BMW's Answer to the Tesla: $135K i8 Plug-In Hybrid

8:00 AM PST 06/27/2014 by Michael Walker
BMW

Elon Musk's Hollywood monopoly on sexy electric cars soon will get high-voltage competition from BMW's new model, the result of billions in investments by the German carmaker in eco-friendly, alternative-fuel autos.

This story first appeared in the July 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

BMW'S alternative-fuel car strategy -- launched in March with the utilitarian i3 electric (Halle Berry drives one in CBS' upcoming Extant) -- is about to shift into top gear with the arrival of the i8 plug-in hybrid.

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The scissor-doored i8 -- at $135,700, BMW's most expensive car -- arrives not a moment too soon. Along with Mercedes, Porsche and Audi, BMW has watched restively as Tesla's Model S usurped its once-bulletproof status as Hollywood's default luxury rides and purveyors of technological prowess. The i8 is meant to impress upon both devout and prospective customers (like Reese Witherspoon, who drives a 7 Series Alpina) that BMW can field a car that outguns Tesla in terms of innovation and style while stealing back some of the buzz that has beguiled Model S buyers from Jeffrey Katzenberg to James Cameron.

Give BMW credit: In 2007 -- when Tesla introduced its now-discontinued Roadster -- the German maker of thundering, gasoline-powered "ultimate driving machines" went all in on a radical rethinking of how its cars of the future would look and drive. The result, after billions in R&D, is an entirely new "i" subdivision devoted to alter­native-fuel cars built from materials derived from aviation, components made in eco- friendly factories and a futuristic aesthetic that scarcely nods to BMW's design legacy. (Tesla and BMW recently discussed collaborating on a plan to share Tesla's network of charging stations.)

The i8 looks like no other BMW because BMW wanted its first "i" electrics to look like no other cars, period. Early adopters of new technologies like to flaunt their savvy, which is why some hybrids -- repurposed con­ventional cars -- never caught on while the Toyota Prius became a cult hit then a mainstream sensation. The Model S went one better: It ditched the eco-earnestness and bet that a certain type of driver would pay $65,000-plus for a Maserati-style sedan built around a revolutionary all-electric drive train. Tesla was right and has held the sexy electric high ground ever since. (Last year, it sold 22,477 of the Model S, more than a third of them in California.)

If this reporter's time piloting the i8 on a test drive from Beverly Hills (where pedestrians fired camera phones at every intersection) to the serpentine roads of Malibu Canyon is any indication, BMW seems well on its way to stealing back some of Tesla's thunder. The i8's traffic-stopping styling and superlative performance are a rev- elation: an eco-friendly car that gets the equivalent of 112 mpg but can hit 155 miles per hour and corner like a tree-hugging Lotus Elan.

Pull down the door, and the i8 surrounds the driver and passengers (there are two largely theoretical rear seats) in a cocoon of Zenlike serenity. The leather-covered dashboard's curving planes integrate AC vents, climate controls and a virtual instrument cluster into a single flowing sculpture. The i8's infotainment screen, mated to BMW's once-maligned but now intuitive iDrive interface, seems to float in its recess.

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Underway, the i8 doesn't have the grabby, go-kart feel of low-slung exotics, nor does it drive much like an electric car. The battery-charging regenerative braking, which in other electrics lends jarring deceleration, feels no different than conventional disc brakes. Scooting around town on the 131 hp electric motor, which has 22 miles of range and a top speed of 75 mph, the i8's cabin is hushed. Tromp on the accelerator, and a 231 hp turbocharged three-cylinder engine gets into the act. The combined power plants deliver zero to 60 in 4.4 seconds and a snarling supercar exhaust note capable of leveling a Tesla at 20 paces.

The i8 was conceived not as a volume car; that's the job of the $41,000 i3, which booked 10,000 orders ahead of its launch. BMW says only about 1,500 i8s will emerge from the factory in Leipzig, Germany, this year, which means the i8 can claim the ultimate Hollywood status trope that the Model S is losing as it nears ubiquity in L.A.: head-turning, envy-inducing scarcity.

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