Payne: BMW i8 meets BMW M1
It's magic when the world's biggest automakers concentrate their engineering resources to cook up a premium super-sportscar. Acura NSX, Ford GT, Porsche 918 hybrid. But not since the legendary, 1979 BMW M1 have we seen such a dish from the Bavarian kitchen.
The 2014 BMW i8 is worth the wait. Like the M1, it is a mesmerizing confection of style and technical capability. The i8 launches a new i-breed of Bimmers just as the M1 was the father of the M sports brand. But the i8 is a pioneer on a different frontier.
Where the M1 was a limited production car necessary to qualify BMW for international sports car racing, BMW hopes the i8 will inspire "social change around the world." The M1 wanted to destroy Porsche's racing dominance. The i8 wants to save the planet.
While their missions may be quixotic (Porsche is a force of nature and so is the planet), the speed machines' fun factor is undeniable. For a week I housed these two generations of thoroughbred in my home stable. A silver, 357-horsepower, hybrid-electric i8 and a red, 3.5-liter, 277-horsepower, 6-cylinder M1.
What has changed in 35 years? Not much and everything.
The i-catching i8 looks unlike any vehicle on the road today. Wherever I went it drew a crowd. On a Friday night out with my wife in Detroit, a Dodge Charger-full of hot, screaming chicks begged that we pull over for a picture. Mrs. Payne was not amused. BMW apparently is short for Babe Magnet on Wheels.
Pulling up to a curb, the Bimmer's gull-wing door opens like something out of a Hollywood blockbuster. Call it the Sci-Fi8. "I'm from the future," I joke to awe-struck onlookers.
A cabbie does a U-turn and asks if I'm testing a futuristic concept for January's auto show. The future is now. But for all-glass doors, the production i8 is virtually unchanged from the daring concept that wowed showgoers in 2011.
Like Magneto's helmet in "X-Men," twin sideburns frame a thin, signature BMW kidney grille. The swollen wheel wells could inspire a "Tron" sequel. The huge rear greenhouse grows raptor-like winglets alongside black engine vents. Unlike Ferraris that showcase their mid-ship mills, the i8's mysterious, black rear hatch reveals nothing.
Futuristic. Yet faintly familiar. Like an updated M1.
Also the offspring of a futuristic, gull-winged prototype, the wedge-shaped M1 may have adopted more conventional doors but otherwise shares the same DNA as its 21st century sibling. The scalloped front hood. The narrow kidneys. The long deck with black gills and blinds. Hiding. The. Beast. Within.
Within is where these supreme sports machines diverge.
The brainchild of Porsche-racing-ace-turned-BMW-motorsports-boss Jochen Neerpasch, the M1 had one thing on its mind: Beat Porsche. Just 430 M1s were built over three years to fulfill homologation requirements that the GT racer have a production equivalent. As such it is all business.
Weighing in at just 2,867 pounds, the M1 was luxury lite. Priced at about $50,000 in 1979 (the equivalent of $144K today), its handsome cockpit sports gauge essentials, radio, and bolstered leather and cloth seats. Beneath the upholstery is a racing cockpit — with a typically narrow racing foot well. I have to don narrow racing shoes to operate the small pedals with my size 15 dogs.
A firewall is all that separates me from the snarling, 277 horsepower straight-6 engine — a detuned version of the competition engine attached to an H-gate, 5-speed race tranny. By comparison a 1980 'Vette sported 230 ponies. A Ferrari Mondial, 214.
In contrast, my $139,600 i8 tester has no racing ambitions.
This is a high-tech, metropolitan sports car. The leather Barcaloungers hold you like a velvet glove (though — babe magnet warning! — its high, carbon-fiber door sills make exits a nightmare for skirt-wearing occupants).
But true to its hybrid drivetrain, this car has two distinct personalities. It's a granola weapon that will get nodding approval from tree-huggers and motor-heads alike.
Its sculpted, four-seat interior luxuriates over a 110-inch wheelbase. Yet the tub and doors are light-weight, Formula One-inspired carbon fiber. Electric motor-driven front wheels and engine-driven rears offer Chevy Volt-like battery range. Yet the 1.5-liter 3-holer is spiked with a twin-scroll turbo that packs a mind-blowing 228 horsepower.
Would you like your filet mignon rare or flambéed, sir?
Drive the i8 in electric Eco or Comfort modes and it's a hushed, ultra-efficient daily commuter. With the batteries fully charged, BMW says the plug-in will hit 94 mpg.
I reference BMW because I didn't come close to those numbers. The i8's performance potential is simply too much temptation for a mere mortal to resist.
Flick the shifter into "Sport" mode and the turbo-riffic three awakes. Add the 129-horse electric motor and this dynamic duo not only gives you Corvette-like, 420-pound-feet of torque — but torque-vectoring AWD too.
The acceleration is electric. Literally. The i8 leaves the M1 at a stoplight with its pants around its ankles. Zero to 60? 3.8 seconds vs. 5.5. Keep your boot in it, however, and the M1 reminds you of the glories of multiple cylinders.
The six-pack howls like a werewolf.
The i8 rips through its upshifts — brrr-rap! — with a tenacious — brrr-rap! — bark, but the hybrid powertrain's real payoff comes at cruising speed. Loafing along at 70 mph in 5th gear, I downshift the M1 for maximum passing punch. The i8 just requires a squeeze of the throttle. Zot! Like liquid lightening this torque-monster vaults from 70 to 100 mph.
Oh, sorry. Were we talking about mpg? Ah, temptation. ...
Still, despite such antics, I recorded 32 and 29 mpg on consecutive tanks of fuel. That's not 94, but it'll shame a comparably-priced Aston Martin Vantage's 15 mpg.
The lighter, shorter, 100-inch-wheelbase M1 is more raw, more connected to the road with its rack and pinion, hydraulic steering. Despite its age, it cuts through corners like a knife through butter. The e-assisted i8 feels less certain. But it feels smaller than its 3,285 pounds. Credit the low, 18-inch center of gravity — the same as the M1 — created by the battery pack in the floor and AWD. This Tron can corner.
Three decades after the M1, BMW has a worthy successor. Will it achieve the M1's iconic status? Its drive-train could be high maintenance given the turbo engine and electric motor and batteries. Its delicious looks will endure. Heck, even the Audi R8 I covet looks dated compared to the i8.
But good luck finding one. BMW is only making 500 a year. Metro Detroit dealers have a six-year wait list. Memo to BMW's master chefs: Bigger kitchen, please.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2014 BMW i8
Vehicle type: Mid-engined, plug-in electric, all-wheel-drive, two-door sports car
Price: $136,650 ($138,650 as tested)
Power plant: Plug-in hybrid with electric motor driving the front wheels and 1.5-liter, turbocharged 3-cylinder driving the rears
Power: Combined 357 horsepower, 420 pound-feet torque (129 hp electric , 184 lb-feet torque electric motor; 228 hp, 236 lb-feet torque 3-cyl)
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Performance: Zero-60: 3.8 sec. (Car & Driver); Top speed: 155 mph
Weight: 3,285 pounds
Fuel economy: Consumption in European Union cycle: 94 mpg; Detroit News observed: 30.5 mpg
Highs: Prettiest in show; Addictive acceleration
Lows: Addictive acceleration defeats mpg goals; Attracts large crowds
1979 BMW M1
Vehicle type: Mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-passenger, two-door sports car
Price: About $50,000 new in 1979 ($144,000 2014 inflation-adjusted)
Power plant: 3.5-liter, dual-overhead-cam, inline 6-cylinder
Power: 277 horsepower, 239 pound-feet torque
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Performance: Zero-60: 5.6 sec.; top speed: 160 mph
Weight: 2,867 pounds
Fuel economy: 13 mpg (est.)
Highs: Primal howl of the 6; precise handling
Lows: Tight seats; firewall can get toasty