It's rare in the oft tedious motoring milieu that something comes along that is so outrageous,so technologically advanced, so powerful, so downright automotively beautiful that you stop short while walking towards it and say, sotto voce, a rude word that rhymes with duck.
One such previous was the Audi R8, launched from Cape Town harbour in October 2007 to a positive riot of holidaymakers and, on the road to Franschhoek, crazy drivers on the N1 doing their best not to crash while taking photographs at 120km/h.
You can read what I had to say about that car, while I was editor of IOL Motoring, here.
BRING ALONG TWO BAR
This past week it was BMW's i8 (and really, couldn't all those very expensive brains in Munich have come up with a more evocative name - Electron, Batterium, Lightspeed?) which, in all departments eclipses that stunning car of all those years ago. And didn't attract half as much attention, even when parked, as did the R8.
That Audi R8 retailed back then for R1.2-million. The BMW i8 will top R2-million if you take a couple of options but in those intervening eight years have come hybrid, serious concern about global warming, better hybrid batteries and an amazing and rather suspiciously sudden ability of automakers to get awesome power out of very small engines with better, more long-lived, turbochargers.
VIDEO: Climb aboard the stunning BMW i8
IMAGE GALLERY: BMW i8
The Audi R8 needed a four-litre-plus engine to deliver 309kW at 7800rpm and 430Nm from 4500-6000rpm driving through either a six-speed manual or a six-speed R-Tronic manual sequential/auto gearbox - the latter with launch control - to deliver 100km/h in 4.6sec and 200km/h in 14.9sec.
The i8 has an engine from a Mini.
Yep, a 1.5-litre turbo'd three-cylinder engine from its sister company Mini in the university city of Oxford in England that's been boosted from 100 to 170kW/320Nm to drive the rear wheels. Add the whack to the front wheels of the 96kW/250Nm electric motor and battery pack and that zooms to 266kW/ 570Nm and lets the i8 match the 0-100km/h time of the mighty R8 of way back when.
PLASTIC, PLASTIC, PLASTIC...
That's BMW M3 territory without the fuel consumption. BMW claims 2.5 litres/100km - which is ludicrous considering the huge variations of distance and terrain and traffic the car might encounter. Star Motoring, which had the privilege of road-testing the car before launch, reported reality as 7.6/100.
Much of the performance comes from the car weighing only 1.5 tons, thanks mostly to the relatively tiny engine and the CFRP (carbon-fibre reinforced plastic) of the entire body. And much of the cabin.
Well, that and the car's computer sending the max power to each wheel according to computer direction. And, once moving, the i8 uses the weight of its underfloor batteries to create an awesomely low centre of gravity (46cm) through the bends - such as the Franschhoek pass.
in the city, however, the i8 will use merely electric power to get around. BMW claims somewhere between 30 and 40km on one overnight home charge, depending on the two T's - traffic and terrain. If you can afford the car, you can afford a couple of charging stations, one at home and one at the office, so during the week you shouldn't need to use any petrol at all.
Play with the power, and the Cd of only 0.26, at weekends.
TO THE HILLS...
The BMW i8 is the second model from new brand BMW i and the first plug-in hybrid vehicle from the BMW Group; distinctly forward-looking, the automaker says, and a sustainability-focused sports car; "a revolutionary interpretation of BMW’s hallmark driving pleasure".
So, once over the shock 'n awe of a first 3D look at the car, it was off for a 300km rock 'n roll through the Cape mountains. The cabin is very much a 2+2 though only a very short teenager is going to be comfortable in the back; the car has what have become known as swan-wing doors - the open a little outwards and then go up.
They mitigate heavily against short skirts and tight jeans thanks to the hugely thick door sills. Unless you are watching, of course. Few will be able to wave their hosts a cheery farewell and enter their two-bar car with much dignity.
And how to describe the car...? Well, it's the first one to come close to matching in reality the size of the wheels in the early artists' impressions of any new model - 20" are standard, 21" optional, and they come on rims that should be locked in a safe at night.
FIVE DRIVING MODES
The front carries exaggerated versions of BMW features - wider, narrower - and the hallmark kidneys grille has no holes in it. Electric motor behind it, remember...
Air runs over the car like water over RainX and exits through two roofed channels each side of the rear window - a bizarre design created by a genious. Look closely at the gallery images because I really don't know how to describe it - though the closest for comparison might by the Mazda coupe of the 1980's.
The car has five driving modes with a claimed 37km on a full-charged battery pack which permits a top speed of 120 km/h; COMFORT mode offers optimum balance between dynamics and efficiency; combined range: up to 600km in EU test cycle; SPORT has "ultra-intense boost" provided by the electric motor and systematic energy recuperation for the high-voltage battery; ECO PRO can be used in both all-electric mode and hybrid mode.
Given the car's intense performance capability (including paddle-shift gears for those so inclined) there's a raft of crash-protection gear: a CFRP passenger cell, doors with a CFRP-aluminium structure, an instrument panel with magnesium supporting structure, an aluminium chassis and a partition between the passenger compartment and boot made from hardened thin glass; comprehensive safety concept and an ultra-torsionally stiff passenger cell; front, side and head/curtain airbags, inertia-reel seat belts with belt force limiters front and rear, IsoFix child seat attachment points and tyre pressure monitoring for each wheel as standard; pedestrian alert sound available as an option.
Extensive standard equipment includes head-up display, satnav management for all-electric driving, fully digital instruments for all driving modes, auto aircon, a free-standing 26cm control display and touch control, leather sports steering wheel with multifunction buttons, electrically adjustable leather sports seats and leather-trimmed instrument panel; choice of four exterior paint finishes and four interior equipment variants.
IT'S ALL GREEN ANYWAY
Pretty much every electronic driving/parking/reversing/freeway driving aid comes with the i8: MW ConnectedDrive, DriveAssist package with auto high-beam rear-view camera with "SurroundView", internet access, emergency call and traffic info.
Any driver familiar with current BMW cabins will feel right at home in the i8; much is the same as "normal' models if not in immediate design then in function.
For instance, in BMW's words, "the layering approach finds its way, through dynamically curving lines, into the design of the centre console, which is home to the gear selector, the controller for the iDrive operating system, the start/stop button, the eDrive button and the Driving Experience Control switch".
The main difference between the i8' cabin and that of "normal" BMW's is the amount of recycled material used in the cabin.
After all, no matter what interior and exterior finishes you might order for the world's most amazing car, you're going to finish up with "green".