Carmakers tend to hold out on us—unveiling innovations in a slow, steady trickle that ensures the hungry motoring public always has something to snack on. But every once in a while they just say, “Fuck it,” and throw a whole damn buffet at us in one single car.
The BMW i8 is that car. A feast of futuristic leaps forward, it has lasers for high beams. It has scissor doors. It’s got a body clad in two-tone carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic that would look fresh a century from now. Its interior is something Eames probably dreamed of and hated himself for not writing down. It’ll do 60 in 4.5 seconds, too. But this isn’t just another petrol swiller built for the Nürburgring. The i8 has a secret. And if my experience behind the wheel is any indication, it’s a secret it keeps very well.
I get a whiff of this secret on a road high above the Malibu coastline, where I pull over at a scenic overlook, raise its scissor doors to the California sky, and crouch down to get the perfect shot of this impossible machine. That’s when I hear it:
OK, fair. To the girl who yells out the window of her passing car, I was just another new-money asshole, with a flashy gas-guzzler and a fresh pair of Nike Dunks. What she doesn’t know, as she races toward the beach in the back of a gas-guzzling Toyota SUV, is that this is no ordinary sports car. This is a sustainably manufactured plug-in electric hybrid capable of 118 mpg.
So who’s the douche bag now?
As sports cars go, the i8 has the lowest curb-weight-to-guilt ratio on the road. Its 362 horses are split between a 1.5-liter three-cylinder TwinPower Turbo gas engine on the rear axle, and a BMW eDrive electric motor up front. Dial in “sport” or “comfort” mode and the i8’s computers negotiate the best energy trade deals between the two. Even if you weren’t stuck in traffic, where the car can convert braking into kinetic energy that feeds your battery, it’s still possible to go 35 miles on pure electricity (up to 75 mph) without ever tasting a drop of gas. Plug it in at home or work, and in 3.5 hours you’re back to full capacity.
The i8 has the Car Door of the Future, an aerodynamic rhomboid of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic that raises like a weightless scissor blade (this isn’t just for fun; the design affords easier access to both rows of the 4-seater’s cockpit, while only requiring 21 inches of clearance to open). I kick the sloped silver gearshift into full electric mode and the LCD gauges fade in with a soothing shade of cobalt. Even the dash looks like it could slice noiselessly through the stratosphere. Watching a dozen i8s pull into LA traffic is like seeing a sci-fi squadron of anti-alien fighters, sent back in time to destroy inefficient humans.
Photos Courtesy of BMW Group
As I coast silently through town and up into the canyons, a battery icon below the speedometer displays a number from 1 to 35—the total of electric-only miles I have left before the combustion engine returns to duty. But I have no patience. And here is when the car becomes less of a showcase for sustainability and more of an experiment in human psychology that reveals what even a fairly ecologically minded man will do when 231 additional horses are dangled in front of him. Does he choose speed or the survival of polar bears? He chooses speed.
And so, at a quiet stoplight in Century City, I switch to sport mode. The blue theme of the gauge display switches over to a menacing red. When that TwinPower Turbo grabs the rear axle and roars awake, it feels good. I peel away from the light with the blithe satisfaction of an authentic, ice-cap melting douche bag.
Ignore the fact that most of that intoxicating engine rumble is an elaborate hoax, delivered by i8’s engineers through the entertainment system. It’s all part of the plan to make the i8 look, sound, and feel like a much meaner machine, whether the stereo is on or off—because the smug feeling you get from tearing away from a red light and hitting 60 in 4.5 seconds might be the only thing comparable to the smug feeling you get from believing you’re single-handedly saving the world in a Prius. An hour later, when I catch up with BMW’s i Design head Benoit Jacob over a lobster frisee salad in Malibu, he explains that this was exactly the mission of his group.
“We wanted to demonstrate that passion, beauty, emotion, and fun is not a contradiction with sustainability,” he says, the blue Pacific lapping the coastline as our i8s recharge out front. “Because until now, sustainability was always seen as you must be willing to sacrifice something—to give away things and not really enjoy good things of life. Which is wrong. That’s not how you’re going to convince people to do things for the environment. You have to also provide excitement.”
I decide not to tell him what that girl called me in the canyons. But I get the feeling we might all get along.
Photos by BMW Group