Menlo Park, December 31, 1879. Thomas Edison flicks a switch and the first viable light bulb is displayed to the world. While the crowds undoubtedly gazed in awe, there were surely a few luddites who were questioning whether the electric lamp, and indeed the steamrolling development of electricity itself, would really enhance society.
Edison famously predicted that one day electricity would become so cheap that only the rich would burn candles. As I sit here typing in my electrically lit house, a lone incense candle burning beside me, it becomes evident that Edison was pretty much on-point as far as middle class Australia is concerned. Same goes for cars. The time will come when fossil fuels are the sole domain of enthusiasts with the requisite means, although I think those days are still a while away. One thing that is clear is that technology, be it ethanol or hybrid or hydrogen, is marching in that direction.
Thanks to Adelaide Motors, I recently had the chance to take the first BMW i8 in Adelaide for drive across the McLaren Vale wine region. As a diehard old car guy who loves nothing more than the growl of Weber carburetors in the morning, I find that the petrol/electric hybrid i8 somewhat cuts at the throat of everything I find exciting in this hobby. And at $299,000 before you begin adding any options or taxes, it isn’t exactly cheap either.
But I’m wary of becoming that luddite at the rear of the crowd murmuring how ‘electricity will be the death of us’, so with an open mind I eagerly anticipated my time with the i8 to experience the revolution for myself.
Any design school junior will tell you that the job of a car’s body is to communicate intent, and in this context I think the i8 is a landmark design. Just look at it. It’s as cool as a pack of Gauloises and a shot of espresso on the Champs-Élysées. It’s as anti-Prius as coal seam fracking yet it has just enough green-car cred to win over Al Gore as new-best-friend. But then I guess Clive Palmer managed that too, so who knows. Either way, the i8 steals and holds attention without vulgarity in a way that a 458 or even a 911 could only dream of. People don’t hate you when you drive it; they’re genuinely intrigued.
The first wow moment comes when you swing the door up at forty-five and see the bare carbon door jam. But it isn’t kitsch racecar carbon; it has a distinctive weave that just screams high-tech craftsmanship. So too the roof – if you peer carefully you can see the bare weave through a light dusting of paint, a ‘la F40. The i8 is beautifully built.
The front wheels are driven by a 96kw electric motor mounted at the front; the rear’s by a turbocharged 1500cc three-cylinder petrol engine making 170kw and 320nm of torque, mounted in the middle. The i8 can masquerade as a plug-in hybrid for up to 37km; it will do 0-100km/h in 4.5 seconds and 120km/h on pure electric power if range isn’t a concern. With the petrol engine also contributing the 0-100 sprint falls by just 0.1 seconds, but on average you can do it for 440km at just 2.1 l/100km. Top speed also rises to 250km/h.
Default mode in the i8 is hybrid, where the electric motor handles the slower speeds and the petrol engine joins the party at 65km/h and above. There’s an eDrive button for pure electric driving which is surely only used to impress your mates; flipping the auto shifter across into Sport permanently gives you both engines, four wheel drive and corresponding red dash display with tachometer for the petrol engine. There are paddles to manually control the gearbox which shifts with lightning intensity (electricity analogy, get it?) and it even elicits the now mandatory throttle blip on downshift. You could put an investment banker into an i8 without mentioning it’s a hybrid and they’d probably be none the wiser.
Sliding across the wide carbon sill of the i8, ducking for the raised door and then falling down into the enveloping seat feels properly supercar, as does the firm, taught and composed ride that comes only with the modern generation of carbon tub chassis cars. Straight-line performance is brisk; from the seat of the pants it’s more like a properly quick hot hatch than anything else. It’s not on the same tangent as the other $300k sports cars around the market, but it’s a different experience altogether.
In Sport mode the electric engine acts as a torque-fill for the petrol engine and whenever you squeeze the throttle, regardless of speed or rpm or gear, there’s always some urge at the ready backed up by the meanest three-cylinder growl you’ve ever heard. It’s a genuinely exciting soundtrack but it’s piped through the stereo and like those girls on the Snap-On calendar, you’re not completely sure what’s real and what’s synthetic. For many this isn’t a problem, but it won’t sit comfortably with the purists.
When I studied Industrial Design at University I sat through hours of sermons where eco-friendly lecturers endlessly crapped on about how design can save the world. I thought it was bollocks at the time. My opinion was, and still is to some extent, that the best thing we can do for the environment is to stop building more houses and cars and IKEA furniture. We just need to keep all the old seventies era Mercedes-Benz’s going so we don’t need to build new ones and we’ll all be fine.
But my design lecturers might just be right. Green habits will never be adopted on a mass scale when people have to significantly alter their lifestyle, but if the technology can be evolved to a point where we don’t have to make huge sacrifices then it will become the instinctive path to take. People still want to drive around in nice new cars; some action is better than nothing.
More than anything the i8 shows how technology can be integrated into our lives without us barely noticing. With the i8 I can still have fun through the twisty hills roads while using ten litres less every hundred kilometres, and then flick into full EV mode for the final city traffic jam into work. I’m happy to sacrifice a little bit of driving purity for that much of a gain in economy. Assuming they can one-day devise a way to sustainably produce and then recycle materials like carbon and lithium-iron batteries, we’re onto a winner.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that the i8 isn’t on the same dynamic level as a Porsche 911, but the people who buy them won’t care. These wealthy people of today are the early adopters. When these types of cars are commonplace, the first i8 buyers will regale their grandkids of stories about the first time they drove a mate to the pub in full EV mode.
Words and photos by Andrew Coles