Up in the Santa Monica Mountains on Mulholland Highway, I sped the shimmering black-and-silver i8 through yet another sharp, blind turn, and lightly smacked its curvaceous flank on a shrub overhanging the exit. Then it was back on the throttle—and just as swiftly, I eased off and braked instead. Ahead, at the right, the twisting, narrow road briefly widened to accommodate not just a shoulder but a proper parking area: the Lookout, at last.
I pulled over and parked. I needed a rest, to take in the view and to process recent developments.
This was my first go at the road many consider America’s most exciting public racecourse. It was also my first drive in BMW’s upcoming plug-in hybrid sports car (MSRP $145,000). And between the two I had learned a couple of surprising things. For one, it turns out that if you power up Mulholland Highway from Malibu fast enough, your ears will pop. For another, the concentration required to speed around the quixotic twists and turns and dips in the tight cliffside road will cause the average driver—like me—to break a sweat.
Not so the i8.
And here’s the interesting part: the car does precisely nothing in the manner you might expect. Whether you normally steer a Porsche or a Prius, a Lada or a Tesla, to drive the i8 is to quaff deliriously from a cup filled to the brim with a surprisingly delicious elixir called the future. It is a marvel, and here is why.
It accelerates like a 911 (zero to 100 kilometres per hour in 4.4 seconds, top speed a limited 250 km/h) but sips fuel at an average of just 4.8 litres per 100 km (about the same as a Prius). Its carbon emissions are just 49 grams per kilometre (a VW Golf TDI emits 119 g). And while you would expect the electric motor and batteries to make it heavy and laboured in the corners, it is instead exceptionally nimble. It even sounds great, with a schizophrenic exhaust note that alternates between the whine of a private jet and the roar of a V-8.
That should leave you wondering how it achieves all this. It is partly due to the i8’s ingenious drivetrain, which features a 131-horsepower electric motor pushing the front wheels and a toaster oven–size, 231-hp internal combustion engine motivating the rear. The second part is its low weight of 1,567 kilograms (600 kg less than a Tesla), achieved in part by building the platform and passenger cell entirely from low-density, high-strength carbon fibre.
And there is something else: it is the sexiest, most original looking car BMW has produced since the Turbo, a one-off gull-wing show car released for the 1972 Munich Olympics. In Malibu, I happened to park my i8 outside a restaurant alongside someone’s spanking new 2014 Corvette. Side by side, the much-touted latest American dream machine just seemed pathetic. There’s not a single fresh idea in its Rolodex—visual or technological—while the BMW bristles with them, nose to tail. OK, I admit it: I want one.