BMW i8: Driving the supercar of the future

Standing in a small car park on the far Western Coast of the Scottish highlands ought to be the last place you'd expect to draw a crowd. But so futuristic is the look of the new BMW i8, especially in Prototonic blue, that right now it's cameraphone central up here. You probably wouldn’t attract this much attention if you'd just landed from Mars. And in this setting, the i8 looks like it easily could have descended from a far away planet.

We've driven - and been impressed by - BMW's first electric "i" car - the BMW i3. And if you're unfamiliar with the fanfare that has greeted the arrival of the Tesla Model S, may we direct you to our first drive? But the i8 sets itself apart in one key way - it looks completely mad.

First impressions are good. It looks like little else - the core "layering" design theme and its peeled-away surfaces, which speak of the aerodynamic efficiency - are obvious for all to see. Although it does, according to some people, look like it's just swallowed a Porsche 911 when seen from the rear.

We'd pick colours carefully too. Our car's bright blue helps it stand out, but you lose the graphical colour break created by the signature i blue colour on the kidney grille and other details.

Selfie mafia

Those who prefer to be a bit more discrete might be better plumping for a black or silver car. Then again, shrinking violets really need not apply. Whatever colour you choose you're going to be the subject of the cameraphone and selfie mafia wherever you go in this car.

To get in, you clasp the hidden door handle and lift a lightweight, McLaren-like "dihedral" door up and out of the way. You might want to practice getting in and out of your i8 a few times though before parking in a busy public place though. People are going to watch you, and this is not an easy car to get in and out of without practice.

The carbon tub it is built around means the sill is high, the roof is supercar low, so you've a small gap to post yourself through. We found it easiest to sidle up side on, scissor our left leg into the footwell and then briefly straddle the sill, before sliding down into the seat. But we had jeans on. If you're wearing a skirt, things could get a little un-lady-like.

Carbon weavers

As you drop down into the car, you'll possibly notice the weave of the carbon fibre that's visible on the sill, door surround and upper door opening. The i8 follows its i3 sibling in featuring BMW's "lifecycle" cell - a lightweight aluminium platform which contains the key components (rear-mounted petrol engine, central spine batteries and front electric-motor), on top of which is fixed a carbon-fibre structure; allowing the i8 to be as light as possible and lowering its centre of gravity.

It's also a great expression of the car's underlying tech, to show off to your mates.

Interior contortions

After the surface contortions of the exterior, the interior is a little more normal. Perhaps a little too normal, with the usual leather and plastics, and the buttons and switches are familiar from the i3 and other BMWs. It's not Tesla Model S-like screens only in here, but it is impeccably laid out, ergonomically. Initially we were disappointed to be twiddling some of the same knobs we find in a 3-Series, but there's so much else going on and the driving experience is so different, that a little bit of familiarity is quite comforting.

Once you're in, space is impressive given how this car looks. You're sat low, the seats are super-thin and adjust simply back and forwards and up-down - adding loads of different other adjustments would have added too much weight.

There's loads of headroom in the front too. And the two back seats - while not the sort of thing six-footers will want to spend time in - could easily accommodate a couple of kids below the age of 10 or make a fine secondary luggage space. Which is handy seeing as the actual boot can barely swallow a cabin bag and sits next to the rear-mounted engine. Don't go transporting chocolate in your carry-on.

Electric performance, from the M people

Ultimately, the i8 is a new kind of supercar - in another world, it might have happily worn an "M" badge. It boasts 362 horsepower in total; 131 comes from the front electric motor, which allows a 23-mile electric-only range. While 231hp comes from the rear-mounted, 3-cylinder 1.5-litre petrol engine. Yes, they've got 231hp from just 1.5 litres. No wonder it's built on a dedicated production line. What that all means is that the i8 can officially do 134mpg and emits just 49g/km of CO2. You can drive it into London for free and you don't have to pay road tax. But you can get to 60mph in just over 4 seconds. Not all at the same time, obviously.

It's hard to describe what it feels like to drive, but the highlights were the 3-cylinder turbo petrol sounding just fantastic, the six-speed auto gearbox's rapid response to the paddle shifts, and the thing's general keen-ness to rev its head off. We spent most of the time in sports mode - flick the gearlever left and it runs the engine almost constantly - blending in battery all the time when you need it and creating a car that's as intoxicating to drive as any Porsche.

E-boosting like the Jetsons

Like the new McLaren P1, the "e-Boost" function of the battery "fills a torque hole at the bottom end of the power brand" (we don't understand what that means either), pushed to explain a little more, BMW says it means it often surprises you with just how quickly it piles on speed. And the combo of whine from the electric motor, whoomph from the exhaust and throttle blip as you brake and change down is just magic - like being in some crazy Jetsons-meet-DTM touring car mash-up.

What takes getting used to though is the eerily light steering at low speeds and the brakes - like many hybrids - which are sometimes tricky to activate smoothly, as there's both regeneration and mechanical braking available. You don't get the same kind of instant pull down, never-need-to-touch-the-pedal regen effect as in the i3 the minute you lift off the accelerator though - so it feels more natural to drive than many hybrids and EVs.

Living in a gadget paradise

Tech? As you might expect, there's lots of it. Out of the cockpit the i8 chats to your phone - via dedicated iOS and Android apps - allowing you to check on range, charge status, service and pre-set charging times, or switch air-con on early from wherever you are. You can also join BMW's 360-degree electric scheme that among other things means you can access almost any public charge point with one swipe card.

In the cabin, there's BMW's iDrive controller complete with the digital touchpad, which we love. Sure, it's not a 17-inch touchscreen, but it works pretty nicely.

The i8 costs nearly £100,000 so - as you'd hope - you get standard features you'll pay extra for in other BMWs such as enhanced Bluetooth, Professional Media Navigation, variable damper control, and heated seats. But what you'll really want are the laser headlamps, which will be available from October. If it were us, we'd wait and order them - and then channel our inner Dr Evil out on the road.

Not like other BMWs

The frickin' laser beam headlights are something you'll not find in other BMWs, nor is the new digital dashboard display, which works in tandem with a standard heads-up display. The display changes colour when you flick the car into sport mode, shows you the status of battery re-charge, how much available power you're using and where the threshold is for the engine to kick in when you're driving in comfort mode - which sees the car deciding whether it needs electric motor, petrol engine, or both.

If you've the nav set, it'll even read the road and traffic conditions ahead and do things like conserve battery charge for you if it knows you're going to hit a jam. It is just a shame the display screen doesn't run to the edge of the binnacle, and there's very little you can do to customise or reformat it. After seeing the Audi TT's new display, that seems like a missed opportunity.

Future of performance cars

Ultimately though, what BMW has created here is not just a halo-model for the brand, but a car that allows you guilt- and (local) emission-free running in town, with supercar levels of performance out of it. Yes it costs just short of £100,000, but compared to the McLarens, Ferraris and Lamborghinis it seems like amazing value given the design, technology and performance on offer.

The i8's biggest achievement? It does all this and feels properly futuristic but is great fun too. In many ways, it redefines the performance supercar format. Together with the Tesla Model S, you're looking at the vanguard - and the future - of cars.