2015 BMW i8 Details:

  • 228hp/236 lb-ft 1.5L i-3 turbo engine | 129hp/64-369 lb-ft electric motor
  • 375hp, 420 lb-ft | 0-60mph in 4.2sec
  • 3270 lb | 94mpg est | Front-, rear- or all-wheel drive
  • Carbon fiber/aluminum passenger cell
  • Lowest center of gravity of any BMW

Electronics: Full LED lighting (laser lights in Europe) | DDC | Electric steering | HUD | BMW Connected Drive | BMW i Remote phone app

+ Pros: First proper hybrid performance car | Amazing MPG | Great acceleration and handling | Acoustics | Flat cornering

- Cons: Storage space | Odd brake feel

It's difficult to know where to start when dealing with a new automotive concept - a true mid-level sports hybrid - but let's dive in and confirm the BMW i8 looks great, drives even better and confirms there's a future for driving enthusiasts in a new, greener world.

We say this with huge relief because we were concerned that the purity of the Vision EfficientDynamics Concept - first seen at the Frankfurt Auto Show in 2009 - might have been tainted by its short 38-month gestation period. Yet the design looks as fresh now as it did when Ethan Hunt drove it onto the silver screen in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

2014 BMW i8 Preproduction - First Drive

In fact, two things came to mind when we saw it in bright Californian sunshine (a location chosen because it's the largest single market for a performance hybrid, with 70,000 plugin hybrids sold here to date): firstly, it looks astonishingly similar to the original concept; and secondly, it simply looks astonishing.

We're all used to squinting at concept cars to imagine what the production vehicle will look like, and yet the BMW i8 was barely diluted. It keeps many of the bold features the designers originally envisioned, with seemingly only the transparent doors sacrificed to the homologation process. Fortunately, it does get a lightweight scissor door arrangement that adds a theatrical element to your arrival and departure.

Put the i8 on Santa Monica Blvd, Pacific Coast Highway or I-405 freeway and you still see the unadulterated concept. Driven alongside Camrys and Altimas, it looks sensational. In truth, it makes everything look rather hackneyed. Even the Porsche 911 and Ferrari 458 appear mundane alongside it.

So while its styling is like nothing else on the road, what's it like to drive?

If you're like us, your experience of hybrids is limited to the unpleasant Prius and entertaining BMW ActiveHybrid 3. Neither of these made a compelling case to buy one, so would the i8 be any different?

The answer is a resounding yes. Thanks to BMW's holistic approach, everything works. The i8 was designed to be a hybrid, rather than modified to run on electricity, so there were almost no compromises.

Perhaps its single greatest attribute is the CFRP (carbon fiber reinforced plastic) and aluminum construction, seen inside the door apertures, allowing the BMW i8 to tip the scales at 3270 lb. In turn, this means the brakes can be smaller and lighter, the acceleration better and the economy previously unimaginable.

Although US testing was incomplete at the time of writing, European data suggests 0-60mph in 4.2sec, yet with a combined fuel economy of 94mpg. Take a minute to absorb that implication...

It's like low-fat ice cream tasting better than the full fat.

BMW has achieved its witchcraft with a combination of gasoline and electric motors, with each playing a vital role.

In city driving or up to 75mph, the 129hp electric motor gets you moving (unless you've selected the Sport driving mode via the shift lever). It allows you to travel up to 22 miles in relative silence using a two-speed automatic transmission driving the front wheels. The petrol engine kicks in above 75mph, or if you need more acceleration in Comfort Mode, or when you select Sport Mode. It drives the rear wheels through a six-speed auto, giving you sporty RWD characteristics but with the assurance of all-wheel drive when needed.

We can thank the carbon construction for the i8's unique engine - a 1.5L, three-cylinder derived from the new Mini Cooper but turbocharged for this application. As such, it develops a surprising 228hp.

While many people shuddered at the prospect, we knew that a three-cylinder engine meant plenty of torque. And with electric power to fill in the torque gaps, and less weight to propel, BMW found the perfect powerplant.

The only remaining question was how it would sound. Initially, we were impressed by the noise but discovered it was enhanced by the audio system. Having learned nothing from the F10 M5, BMW has done the i8 a disservice because everybody will assume the engine sound is poor. Yet watching several cars tackle Malibu's canyons, we can assure you the engine sounds great. It has an unusual note with plenty of bass and certainly doesn't need enhancement.

Accelerating hard in eDrive while attempting to plug a gap in traffic, the two-speed transmission seemed to hesitate before the demons were unleashed. Fortunately, that trait was invisible in Comfort or Sport, where the i8's operating system makes the best use of its available power sources and provides rapid, instantaneous, seamless acceleration from any speed.

In fact, seamless best describes the i8's operation because, apart from some minor vibration when the petrol engine fires up, the driver is unaware of the activity happening behind the scenes, relying on the iDrive display to keep you informed.

The logic systems decide what propulsion system you need, when to charge the battery and by how much, which wheels to drive, etc. Having used the electric Mini E and ActiveE research projects, as well as its ActiveHybrid production vehicles to develop the operating system, BMW has created a remarkably efficient machine.

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