BMW i8 vs Jag F-Type vs Porsche 911
Thin slivers of neon glow in the BMW cabin, cool blue lines that highlight the elegant forms and crisp edges of the cabin. They also serve to bathe the cockpit in a Tron-like glow. Very futuristic. But blue is the colour of green cars now, and the BMW i8 is no ordinary, run-of-the-mill sports car.
This article originally appeared in issue 262 of Top Gear magazine
Pictures: John WycherleyAdvertisement - Page continues below
So here I am, feeling like Bruce Boxleitner, but instead of zapping around a digitised grid, I'm in Newcastle upon Tyne. I know what you're thinking: this northern industrial city is hardly the right setting for BMW's carbon-chassis, electrically driven, hybrid-powered slice of the future. Think again: Newcastle was voted the UK's greenest city in 2009 and 2010, and claims to have more EV charging points per head of population than anywhere else in the UK. On the council's website, I counted 32 within a few hundred metres of this spot.
That seems unlikely since I'm currently driving across a slab of industrial Newcastle - the gloriously overengineered, bucket-riveted Swing Bridge, 1876 vintage. To my left as I drive over the Tyne is the Sydney Harbour-like arc of the Tyne Bridge; to my right the raised boxiness of the High Level Rail Bridge. Behind me is the city's oldest building, and ahead the world's oldest sports car.Advertisement - Page continues below
OK, that's being unkind to the Porsche 911, but it does approach things from a different philosophical basis to the BMW. Here, it's the gentle coaxing forces of evolution that have nurtured its progression, sealing its credentials as the world's foremost sports car. You'll have probably known the salient points your entire life: flat-six engine mounted aft of the rear wheels, boot in the nose, four seats in between.
Jaguar took inspiration from the past with the F-Type, but skimmed across the evolutionary steps and ended up with an achingly pretty coupe tested here in full-on R guise with a supercharged 5.0-litre V8. It does rather outgun the BMW, which can only boast a 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo and a single electric motor. But right now that's not the point.
Yes, the few heads that are out and about do turn as the Jag's African Plains roar echoes through these quiet streets, but in all honesty the Jag is as out of place here as on the Plains.
I fully appreciate that being seen and heard is, for some people, the essence of what city-centre driving is all about, but even with that taken into account the BMW makes its rivals feel like one-trick ponies. No matter how precise their throttle control, how good the steering locks or the visibility - and neither of them are bad in any regard and the Porsche is genuinely exceptional in all of them - their inability to fall silent and impersonate a nuclear sub is their undoing.
Inside the i8, I press the e-dive button. Sorry, e-drive. More blue glow, as the dash screen rearranges itself. The hum and buttock-tingle that was the three-cylinder is gone, and now there's just a whisk and whirr of electricity. I am on board the Red October.
No other electric car - not even the i3, Porsche 918 Spyder or Tesla Model S - feels as good as this around town. It's stealthy, pure and accurate, and the ride is decent. I can't even imagine how a drivetrain could be more silken.
The only thing - literally the only thing - I can pick fault with is the traction control, which cuts the power if you attempt a speedy getaway on a rough surface. Sounds odd, but in town I needed the stability system's Sports setting more than anywhere else.Advertisement - Page continues below
It's a joyous car to operate, and joyously simple, too. The trickiest thing about it is getting in and out. The cab forward, four-seat, mid-mounted engine packaging is reminiscent of a Lotus Evora, especially with its high box sill. Pull the bright blue seatbelt over, wonder if the anodised blue strip around the wheel rim is a touch too far, press Start, pull gearlever back and you're away.
The handbrake unshackles itself, and the car defaults into Combined mode (the engine cutting in where necessary). To fully sportify the i8 (and have the IC motor running permanently), just tip the gearlever to the left - no fiddling with individual damper, exhaust, steering and throttle settings here. But that's for tomorrow.
Tonight's about the ease of whizz. Both Porsche and Jag have self-shifting gearboxes: the F's an 8spd auto, the 911's a 7spd double-clutch, and neither is prickly in town. OK, you have to be careful with the Jag's sensitive loud pedal, its long bonnet and surprisingly low nose, but it's nimble enough and easy to place.Advertisement - Page continues below
The Porsche is a paragon of usability. You sit low but upright, can turn on a sixpence and enjoy a panoramic glass area and compact size - it's the narrowest by over 100mm.
The BMW shades the most ground but doesn't feel any more cumbersome than the Jag and, like the Porsche, is a masterpiece of packaging that neither looks nor feels like a four-seater. However, as with the 911, the rear seats are better viewed as a particularly well-appointed load bay with built-in securing straps.
Far more interesting is the layout of the oily bits. The BMW 3cyl is mid-mounted behind the rear seats and drives the rear wheels. Because it's small and heavily turbocharged, the oversized starter motor is pressed into action to boost power when the turbo is spooling up or during gearchanges.
Up front is the electric motor, feeding roughly 130bhp to the front wheels, the batteries that fuel it stored in the central spine, within the cocoon of the LifeDrive carbon cell. It's fascinating stuff and you want to see it, but the most you get are tantilising titbits of exposed carbon around the door frames and the masslessness of the door itself. The i8's petrol engine is tucked beneath a locked lid, and only your dealer is able to open the front bonnet.
What you are privy to are total outputs of 357bhp and 420lb ft - strong, but hardly outstanding alongside a Jaguar with 542bhp and 501lb ft. The fact the 1,490kg BMW weighs 160kg less than the porky Jag isn't enough to offset the power deficit - on paper, at least. But it's day two now, and out here in the real world, or at least in this glorious corner of the North York Moors, something surprising is happening.
The BMW is fast. Head-snap fast. It's all to do with response and initial acceleration. We're used to internal combustion engines that take a while to wake up, to find their peak revs, to get into the zone. Even if they have superchargers.
Electricity doesn't work like that - it's there, at its maximum, all the time. So when you seek to ‘make progress' in the BMW, even if you're in a daft gear, say fifth, coming off a roundabout because you got caught out by the dawdler in the Micra and forgot to pull paddles, you still zap off in a manner that catches both the Jag - and especially the Porsche - unawares. Keep it in the right gear, and you'll spook them time and again.
The bigger question here is whether you have fun doing this, whether the instant e-hit is a bigger thrill than a flat-six soaring its way to more distant power peaks. Tricky one. Electricity is still a new thrill to us - and BMW has done much to make it compelling. With the gearlever nudged across to Sport, the BMW feels noticeably sharper (in chassis as well as engine), and makes a commendable aural impersonation of a naturally aspirated car. But that's the thing: it is an impersonation.
The tunes are artificially enhanced and pumped into the cabin; the engine doesn't have a climax worth waiting for, just a lead-weights-in-a-sock mid-range. It's a neat trick, but no matter how many times I experienced it, it never became as rich, tangible and spine-tingling as the Porsche's flat-six. Here is an engine that you have to work with, it requires you to think more, to get involved and play your part.
The Jag. Ah, the Jag. Cripes, it's quick, but it's only faster than the others at speeds I never ventured near. Ahem. Try as it might, the F-Type R can't place all 501lb ft smoothly onto the tarmac at lower speeds. It squirms, the orange light flashes and your gut instinct is to lift your right foot. End result: the Jag is no quicker.
But it's still vastly entertaining, if somewhat akin to an old TVR in its focus on vicious straight-line speed, noise and drama. Old-school, but there's a slight lack of professionalism at its core - cross-country on rough, testing roads, its high centre of gravity and lack of rear-end grip mean it's not a car you should choose if you have a weak heart.
The Porsche is the stand-out car in Yorkshire. Quite how it manages to pack so much damping into so little travel, and so much balance into a frame that ostensibly has no weight over the front end, is automotive alchemy. What sets it apart is its speed of recovery. The Porsche solves problems faster than you do, takes the punishment, deals with it and is instantly ready for the next bit of pulverising road.
It's so sweet to drive, so precise and involving; it's amazing how much you can lean on the front end, how much communication you get through the chassis and fabulous brakes. We criticised the electric power steering when the 991 first came out a couple of years back. Not now.
Mostly this is the BMW's fault. The i8 does not have good natural steering feel, despite the fact it wears the narrowest tyres. Even in Sport mode, it's too light, and if you do push on hard, there's not enough warning of the forces building up - instead you're suddenly aware the front tyres have reached their limit and started to understeer. This is where the Porsche gives options, but the BMW is more one-dimensional - it doesn't have the dynamic repertoire beyond a little throttle adjustability.
But that's not to say it's a shambles. In fact, I think it's rather brilliant - just very different. The chassis is super-rigid and has a wonderfully low centre of gravity, allowing the suspension to be soft. So it rides well, flows pleasingly, propels you out of corners quickly and effortlessly, and through long ones holds a delightful line, seeming to get onto the edge of its tyres and stay there. But it's not hardcore.
Two things before we look at the bigger picture: economy and long-range ability. Up on the moors, the BMW returned a verified 29.5mpg. I don't know of a hot hatch that would have done better. The 911 returned 18.2mpg, the F-Type 16.6.
What you'll get depends on how much electricity you use: starting with both fuel sources topped up and driving until empty, we got 37-42mpg and at least 300 miles per tank. The BMW was also far and away the nicest car to do distance in. It's uncannily quiet, supremely smooth and effortless.
For those reasons and others, many people have declared the i8 to not be as good a sports car as the Porsche 911. And they're right. It's not as good at the traditional sports-car stuff as the 911.
Because it's not a traditional sports car. Instead, it's a car that open-minded people will come to from across the car-owning spectrum, and the genius of it is that the biggest compromise they'll have to make is that it's a bit awkward to get in and out of.
Would I have it over the 911? Whew, tough one, but yes, I think I would - it feels as though BMW has redirected the whole sports-car class. The ball is back in Porsche's court.