BMW i8. Preproduction Model Driven. Autodrome de Miramas, France.

Preproduction BMW i8 driven on road and track at the Autodrome de Miramas, France.

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I must confess that I wasn’t so enthralled with the BMW i8 Concept when it was unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show back in 2009. This wasn’t the fault of the concept, its styling or even BMW‘s vision of a new era of sports car. Its futuristic design, new materials and technologies – coupled with a hybrid power train – marked it out firmly in my mind that the i8 was an automotive folly and yet another concept that would never see production. In the off-chance that it did, it would be a watered-down, compromised and shadow of its former hi-tech self.

Fast forward four years and I am at the top secret Autodrome de Miramas, BMW‘s test facility in France. Photography is strictly prohibited and even my iPhone (no relation to the i8) has had the stickiest of stickers known to man stuck over its iPic-ability. The reason for all this secrecy is the small group of preproduction i8s, to which a select pack of journalists are going to have access to for the the day. And they look similar to the original design. Remarkably similar.

The blue and white ‘homage to a doodler’ camouflage does a bloody good job of obscuring a lot of the unique details of the i8 in photographs. However, in person the i8 has something with which designers dream of imbuing their creations. Presence. At almost the same length and more than 100mm wider than a new 4 Series it could hardly be described as a small car but it is 70mm lower and proportionally, has the pretensions of purpose it was designed for. In my head though, I still have that little voice of doubt telling me ‘yeah, but it’s a tree-hugging hybrid’.

The sculpted rear end – designed to combat lift – is something quite unique in contemporary automotive design. There is no active aero here. Everything has been thought out from top to bottom and from front to back of the i8. Airflow through the car is channelled into areas that need cooling, over areas that need downforce and away from areas of turbulence that causes lift. Even the flat underfloor features escape routes for air that cleverly direct cooling to the brakes, manifold and turbo, while foot plates – underbody aero plates with a bevelled edge that are normally only associated with motorsport – are a clear indication that the i8 was birthed in a wind tunnel.

The i8’s drag coefficient of just 0.26 Cd means better fuel consumption, which is a feather in the cap for green credentials. It also serves the dual purpose of making the i8 slip through the air faster and, let’s not forget, BMW are marketing the i8 as a sports car so it also has to shift and mix it with the competition if it is to maintain any credibility. With the heart of any sports car being the engine, the i8 has an ace up its sleeve. It has two beating hearts. Well, kinda three.

Up front, a 130bhp electric motor with two-speed gearbox powers the front wheels while a transversely mounted, mid-ship three-cylinder, 1499cc turbocharged petrol engine pushes out 230bhp – via a six-speed automatic gearbox – to the rear wheels. The petrol engine is also connected via a belt to another electric motor, which generates 10kW of added electro boost supplying a dollop of torque while the turbo is busy spooling, theoretically eliminating turbo-lag. With electric motors providing instant torque it becomes obvious why BMW have ditched the diesel engine from the original concept. The combined fun factor of all units equals 360bhp with 420lb ft torque ,which isn’t too shabby for any car, never mind a hybrid.

Climbing on board, under the up-slung scissor door and over the tall and wide carbon sill, adds a sense of occasion to accessing the cockpit. The 2+2 configuration is a bit of a joke and I am not going to even attempt to fit in the back, however, driving position is damn near perfect with plenty of leg room and steering wheel comfortably within reach. The battery pack is slung low down in a central rib that runs between driver and passenger. This not only helps lower the i8’s centre of gravity while strengthening cabin integrity but also adds a little familiarity to the environment as it is reminiscent of a transmission tunnel. Time to press the start button and hear that inline three-cylinder engine roar. Which, it naturally doesn’t.

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