BMW i8: A beauty with brawn and brains

The BMW i8 is a futuristic racer that is hard on rivals but easy on the environment

Driving a sports car says a few things about you. The obvious would be that you are wealthy, you love life in the fast lane and you value performance.

The unspoken messages are less flattering. The worst include you do not really care about energy sustainability, your carbon footprint or the fate of the polar bear. After all, driving a single big-bore V8 and V12 supercar is equivalent to driving three or four modern compacts when it comes to fuel efficiency and tailpipe emissions.

These cars are as delicious as they are decadent, and sublime as they are sinful. If only you could have your cake and not grow fat.

Enter the BMW i8, a plug-in petrol- electric 2+2 sports car with butterfly doors that promises to take the guilt out of your high-octane trip.

The car has three means of propulsion: a rear-mounted 1.5-litre three-cylinder highly turbocharged engine driving the rear wheels, a front-mounted 96kW high-performance electric motor driving the front wheels, and a starter-generator that provides momentary boost (over 100Nm) to the combustion engine.

There are many things that make the i8 special but here is one worth mentioning: The car's lithium-ion batteries that power its electric motor can be recharged via a household electrical socket.

When fully charged, the i8 can travel for about 35km on battery mode alone. That is, it does not emit a molecule of carbon dioxide from the tailpipe when it is in this mode and yet allows you to hit 120kmh.

Like most other hybrids, the i8 lets you drive with just its combustion engine, or a combination of the two power plants. But unlike ordinary hybrids, its electric-only mode is actually usable and fun.

In real life, the BMW demonstrates a fine balance between all the modes, resulting in a performance you would associate with a sports car, and a fuel efficiency no worse than a subcompact. What we are talking about is a 0-100kmh of 4.4 seconds, a regulated top speed of 250kmh and the economy of a moped.

The latter is less believable. BMW declares an astounding figure of 2.1 litres/100km, which Life! reckons is possible only if there is an extension cable stretching 50km - the average distance a motorist drives in Singapore.

What is more realistic is a consumption figure of about 8.5 litres/100km, which is what the car achieves during a five-hour drive here. That puts it in the same ballpark as a VW Golf or Honda Civic in the real world.

The figure includes one full charge and one partial recharge over lunch break. In Singapore, two full recharges will cost $6.12 at today's power tariff rate, or what you would pay for 2.5 litres of premium petrol. In battery mode, that works out to 28km per equivalent litre.

In all likelihood, the i8 will be significantly more economical in Singapore. Unlike most cars, its economy does not deteriorate in city driving. In fact, if your commute is less than 30km each, you may not have to call upon its combustion engine at all.

The test-drive here includes highways, city arterials, country roads and a long stretch of twisty mountain roads. Except when in the city, we drive the i8 like a sports car. That is, with no regard for economy.

On that front, the car does not disappoint, even though it is the first BMW that does not feel very much like a BMW at the wheel. But that is because there has never been a BMW like it.

You slink into its sunken driver's seat as you would in a supercar. Its butterfly door is light and surprisingly effortless.

You punch the Start button, half- expecting the engine to roar to life. Then you remember it is a semi-electric car.

With no more than a whispery whir, it moves off. But it still makes a dramatic entrance.

In Beverly Hills, where folks are used to seeing exotic rides, mobile phones are whipped out as soon as the i8 passes or pauses. Pretty women on Rodeo Drive turn to look. You feel like you are driving the Batmobile.

Otherwise, the drive is relatively uneventful. Which is refreshing, because the i8 does not demand the kind of edge-of-your seat attention supercars demand.

The steering is feathery in Comfort mode but feels more substantial as soon as you flick the gear lever over to Sport.

It is hard to imagine what a 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine can do, but force-fed by a two-bar turbo, the one in the i8 churns out 230bhp. That alone gives the carbon-fibre-aluminium car a power-weight ratio of 155bhp/tonne.

Together with its electric motor, it has more than 240bhp/tonne at its disposal. We do not have a chance to test its 4.4-second century sprint or its 250kmh top whack, but the car feels sickeningly quick.

It feels suitably planted like a sports car, with better balance and poise than most. Its suspension is stiff but not bouncy, giving it good contact with the tarmac, adequate roll resistance as well as a level of ride quality you would expect in an M3.

Its six-speed autobox may not be boast-worthy, but it is actually the sweetest component in the drivetrain. It is quick, smooth and unbelievably intuitive. Going down mountain roads resembling the contours of a pretzel, it puts you in the right gear before each turn. The paddle shifts are redundant.

Thanks to electronic sound amplifiers, its engine note is sporty and soulful both inside and outside the cabin. The only thing you miss are the rib-cage rattling low frequencies you get in a traditional supercar.

The i8 is, of course, anything but traditional. It is a sports car for the future - a machine that delivers performance, puts you in the spotlight (not just because it has laser headlamps), but does not take a toll on your nerves or the environment.

But at about $600,000, you would have to be pretty wealthy to own one.

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