BMW i8 Milan 1

Ah, the allure of shape – how easy it is to be seduced by a fetching form and leave the considerations at that. With a pretty face, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the shortcomings down the line or even acknowledge they even exist. We do it with people, and we certainly do it with cars. For the latter, the rulebook of rational behaviour gets thrown out the window for that captivating thing called the sports car.

The latest one to arrive in town did so a couple of days ago – the BMW i8 plug-in hybrid made its local debut at the media preview of the BMW World Malaysia 2015 exhibition, and its introduction has long been speculated despite the underlying thought saying otherwise; up to late last year, BMW Malaysia continued to state that there was no intention of bringing the car in.

But, just like you can’t keep a good idea away or a fetching shape at bay, here it is finally on sale in Malaysia, and RM1,188,800 (on-the-road without insurance) takes one home. To reiterate the point about the allure of shape, all the fuss was definitely on the i8 at the preview, interest and photo opp-wise. And why not, really, given the way it looks. But what’s it like to drive?

BMW i8 Milan 2

Aesthetically, the classical sports car design of the BMW i8 is completely different to anything else in the current BMW product stable – one has to go back to the Giugiaro-penned E26 M1 from more than three and a half decades ago for any suitable styling comparisons. It really has been that long.

So, it’s no surprise to find that the i8 has rolled in like a bomb, which it is if you base it all on looks alone. It’s definitely an eye-catching vehicle, perhaps less so in the metal compared to photos, where the entire presentation falls easier on the eye – up close, some lines look a bit incongruous from certain angles.

Still, there’s no doubting the presence – that flow and the contrasts on display ensure that it’ll always get plenty of eyeball attention. During the media drive in Italy, drivers of other cars would rubber-neck their way past the i8, and even when sitting idle for photography, there was no shortage of people coming up to do their own snaps with the snazzy-looking BMW. The scissor doors do their bit to lend even more arresting appeal.

BMW i8 Milan 30

At the drive, the available trio of 20-inch ED BMW i light-alloy wheel designs were on show on the demonstrators – the standard fit wheel is the Turbine Style 444 unit, which is sized 7J front and 7.5J rear, making 195/50 front and 215/40 rear the standard mixed tyre profile.

The other two wheels are considered special equipment options, and these are a Turbine Style 625 and the one that dresses up the Malaysian-spec car, the W-spoke Style 470. Both are wider units (7.5J front and 8.5J rear), and so get wrapped with 215/45 front and 245/40 rear run-flat rubbers.

Moving along into the interior, the cabin – encapsulated by a Life Module passenger cell made from carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP) – is a well-laid out affair. Despite there being the odd bit or two that look like you’ve seen them before on other current BMWs, there’s plenty of dimensionality and layering on show.

BMW i8 Milan 20

Like the wheels, the i8 gets a trio of interior equipment lines to pick from – the default trim is called the Neso, which is what the Malaysian car gets. This dresses up the cabin in a Spheric leather scheme, which features bright Carum Grey leather upholstery and trim offset with black surfaces to provide contrast. The local car gets Anthracite headliner as standard.

The other two interior line options are called the Carpo and Halo, the former available in light (Carpo Ivory White, Carpo Carum Spice Grey) or dark (Carpo Amido) versions. The Halo line is the range-topping one of the lot, and goes the luxury route in a big way from the leather choice to high-class paintwork to selected instrument panel and door trim surfaces.

On the whole, the material choices and colour combinations work well, but it’d have been nice to have seen use of exotic (or more correctly, organic) material in the vein of the BMW i3 for trim elements, Still, eco and sports car probably don’t go hand-in-hand.

Given the low centre of gravity (less than 460 mm off the ground) layout and the cabin access apertures, ingress and egress takes some getting used to, a fair bit of dexterity being needed (no car for old men or those with lack of limb and torso articulation, and ladies, watch those short skirts!). Still, once you’re ensconced in the cabin, it’s all tidy – the ergonomics of the front seating position and operational aspects of the switchgear are very good.

As you’d expect, the 2+2 seating layout is more a suggestion than anything else, the rear seats best described as that being alright for a pinch, more suitable for bag storage (there’s only 154 litres of cargo space in the boot, if you can even call it that) – the short of it is that it’s not much fun at the back, not beyond anything more than (very) short hauls. No spare tyre either, with only a mobility tyre repair kit to be found.

A word about the i8’s key, before anyone asks why there’s no touchscreen display key fob to be seen anywhere in the photos. The new key only made its debut recently at this year’s CES, and so the drive mules all made do with the regular item at that point.

The car’s hybrid system consists of a combination of a weight-optimised electric motor at the front axle and a petrol engine at the rear, all components in the mix being housed within the car’s aluminium Drive module. Plenty in the way of lightness here – the i8 tips the scales at 1,485 kg.

The transversely-mounted engine is the same turbocharged 1.5 litre three-cylinder TwinPower Turbo unit as seen on the 218i variant of the F45 2 Series Active Tourer (which also made its local debut at BMW World), its output state of tune in the i8 being 228 hp (quoted in many cases as 231, but that’s in Pferderstarke) at 5,800 rpm and 320 Nm at 3,700 rpm. Power is put out to the rear wheels via a six-speed Steptronic sport auto transmission.

The eDrive electric drive system is powered by an electro-synchronous electric motor offering peak output of 129 hp (or 96 kW) and a maximum torque of 250 Nm driving the front wheels via a two-stage automatic transmission, essentially making the i8 an AWD offering.

Total combined output is 362 hp at 5,800 rpm and 570 Nm of torque from 1,200 to 5,000 rpm, and it’s good enough to propel the i8 from standstill to 100 km/h in 4.4 seconds all the way to a 250 km/h top speed. Total operating range is around 600 km.

As for electric-only performance, the i8 can run at up to 120 km/h on electric power alone and has a claimed range of 37 km, though that’s measured in NEDC cycle terms – in real world conditions, the mean value is effectively around 25 to 35 km of effective operation. Rated fuel consumption is an impressive 47.6 km/l, while CO2 emissions is touted as 49 g/km.

The lithium-ion battery in the i8 features a 5.2 kWh useful capacity (gross, 7.0 kWh) and is liquid-cooled. Charge time to full takes under two hours via the 3.7 kWh/16 ampere line draw from the automaker’s i Wallbox Pure charging station, and around two and a half hours if done via a 230-volt/12 ampere line. Incidentally, the charge port for the battery is located on the left front side of the car, the filler for the petrol tank amidships on the right.

The car can be recharged via a conventional household power socket, but since a Wallbox is included in the car’s purchase here (sans installation charges, which should be somewhere in the region of a few hundred Ringgit, depending on the premises), there should be no need to look at such means. If there’s a need for it, additional units of the Wallbox can be purchased for about RM10k each.

There are five driving modes available, ranging from all-electric operation in eDrive and intelligent hybrid mode in Comfort to Sport, in which both drives run permanently for increased performance (and where the engine charges to battery) to the familiar Eco Pro, and these are accessed via the Driving Experience Control switch and eDrive button.

Standard equipment includes LED headlights (no Laser Light system here, unfortunately), electric power steering, Dynamic Damper Control, a cruise control system with braking function, front/rear Park Distance Control, auto wipers and headlamp operation as well as a Navigation system Professional with a high-definition 10.25-inch display monitor. The iDrive system gets its own 8.8-inch display.

The Malaysian i8 features a head-up display, a driver assistance package with a Surround View top/side view camera system as well as Collision Warning, which comes with a braking function and pedestrian recognition. The car is also equipped with a High Beam Assistant, two-zone auto air-conditioning and a 16-speaker, 600 watt Harman Kardon sound system.

Safety kit is made up of front airbags and side airbags (integrated into the seat backrests) plus head/curtain airbags for both rows of seats, and the usual raft of items under the ambit of the DSC (Dynamic Stability Control) stability system are present.

These include cornering brake control, dynamic brake control, brake assist, brake standby, start-off assistant and fading compensation. A tyre pressure monitoring system, dynamic braking lights and Isofix anchors are also standard fit safety items.

A quick aside on exterior colours, of which four are available, two of these being exclusive to the i8. The Malaysian debutant wears one of these dedicated shades, Crystal White pearl effect, and the second one is called Protonic Blue (no mickey-taking with the name now, alright?). The other shades are Ionic Silver and Sophisto Grey brilliant effect. Depending on the colours, matching accents (iBlue or Frozen Grey metallic) provide contrasting bodywork elements.

Technically loaded, pretty well equipped, good on-paper numbers and a real looker, so you’d expect the driving aspects to match up as well. It did, largely. From a speed standpoint, it delivered as stated on the tin – the i8 felt as fast off the line as its rated time suggests, the car responding to throttle input in crisp and rapid fashion. Addictive, for sure.

Even more impressive, once the surge-from-zero novelty wore off, was the car’s in-gear speed – its passing time performance moving off from the 80-120 km/h zone was absolutely winsome, and its accelerative qualities belied the lowish output numbers (in relation to it being classed a sports car; there are far more showy offerings in this segment).

BMW i8 Milan 9

It was never anywhere near brutal though, certainly not exhibiting any such tendencies throughout the drive, no matter how it was pushed – the i8 isn’t the fastest thing out there, but it’s fast, albeit in a measured, precise way. If emotive quality is defined solely by sheer pace and nothing else, then the i8 easily ticked the boxes, impeccably poised sprinting along to 200 km/h. What was lacking was a sense of visceral occasion.

It’s not that the rorty, artificially-manipulated soundtrack of the three-pot being fed into the cabin wasn’t sensory enough in appeal, which it was, and it had nothing to do with lack of pace, but it felt like the car was missing something extra as an experience – no lack of spirit, perhaps a little short on soul.

No shortage of fuel efficiency though, even if nowhere near that claimed – over the course of the 208 km route that looped out from Milan to Franciacorta, the i8 registered a 9.0 litre per 100 km reading on the vehicle’s trip computer. Rather good, considering the ham-fisted, pedal-to-the-floor driving behaviour throughout.

BMW i8 Milan 93

So, fast (and efficient) it was, just not effusive about it. That clean, methodical disposition continued on into the handling. The steering was quick, though weighed on the light side across the entire turn position spectrum and arguably less informative than it should be.

Nonetheless, it’s not something to pick on, because how it directs the car is very catchy, pardon the term. Initial response to turn-in was fast, the front reacting to directional changes sharply. As for the rest of the car, well, that depended on the occasion.

Balance-wise, the i8 threw up a bit of a conundrum as to how it should be viewed as a handler, and from the limited time spent with it the jury is still out on that count, at least where this writer is concerned – on the windier terrain towards Franciacorta at the end of the first leg of the drive, the i8 behaved magically at points, less so on others.

BMW i8 Milan 43

In turns that weren’t too challenging in their complexity and with speeds worked progressively, the i8 felt nimble and precise in how it tracked, its follow-through clean. Pushed harder, the balance became a bit more out of sorts – aside from understeer, the front and rear of the car didn’t feel like they were talking to each other; not skittish, but certainly not fully integrated, the net result being that flow suffered.

A case of push and pull not gelling in how the power is being applied? Perhaps. It’d be interesting to see how the car would stand up to a more rigid exploration on track. Meanwhile, the ride was firm, maybe a bit too much so, but forgivable given the sports car pitch.

Of course, the question of handling may not be an important one, ultimately not to those who will end up with the car – most, if not all, i8 buyers are going to be approaching this one as a sharp-looking, straight-line cruiser than an outright corner brawler, and it’s a definite knockout when viewed in such fashion.

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Rather coincidentally, much of the drive route covered the motorway as if to showcase the strengths of the car – belting along at speed in this terrain, the i8 shone, if clinically so.

There was enough in the brief time spent with the BMW i8 to suggest it isn’t quite the finished article – it’s missing a few bits here and there that would otherwise make it complete (at least from a sports car perspective), not least a higher level of emotional involvement from behind the wheel.

But it takes nothing away from the idea that is the car itself. The i8 is an outstanding effort, a gem in the rough – there’s no doubting its technical accomplishment, and that stunning turn of speed in a straight line it has is sublime. Most importantly, it looks every bit the part, and that surely will be enough for most. Nothing like the allure of shape, indeed.