. The power on the front wheels stabilises the handling, helping to neutralise oversteer, allowing you to get on the power earlier than you’d imagine possible. The i8 can maintain hugely improbable speeds when the going gets twisty, because it grips superbly around corners. It is a slow in-fast out kind of car: try to carry too much speed into the corner and understeer turns the front end turns to mush. Truth be told, the front wheels could do with a bit more initial bite and the rears with a bit less: this is not a drifter’s car. I also doubt it will be popular among spinners, because it doesn’t.

No, rather forget about manhandling it around corners and start giving it smooth, decisive inputs, and the handling balance will surprise you. It’s so simple: aim for the apex, roll on the power as you pass it, the car does the rest. It just grips and grips and grips, all four tyres howling in protest but with iron composure and unflinching resolve around corners.

It may be the computers doing the actual driving, but they do a damn great job of it. And make no mistake, it’s the computers doing the driving: At no point does the car make you understand that you’re part of the process of a machine doing incredible things. You simply tell it where you want to be and at what speed, and the car does the rest for you. The results in terms of point to point speed are real. But what to pass for feedback is artificial: the steering is resolutely uncommunicative and the weight feels like the force feedback in a good video console. The accelerator pedal is now a torque request device, and the brake pedal response is non-linear, though it works brilliantly. And then there’s the soundtrack… Literally, a soundtrack. It plays a deep, bassy thrum – almost V8-like – through the car’s powerful sound system. This sound is completely at odds with the real exhaust note, which sounds surprisingly snarly as it is, if a bit muted.

So there we have it: the i8 is a brilliant machine, a trend setter and a taste of the future. As an engineering feat, it’s a masterpiece, brilliant at what it set out to do. It’s just such a pity that it’s priced at the point where it will be reduced to a fashion item – sold to people who most likely will not realise what a chunk of genius they’re merely using to show off. Because R1.755 million can buy a Jaguar F-Type V6 AND a Cayman. Or a nicely kitted 911 C4S…

Spoken like a true petrolhead – ed

* Martin Pretorius is a professional motoring journalist writing for MotorTalk.co.za and Surf4cars.co.za