A thousand wows an hour – and 134 miles per gallon – in the super-sexy hybrid BMW i8

A thousand wows an hour - and 134 miles per gallon - in the super-sexy hybrid BMW i8

Jaw-droppingly gorgeous… that’s what our resident bon viveur Jon McKnight thinks of the BMW i8 – an unbelievably inexpensive supercar (comparatively speaking) that turns heads and steals hearts wherever it goes and is so sought-after that second-hand models fetch more than the list-price for a new one. Here’s why…

This side of a million dollars, there are very, very few cars as utterly impressive as the BMW i8. If you want the looks of a Lamborghini and the mystique of a McLaren – but at a fraction of the price you’d expect – the BMW i8 will give you all of that… as well as the biggest smile you’ve ever had in public.

But first, a warning: if you’re a shrinking violet or tick the box for No Publicity when you enter the National Lottery, the BMW i8 isn’t for you.

For I’ve never driven, nor been in, a car that attracts more attention than the BMW i8. It generates its own limelight, then hogs it with all the fervour of a starlet getting her first break on Broadway.

From the moment the car arrived until the moment I reluctantly gave it back, it was the epicentre of attention wherever it went.

Realising I needed to go somewhere spacious to practise opening the dihedral doors and work out how much room they needed to avoid hitting anything, I drove out immediately to Yelverton Rock near Plymouth in England, where Spitfires were scrambled at the time of The Battle Of Britain.

Far from the madding crowd (or so I thought), I opened the doors and sat for a moment, familiarising myself with the controls and the cockpit layout… only to look up and find the car surrounded by a small and admiring crowd.

After the usual pleasantries, the picture-taking, and my dutiful admission that the car wasn’t actually mine, the leader of the group pointed into the distance and told me: “We literally ran from all the way over there as soon as we saw your car.”

The wowing had begun, and it didn’t stop for the rest of the week. When the car was parked in the street, people crossed a busy main road to see it and photograph it. When I went to have some number plates made up, admirers poured out of the industrial units, elbowing their way past Porsches to see the BMW. And when I drove through the teeming holiday crowds in the narrow, winding streets of Looe in Cornwall, the spontaneous shouts of “Wow!” from one person after another sounded like an impromptu accompaniment of Champagne corks popping all along our route.

Men in mid-life were suddenly plunged into crisis as they realised they wouldn’t be the men they dreamed of being without owning a BMW i8 (tell me about it!) and a thousand bucket-lists were hastily revised as this beauty of a car worked its charms on all-comers.

It’s easy to see why. The i8 is like no BMW before it – a simply sensational design with sweeping curves, a wraparound spoiler that cuddles the car, sculpted lights, and doors that are nothing short of a sideshow in themselves.

If the BMW i8 had ordinary doors, it would still be an extraordinary car. But having doors that open outwards and upwards transforms it into the supercar it deserves to be seen as.

Those doors are the defining feature of the i8 and, I would guess, are pretty near the top of the list of reasons why the fortunate few choose to buy one instead of any of its rivals.

There’s only one way in which the doors could possibly be improved – and that would be to accompany every opening with the blaring five-note fanfare intro from the theme music to the Bond film Goldfinger. But who needs it? You feel like James Bond in an i8 anyway.

To open the doors, you press a button on the arm rest and give them a gentle shove with your elbow – not quite as ingenious as something Q might have come up with, but probably a lot more practical than automating them and running into an impenetrable thicket of health and safety objections.

The much-Tweeted sequence of the BMW i8’s doors opening simultaneously (see http://bit.ly/1f7y0pu) intrigued a salesman at the Plymouth dealership Ocean BMW who wondered how we’d managed to get the two doors to open in perfect synchronisation, though the explanation was simple: cameraman Pieter Gatehouse and I sat in the front seats, initiated a countdown, then pressed and elbowed at the same time.

I lost count of the number of people who asked to sit in the driver’s seat and be photographed or filmed as the door opened, but you’ll need to factor that in and allow extra time if you’re thinking of buying one.

Another temptation is to drive the i8 in a tight circle on full lock with both doors up and open. Not something to try on a public road, but great fun where it’s flat, safe and private, as you’ll see in the video at http://bit.ly/1Na3irp.

The constant attention the BMW i8 attracted didn’t flag throughout a week of driving it around Plymouth and Devon and the English West Midlands, and I didn’t encounter a single car, even once, that I wished I’d been driving instead.

That’s a wonderful feeling for those of us who don’t experience it every day, though it’s less likely to happen if you already live in central London or Monaco where supercars abound.

I shouldn’t count on it, though, as your chances of meeting another BMW i8 remain reassuringly low.

Over lunch in the Bavarian Alps during my Bentley Mulsanne Speed test-drive, fellow motoring writers from household-name publications were discussing cars they’d most like to drive. I said the BMW i8 was top of my list, and my companions told me they were as rare as hen’s teeth and in such demand that BMW probably didn’t have one on the Press Fleet anyway.

It turned out that BMW did have one, but they tried to manage my expectations by saying they couldn’t let me have one for anything like “the usual time”, meaning a week.

Perhaps it was the Luxurious Magazine magic – who knows? – but they decided after all to give me the car for a whole week with the freedom to do as I pleased, which gave me the chance to really get to know it.

I’d first encountered one when I was waiting at Munich Airport after the Bentley test-drive. A crowd was gathered round an i8 on display and I had to elbow my way through to get even a glimpse. I fell in love at once. And it has to be said that for a £105,000 BMW to steal your heart when you’ve just stepped out of a £304,740 Bentley, it really has to be something. Which it is.

That was all the more remarkable in my case because I’d never really been a BMW fan. I loved the look of the original, beautiful, feminine Z1 before they butched it up and spoilt its looks, but their other offerings were technological triumphs rather than cars that captured my heart or set my pulse racing.

I’d driven a BMW M5 at 152mph on the Autobahn, decades ago, but everything was so well-engineered and every sound was so damped that it was safe but unexciting – so much so that a fellow motoring writer described a BMW of the day, somewhat damningly, as making you feel as if you were in an old people’s home.

But the BMW i8 has changed everything, forever.

I don’t know whether it’s been cited in any murder cases yet or if the investigations are still under way, but the BMW i8 is the sort of car that many men would kill for – a car that will catch every eye, make you feel like James Bond, and dispirit just about everyone who isn’t fortunate enough to be driving one.

It also has an astonishing effect on women.

Even those who don’t usually give a damn about cars are mesmerised by it and seem to lose at least some of their inhibitions whenever they’re near it.

Young women walking past it couldn’t take their eyes off it, and called out “You’ll pull anyone in that thing.” And friends of my wife asked me, right in front of her, if I happened to be single – an unexpected reaction that if, God forbid, it became a pandemic, could result in the BMW i8 becoming the first motor vehicle in history to be officially classified as a controlled substance.

The BMW i8’s potential to attract women shouldn’t be underestimated as a selling-point. It won’t make the driver more attractive (I speak as someone who took 54 years to get this handsome!) but it will give him the chance to talk to women who might otherwise never have discovered how good the book was under the cover they would otherwise have judged him by.

And in the list of reasons to buy a BMW i8, that must be way ahead of even such considerations as how fast it goes, how good it looks, and how much your friends will envy it.

I’ve no doubt the same applies across the genders, too, as it seems equally able to attract men as women, gay or straight.

Like all sensationally sexy cars, the BMW i8 may become a victim of its own success. Having helped its owner attract a mate, it could end up becoming redundant when the patter of tiny feet turns into two children who become bigger than the teddybears the rear seats were apparently designed to accommodate.

For, as with most supercars, the BMW i8 is a 2+2 – ie, it has two proper seats in the front and two pretend ones in the back. I’ve never understood why 2+2s were ever considered a good idea, but it would be unfair to castigate BMW for offering something that so many of their rivals also do.

And my 12-year-old daughter did manage to sit in one of the rear seats for a 211-mile drive which she reported was comfortable, though she had to use a pillow to support her and did have the advantage of a petite mother sitting in front of her with the seat pulled forward.

Luggage room is also at a premium in the i8, as the glovebox-like boot can barely take a suitcase, but I’m not sure if any of the BMW i8’s typical buyers will give a damn about that anyway.

The cockpit is spacious and designed around the driver – a BMW tradition – with all the controls just where you’d want them. The only anomaly is the screen that stands alone on the dashboard as if someone’s just rushed into Halfords and plonked it there as an afterthought. The interior of the i8 is flowing and beautifully designed, but this screen interrupts that with a jarring effect – again, a niggle that won’t deter one single person from buying a BMW i8.

BMW used to describe their cars as “the ultimate driving machine”, and the BMW i8 isn’t far off. Unusually for BMW, it’s a hybrid, with an electric engine in the front and a three-cylinder 1.5-litre petrol engine amidships.

The aim was to demonstrate that a supercar can also be green – and BMW have succeeded, bigtime, by creating a car with million-dollar looks that can do up to 134 miles to the gallon.

That is an amazing achievement and will come as an unexpected bonus for those who would have bought the i8 anyway even if it did only three miles to the gallon. But more of that later.

The electric motor means the BMW i8 is virtually silent when you pull away, only to be replaced by a pleasant burble when the petrol engine kicks in.

And when you put your foot down for a spot of hard acceleration, you can’t help looking round to see if there’s a motorbike following you. Because that’s exactly what it sounds like.

I remember a similar effect when I owned a BMW Isetta bubblecar, 30 years ago. That had a BMW motorcycle engine in the rear and made a rather more raucous noise all the time, but the similarities are unmistakable.

The BMW Isetta also had a door that drew crowds, as you’ll see in the video review at http://bit.ly/1Na3irp. It was actually a front door that opened outwards and slightly upwards, with the steering wheel pivoting out so that you could drive it standing up like a Roman chariot.

Remembering that the owner of Stax Reclamation in Saltash, Cornwall, used to have an Isetta locked up in a container in his yard, I popped along to reacquaint myself and found that there was, indeed, a similarity between the BMW i8 and the Isetta.

He very kindly let us film a sequence there using his beautifully preserved Isetta, and I was wrong-footed when one of his customers asked if he could take a picture of the car.

I naturally assumed he meant the £105,000 i8 – but no, he was talking about the BMW Isetta from 60 years ago.

It was a wrench leaving the Isetta at Stax, a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of the reclamation world, but back on the road the i8 proved itself worthy of its BMW badge in every respect.

This was no half-hearted attempt at greenness at the expense of performance, but a true supercar that wouldn’t disappoint even the most demanding of owners.

It does 0 to 62mph in 4.4 seconds and goes on (so I’m told, Officer) to 155 mph – all very BMW – but is perfectly happy in nose-to-tail traffic where other supercars would lose their temper.

One of my favourite features, doors apart, was the heads-up display. For those of us who haven’t yet flown a fighter jet, a heads-up display projects information on to the windscreen so that it hovers like a theatrical ghost over the road in front of you.

It showed a speed limit sign alongside the speed I was doing – an interesting comparison – and meant I could keep my eyes on the road instead of glancing down at the speedo all the way through roadworks chicanes or average-speed checks.

It really is a Godsend – a valuable road safety feature – as well as being one of the coolest toys you can have on a car these days. Loved it!

As with any supercar of this magnificence, there are issues that can be a little daunting at first. The doors are a joy to behold, but you have to be very careful where you open them.

In the sort of supermarket car parks we have in England, the spaces are so narrow that you wouldn’t be able to get in or out of the BMW i8 if another vehicle parked normally beside you. And if you park on a narrow street, as I sometimes do, or need to open the doors in a domestic garage, you really need to check first that the doors won’t hit anything to the side or above.

That’s an issue that disappears, no doubt, as you get used to the car – as, I imagine, does the difficulty of navigating the car around very sharp corners or avoiding high kerbs on adverse cambers.

Laugh at me if you wish, but I pressed my daughter into service to help me get round the very narrow back lane leading to my garage every night, walking ahead of me like someone from a century ago preceding a motor vehicle under the Red Flag Act. And despite the plethora of cameras and sensors on the car, it still required a multi-part turn and a good deal of secular prayer to get the car safely into my garage without scratching it, scuffing it, or pranging it.

Though I suspect that the type of people who read Luxurious Magazine and can easily afford a brace of BMW i8s in different colours won’t have small garages or narrow back lanes to worry about.

If I could make one plea to BMW for an improvement, I’d suggest a grounding sensor to alert the driver if the car’s about to scrape its underneath on uneven ground or a driveway entrance that’s at just too acute an angle.

As Luxurious Magazine readers deserve nothing but the best, I was incredibly fortunate on this occasion to have the services of Dominic Fraser and Pieter Gatehouse to film most of my road rest.

They are the two most respected and sought-after videographers in the automotive world, and produce the most seductive shots of the most glorious cars on the planet.

They had filmed the Bentley Mulsanne Speed in Germany for my video (see http://t.co/YtCgV2YiEW) and spent half a day at Hay Tor on Dartmoor capturing the fantastic footage you’ll see in my BMW i8 video (see http://t.co/yeKNG4YGKJ).

If more car manufacturers used their services to create the B-Roll (stock footage) that we motoring reviewers dream of having in our videos, the standard of motoring video road tests would go up a league overnight.

Likewise, my friend the cinematographer Mike Palmer, a veteran of many films who shot the car driving in a circle with its doors open, plus my opening piece to camera where we were interrupted (or so it seemed) by a film star on the phone, and a must-see sequence involving a £105,000 car and a man with a marker pen.

Thanks to Sennheiser, the most respected name in microphones among serious sound professionals, we were able to up our game with a radio-microphone that made the sound immeasurably better and do justice to a car of this calibre. I’ll be writing more about the AVX-MKE2 in another piece for Luxurious Magazine.

And if you’re wondering about that marker pen – or you work for BMW UK – look away now…

The BMW i8 is a car with very few rivals – and certainly none at its price. It’s quite probably the most beautiful production car of the 21st Century so far, with the power to capture hearts and seduce unbelievers even at zero miles an hour.

With a potential 134 miles per gallon and its blood-stirring performance, it’s far and away the most exciting and exhilarating car that BMW have ever produced.

And nothing I’m about to say will make a blind bit of difference to the people who will see it, fall in love with it, and have to have it, whatever it takes. And I can’t blame them.

But the BMW i8 could – and perhaps should – be even better.

That’s because Tesla has changed the landscape so radically, so comprehensively, that it makes even the groundbreaking BMW i8 seem positively old-fashioned in some respects.

Having driven a Tesla Model S only a few weeks before the BMW i8 arrived, I was able to compare them – and I couldn’t help concluding that the BMW i8 would be an infinitely better car if it could somehow be Teslafied.

Why? Because the Model S, while nowhere near as good-looking as the BMW i8, is almost exactly the same length yet manages to have five full-sized seats instead of the two-plus-two-teddybear-seats, has a cavernous boot, and a huge luggage space under the bonnet (or Frunk as the Teslarati call it).

Tesla achieved that by having a tiny electric engine between the rear wheels and flattening out the batteries across the entire length and width of the chassis, rather like a slab of chocolate, meaning there was no need for a centre console or a transmission tunnel, freeing up all that extra space.

BMW, in contrast, have devoted the whole of the front under-bonnet area to the electric engine, piled up the batteries in the middle so they had to be disguised by an over-large console, and mid-mounted the petrol engine so that it takes up all the luggage space that could have been given to the boot.

The Tesla, with just one tiny electric engine, can go for hundreds of miles on a single charge, never uses a drop of petrol or diesel, and has performance every bit as blistering as the BMW’s.

Whereas the BMW, if you relied on its electric engine alone, would go up to 22 miles. It’s not designed to, of course, as it’s a hybrid rather than a pure electric car, but once you’ve tasted the future in a Tesla it’s hard to look back.

I’m a writer, not a car designer, but even I can see that BMW has missed a trick. I’d like to think it will take up Elon Musk on his offer to use Tesla’s technology as, egos apart, it would enable BMW to make an i8 with exactly the same beautiful bodyshell but with five generous seats, a massive boot, and a frunk large enough even to hold a motoring presenter like me, as you might have seen in the Tesla video (http://t.co/BRjNcuv8fO).

It’s because BMW wasted that space so unnecessarily that I demonstrated it by drawing on the car to show where the wastage was, though I took the precaution of consulting automotive paint specialist Colin Lloyd of Lloyds Refinishers in Plymouth before putting pen to, er, £105,000 car.

Some readers will berate me for knocking the BMW i8, but I’m not. It’s an incredible, dramatic and desirable car that is so sought-after that second-hand models are fetching more than the list price, apparently – always the sign of a runaway winner – but a Teslafied version is crying out to be made.

If BMW create one of those, there will be riots at the showrooms and people will be putting their children’s names down for one at birth, just as they do for a place at Eton. And I’ll be among them.

About Jon McKnight

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