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The Top Gear car review: BMW i8
For:Great to drive – fast, agile. Engaging whatever the conditions. Looks space-age. Economical and tax-saving.
Against:Pure-combustion rivals at this price are more exciting to drive flat-out. Depreciation. Visibility.
What is it?
Four years from launch and the i8 still feels like it’s come to earth via a discontinuity in spacetime. Yet now here’s what what we earthlings call a facelift. Albeit the face has hardly changed. Main news is the gorgeous Roadster version. The Coupe also gets many of the same under-skin changes, usefully improving both its handling and efficiency.
The i8 looks amazingly radical. Minimal-drag shape-work for efficiency is artfully combined with flourishes of crowd-pleasing flamboyance.
The powertrain and structure are just as unorthodox and brave as the styling. A small mid-mounted 231bhp petrol engine drives the rear wheels through a six-speed automatic gearbox, while a biggish 143bhp electric motor drives the front wheels.
That allows three distinct sorts of propulsion. In sports mode you’ve got AWD sports-car driving with performance to roughly match BMW’s own M4. Hybrid mode is peaceful and ultra-efficient. Or it can travel purely electrically up to 75mph, using the plug-in battery reserve.
The car can finesse its drive strategy to use the minimum energy – whether that energy comes from petrol or electricity.
Low drag is one part of that, and so’s minimal rolling resistance – look at those tyres. Another is light weight. The Coupe is 1,535kg. Even the Roadster is under 1,600kg, which is less than a 911 when outfitted with 4WD, autobox and electric roof. How did they do that? By using a tub of carbon-fibre with aluminium subframes and lightweight exterior panels.
But it was such a moonshot when new that its engineers sensibly exercised a certain amount of caution. With the benefit of experience, they have juiced up the battery (it holds 70 per cent more than before) and the main traction motor too. Gainers are electric range and hybrid performance and fuel-efficiency. It should now do a realistic 20-25 miles of electric range, and the official CO2 numbers are as low as 42g/km for the Coupe.
Also they’ve quelled the original’s front understeer by using new front damper calibration and a stouter rear anti-roll bar. The Roadster gets those changes and the coupe takes the sportiness up another notch.
The Roadster isn’t just a fair-weather spyder. The three-layer electric cloth roof is properly weather sealed and quiet. So it adds another facet to this amazing car. Easing silently through a town in electric mode, roof down, makes you feel enchantingly intimate with the streetscape. But roof-up in 4WD sports mode, you’ve still got the coupe’s talent as a proper all-weather ground coverer.