BMW i8 turns the traditional concept of sports cars on its head

Take off in the plug-in petrol-electric BMW i8 without any feelings of guilt.
Take off in the plug-in petrol-electric BMW i8 without any feelings of guilt.ST PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG
Take off in the plug-in petrol-electric BMW i8 without any feelings of guilt.
Take off in the plug-in petrol-electric BMW i8 without any feelings of guilt.ST PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG
Take off in the plug-in petrol-electric BMW i8 without any feelings of guilt.
Take off in the plug-in petrol-electric BMW i8 without any feelings of guilt.ST PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG

Half-expecting the driver in a growling be-winged Mitsubishi Evo pulling ahead to cut into my lane, I eased off the throttle.

But instead of the hooliganism drivers of souped-up Japanese cars tend to display in the presence of Porsches, Ferraris and Lamborghinis, this one stuck his burly arm out the window and gave an extended thumbs up.

That kind of sums up the reaction you get in a BMW i8, and the type of car it is.

The high-performance plug-in petrol-electric 2+2 is an unintimidating piece of engineering, despite its wow-inducing design. Adorned with dramatic butterfly doors and curves and creases previously impossible to execute on a carbon-fibre body, the car is right out of a movie set.

You would expect something like it to evoke envy - the way a Lamborghini Huracan or Ferrari 458 would - even if it has the same head-turning abilities as the two supercars.

But, no.

It is hard to put a finger on it, but perhaps it has to do with its obscure tailpipe, which on supercars, tends to be rather big and vulgar. It could also be its trademark hue of pacifist blue. It is similar to the blue worn by UN peacekeeping troops, which belies their ability to mete out equal measures of lethal force.

Likewise, the i8 is no pushover, despite its puny 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine. For the engine is turbocharged and paired with a high-wattage electric motor. The engine drives the rear wheels, while the 96kW motor moves the front wheels.

Together, they make 360bhp and 570Nm of torque, enough to fire the wedge-shaped Beemer from zero to 100kmh in 4.4 seconds - more than respectable in the realm of sports cars.

Top speed is capped at 250kmh, but it is doubtful if the i8 can go much faster even if there was no limiter. For that, an i8S is planned.

For now, 4.4 seconds and 250kmh are still impressive figures for a car that will happily zip about for 35km on electric mode alone (if you plug in to recharge the batteries regularly). In this mode, it can reach 120kmh - more than enough in the Singapore context.

Its turbo engine is ever ready whenever you need it.

During a test-drive in May in Los Angeles, the car displayed a seamless transition between combustion engine and electric motor. But in Singapore traffic, there were a couple of times when the i8 hesitated and fumbled, resulting in power surges (pun intended) that make you go "woah!" or delayed take-offs that make you go "hmmm".

Most times, however, the i8 is peachy. Its dual power source gives it the instantaneous acceleration of an electric car, while its mighty mite of an engine provides that revvy crescendo so loved by sports car fans.

Whatever speed it is in, the i8 is able to pull away effortlessly, thanks to the combined forces of its two propulsion units. The electronic wizardry onboard ensures the six-speed transmission paired with the engine is in perfect harmony with the two-speed transmission of the e-motor. Just thinking about that makes you giddy.

The i8's wide tracks and low centre of gravity ensure it has the stability of an air hockey puck. So, its road-holding is beyond reproach. The only thing drivers need to look out for are low curbs - the car's expansive bonnet dips away abruptly, making it a tad difficult to judge where its big wheels shod with low- profile tyres are.

Ride quality suffers a little because of those wheels and tyres. But it is a relatively small price to pay for good looks.

Its light and somewhat detached steering stands out as a trait uncharacteristic of BMWs. Brake pedal feel can be inconsistent too. But roadholding, power delivery and handling remain up to what you expect of the Bavarian marque. Even the sound of the engine is convincing (thanks to artificial enhancement).

Above all, the i8 is about responsible performance. The discontinued Tesla Roadster aside, it is the only sports car you can drive to your heart's content without a tinge of guilt.

And quite possibly, without stirring ill feelings in others either.

christan@sph.com.sg