Automotively speaking, on a graph where practicality and rarity are compared the two are universally disproportionately related. Rational automobiles are not rare, and the inverse is equally true. For every hyper-car itching to sprint to 160 mph, there’s a train of 3 bazillion Toyota Camrys in its way on the road. This isn’t news.
I’m speaking in absolutes because up until now we’ve had no reason to believe otherwise. When BMW announced it would make a line of future-forward cars — their “i-series” — that would be electric (mostly) and change the way we looked at transportation, I imagined millions of the things running everywhere. The BMW i8 would be fantastically addicting in the way it’s a mid-engined sports car that can manage better than 60 mpg and looks like it’s from 20 years from the future. Everyone would want one. Factories would be pressed into service. Shifts would be added. Batteries would be taken from remote controls to stuff under the i8’s hood.
After all, a car that’s powered in the front by electrons and in the rear by a turbocharged 3-cylinder engine is so revolutionary it makes actual sense. Why wouldn’t a car be powered by two different types of motors depending on need? A small-displacement, blown, engine is the way automakers are going these days with increasingly tougher mileage requirements. Placing it directly over the wheels that could use it most makes more sense than stuffing it under the hood over wheels that don’t. Technically, the i8 qualifies as a plug-in hybrid, a car that can run up to 20 miles on batteries alone before asking the gas engine to chip in on locomotion. We never had to charge our version (allegedly directly from Germany, so it couldn’t make sense of our power outlets even if we wanted it to) but it wasn’t strictly necessary: unlike every other plug-in hybrid, the i8 can actually charge itself. Through a combination of driving assessments and relative location, BMW says the i8 can actually understand when the best time to charge itself would be and get to it. Brutally practical.
So, for that reason, when I stood in front of the i8, I imagined a million of the low-slung sports cars zipping around city streets and into parking lots around me in the next five years. Dodging their silent operations while I crossed the road and hugging corners around grocery store parking lots, a plug-in hybrid with good mileage, devastating looks and truly revolutionary engineering sells itself. Even with it’s massively expensive price tag ($130,000 right now), it isn’t much more than a lot of Porsches — and much less than some — and those things are everywhere.
And then I opened the door.
That’s not supposed to signal a turn in the story, or portend the rest of the car’s behavior, rather it’s a statement of fact: I opened the door. The gullwing spectacle is something that must be taken alone, and speaks volumes about the car. Unlike most cars with gullwing doors (Mercedes SLS AMG, DeLorean DMC-12) the i8 doesn’t have handles in the center, nor does it immediately give away its wings to onlookers. When closed, the i8’s doors look completely normal and when you do crack the handle you’re treated to the first of many party tricks the i8 has. The doors rise like massive shoulder blades arching over the back of the car and weigh nearly next to nothing — your first indication that the doors, like much of the car was built from mostly carbon fiber.
Whereas the relative lightness of the doors speak to the weight of the car, the entry point speaks to the car’s attitude. For anyone who’s ever tried to get into a Lamborghini or SLS AMG — and now the i8 — you already know. For the rest of you, let me spoil the ending: it looks like the opposite of cool. While you might be able to throw one leg all the way in and nearly hop the rest of your body to slide into the perfectly cool and perfectly comfortable front two seats, you won’t be able to get out the same way. The sill between the door opening and seat is considerably longer than any other car, and more often than not, you stumble out of the i8 — not necessarily slide. It speaks volumes to the rest of the i8, you adapt to it, because it will not adapt to you.
Behind the wheel, the i8 doesn’t behave like many other cars either. One can select from very different and distinct driving modes, Eco Pro and Sport. Eco Pro mode makes best use of the energy that doesn’t come from dead dinosaurs, and settles the i8 into a lull that could be confused as boring if it weren’t for the wild styling and incredibly low stature. (You’ll struggle to make eye contact with drivers next to you at stoplights.) Hit the “Sport” mode and the i8 rushes from 0-60 mph in under four seconds and feels like it. Although the i8 was never designed to be super fast — only look super fast — the pace is plenty brisk enough. The 1.5-liter engine behind the rear seats makes a suitable fuss, but doesn’t have the drama of other V8s. Only a satisfying hiss and crack from the center-exhaust every now and again keeps your attention from wandering too far.
All of the fun with less guilt makes a car like the BMW i8 seem like an albatross in an industry that can either be practical or rare only in alternating turns. For an industry coming to grips with a fuel-starved future, it’s a remarkable achievement to see that practicality doesn’t necessarily mean boring. I can’t wait for us to see massive convoys of BMW i8’s traveling everywhere in the future.
And then you hear that BMW is making only 500 per year.