In the last three years I successfully missed every opportunity to experience BMW’s i8. Just before the hybrid super sports car is due for a facelift I borrowed one for a couple of days and headed deep into the Alps.
As soon as he appears in my rear view mirror, I know, that I have no chance whatsoever against this Italian M5 driver. Immediately he sticks to my rear bumper like those smashed flies to my windshield. Obviously a local he has internalised each and every bump, hair-pin turn, ground hog hole and bend angle of the 2121 meter high mountain pass in front of us. It’s called the Grödner Joch. Situated in the ruggedly beautiful rocky limestone universe of the Dolomites. I indicate right in the next switchback and he roars past. Let the fun begin. Now I just attach myself to his behind and watch his brake lights. What an exhilarating ride. The i8 is now in sport mode, switching the display lights from a cool blue to an aggressive red. On my last downhill drive some other pass, the lithium battery pack has recharged to max, resulting in 266kW of system power and a combined torque of 470Nm.
So presently it’s proper job sharing between the two engines, the electric one above the front axle and the 1.5-l. 3cyl. turbo moving the rear wheels. Though the petrol engine is still the main player. Who would have ever thought that a BMW super sports car will ever be equipped with a three-cylinder engine? But in the hybrid it makes sense and it accelerates the – even after three years – breathtakingly dramatic looking ride in 4.4 seconds from 0 to 100 km/h.
Having missed each and every opportunity to drive the Bavarian eco sports car in South Africa, I borrowed this one in Munich a couple of days ago. Getting in gracefully needs some practise, due to the wide door sills of the carbon-fibre cell. Some yoga experience definitely helps. I just hope nobody is looking at the monitors of the security cameras, while I am trying my coolest entry and exit moves. Nothing worse than opening those spectacular wing doors in front of an Italian café and kissing the pavement, while struggling out of it.
In 2009 the i8 was still a concept car, named ‘vison efficient dynamics’. Nobody really anticipated it road legal and on tarmac 38 months later. Especially still looking the part.
And what about luggage space in a car like this? Not much, but still more than in Audi’s R8. Actually there are two seats in the rear, but they only work for smurfs. Or a cabin sized suitcase and soft bag on each one. The rear compartment could accommodate another small case, plus the charging cable.
l finally slide into the comfortable and body-hugging seats and leave the parking garage, emitting a tender whistle. The change between electric and petrol power is unnoticeable. In sport mode BMW is channelling an interesting but not really exciting sound into the cockpit. There is room for improvement there. It doesn’t have to be the sleeveless brutality of the AMG V8 sound, but something more pleasing to the ear.
The cockpit has a cool digital Captain future feel to it. But when I look in the side mirrors, I hit the brakes. The ragged rear flanks fooled me initially. It looks as if the boot lid is wide open. And the massive A-pillars obstruct the views to the side and front. But in the i8 you should always look ahead.
In the meantime our little BMW race up the pass ends on top. And the Italian gives me the thumb up. Grazie mille for the lead. An espresso in the crisp mountain air is perfecting the moment.
By the way, this was already my second adrenaline rush in the i8. The day before, after spending the night in a strictly non-digital rustic mountain hut, I climb up Staller Sattel, despite a big sign saying ‘mountain pass closed’. I remember the nek from a previous trip. On the top you cross from Austria into Italy. And going down it is so narrow, that there is a robot there and one-way traffic up and down, changing direction every 45 minutes. Now everything is deserted. The robot off. On the way up, I managed to navigate around some remaining snowy patches. But should I go down into Italy? What if some crazy Rossis are blasting up the closed pass from the other side? I am thinking about the three to four hour detour in order to get into Italy on an alternate route and decide to take my chance. Some of the switchbacks haven’t been reached by the sun yet and I carefully coast across the snow. And then I see them. The first potential problems further down. Sunday hikers. I switch to electric drive and surprise them with blissful silence, while gliding past. Greeting them with my friendliest smile. The adventure ends at the bottom with a locked Italian barrier. Compared to their German equivalents they always have a way around. Luckily this time just as wide as an i8.
How can I top this invigorating mountain experience? Well, latest in spring 2018 BMW is introducing the second generation of this high-end super hybrid. Expect not only an upgraded petrol-electric power train and an even more powerful, faster car with a revised battery pack and a longer range, but a topless version as well, the i8 Spyder. Ok, Italian BMW drivers, listen. I’ll be back. Topless next time.
Engine 1.5-l. 3cyl. turbo, combined with an electric one
Power 266kW (petrol: 170kW; electric: 96kW) and 470Nm (petrol: 320Nm; electric: 250Nm)
Top Speed 250 km/h (limited), in electric drive 120km/h
0-100km/h 4.4 seconds
Electric range: 37 km
Average consumption (on the 1200km Alpine mountain trip): 7.7 liters
Price R2 015 300