If you're going to build a sports car, you have to be prepared to have it judged by the benchmark in the category: the Porsche 911. So when BMW brought its exciting new BMW i8 hybrid to California, we had a Type-991 Porsche 911 50th Anniversary Edition Coupe hidden around the corner. And when nobody was looking, we fired up the boxer-six motor.
2015 BMW i8 - First Drive
While the Porsche 911 has a pedigree that's half-a-century old and personifies the German sports car, the BMW i8 is the new-kid-on-the-block. It promises driving fun without depleting the world's resources. It's also on the cutting edge of the very latest technology, while the 911 is desperately trying to hold onto its glorious past.
At 7am on another perfect SoCal day, the cream-coloured 50th Anniversary Porsche 911 was already basking in the early morning sun in Malibu. It was receiving plenty of admiring glances from early morning joggers, but what would you expect? Fifty years of development have matured the 911 into the iconic sports car, and the current 991 variant is arguably one of the best to date.
2014 Porsche 911 Targa - First Drive
A few minutes later we detect a disturbance in the force. The BMW i8 glides into view, looking like a spacecraft from another galaxy. With no obvious soundtrack, it whispers past and comes to rest a few yards away.
We feel convention and tradition falter. The familiar rules of displacement, power, noise and acceleration are beginning to implode. Joggers stop dead in their tracks as all attention is focused on the newcomer.
Suddenly, the previously sleek Porsche looked like yesterday's news. And while the palm trees might still reflect in the 911's nose and voluptuous fenders, once the i8's scissor doors reach for the blue sky, all was lost. The icon has been relegated to the sidelines.
We run in tandem from Malibu to Beverly Hills, where Porsches are a common sight. Yet even here, with its unique paint scheme and checkered seats, the Anniversary model barely garners a glance.
In contrast, the BMW i8 is set upon by swarms of people. In a culture that appreciates new and shiny, the i8 is top dog. It's cool by default and dozens of phone cameras are pointed our way, snapping photos that will instantly be posted to social media.
The BMW i8 looks so similar to the original concept car that most people couldn't believe it was already in production and would soon hit showrooms.
If the primary task of a sports car is an extension of its owner's personality; a means to convey themselves to the world, then the i8 is the best sports car on the planet right now. Fast, yet with eco-friendly credentials, it's literally the best of both worlds.
More than that, if you're predisposed to making a grand entrance, this is the ideal car. After making a silent entry under electric power, you gracefully swing open the scissor door, exhibiting the swathes of exposed carbon fiber. After that, you'll be the undisputed local hero.
The only snag is trying to remain dignified while clambering over the wide carbon fiber sills. Practice will inevitably help but ladies might want to consider the length of their skirt...
The BMW i8 not only looks squeaky clean, it drives that way too. So long as you don't have to ascend steep hills, the first 22 miles can be covered silently and emissions-free in the eDrive mode.
Even when the three-cylinder turbocharged motor kicks in to charge the batteries or offer some assistance, you can still cruise while sipping the equivalent of 94mpg thanks to the hybrid drive.
"On average, the i8 consumes about half as much fuel as a conventional sports car in a comparable driving test," explained project manager, Carsten Breitfeld from BMW. As with most cars, if you don't concentrate hard in real world driving, the i8 might struggle to match the advertised numbers, although we only had a relatively short time to assess it.
While the rear of the Porsche packs the usual 3.8-liter flat-six engine with 400hp and 325 lb-ft of torque, the i8's output comes from two separate motors. Power to the front axle comes from the eDrive electric motor that produces 129hp with anything from 64- to 369 lb-ft torque, depending on gear, load, charge, speed, etc. The e-motor is connected to a two-speed gearbox and draws its power from a 7.1kWh lithium-ion battery pack in the central tunnel.
A three-cylinder 1.5-liter motor derived from the Mini powerplant drives the rear wheels through a six-speed automatic gearbox. Except it was tuned to a healthy 228hp and 236 lb-ft thanks to a small turbocharger. In addition, there's a second, smaller electric motor that acts as a starter and was designed to effectively fill the gaps in the petrol engine's torque curve. Total system output is 357hp with maximum torque of 420 lb-ft.
Because BMW crammed lots of technology into the i8, they spent lots of time attempting to reduce weight in other areas. So, like the i3, it features an aluminium/carbon fiber chassis with a carbon fiber body, dropping the weight to a reasonable 3270 lb.
While this is impressive for a plug-in hybrid with two engines and hundreds of batteries, it's only average for a high-performance sports car. The Porsche, for example, using conventional steel and aluminium construction, but with the weight penalty of its PDK transmission, tips the scales at 3313 lb.
Obviously, Porsche also has a hybrid sports car: the impressive 918 Spyder. With an output of 887hp, it's more than double that of the i8. The Spyder can also reach 215mph, travel 19 miles in e-drive and return an overall consumption of 78mpg. However, we're not comparing apples with apples. The 918 also has a price tag almost six-times greater than the i8. So in that respect, when you consider the jaw-dropping theater the BMW delivers, its $135700 price seems almost a bargain. It's also competitive with the $121400 911 Anniversary Edition, which is why both cars show up here.