We drove the BMW i8 in Milan

By HONG BOON HOW | 24 December 2014


Being one of the grandest buildings in Italy, the Milan Cathedral easily dominates the city centre with its Gothic-styled architecture with 135 spires.

Also known as Duomo di Milano, this majestic building was completed in 1965 or some 600 years after work started.

As such, it was a sad tale for the designers of the cathedral as they could not see their masterpiece finished in their lifetime.

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Being a coincidental backdrop for BMW’s international test drive of its i8 plug-in petrol/electric hybrid car, the German car maker shared a similar storyline with the Milan Cathedral about the toil and imagination required to achieve something emotive and spectacular.

However, BMW’s spin came with a happier ending - not only did the i8’s designers get to see their vehicle come to life, it also offered the current generation a glimpse into the future.

Said to be BMW’s most daring and radical design, the i8 with its sensuous curves looked more like it came out from a styling studio rather than from a production line.

You might not have thought of the i8 as a BMW creation if not for the double kidney grille and BMW badges on the car.

It’s styled in classic sports car proportions – a wide stance, low-slung body, elegant sloping rear with long wheelbase and short overhangs – and looks fast and seductive even when parked.

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The swing-up doors crank up the “wow” factor in this showstopper.

Its power comes from a 1.5-litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine with 231bhp and 320Nm of torque, which drives the rear wheels, and an electric motor with 131hp and 250Nm of torque driving the front.

The engine gets a six-speed automatic transmission and the electric motor has a two-speed transmission.

Depending on the driving conditions, the i8 can be running as a front-, rear- or even all-wheel drive vehicle.

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Besides giving the i8 a sportscar performance with a top speed of 250kph (electronically controlled) and a 0-100kph sprint of 4.4 seconds, the hybrid powertrain also enables an impressive fuel economy of 2.1 litres per 100km.

To offset the extra load of lithium-ion batteries to power the electric motor, the i8 uses an aluminium chassis, thermoplastic exterior panels and a rigid passenger cell made from carbon fibre-reinforced plastic to keep its weight at 1,485kg.

Upon picking up our i8 test unit at the BMW Group Italy headquarters in Milan, we were told to make our way to the Franciacorta Vineyard District near Lake Iseo, some 129km away.

The i8 interior feels snug as the steeply raked windscreen had resulted in a low roofline and seating position.

Designed as a 2+2 seater, the rear seats are small and would be uncomfortable for long distance journeys.

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The two-tone wrap-around dashboard features a large freestanding centre screen which provides information on infotainment and sat-nav, while the instrument panel is a large screen-type that displays 3D graphics for a hi-tech appearance.

But the awesome cabin feel is somewhat reined back by the presence of the gearshifter, i-Drive controller, buttons and switches sourced from regular BMW models.

The i8 starts up in electric vehicle mode and moves with a near inaudible electric motor whirl.

On a full charge, the i8 can travel 37km on electric power.

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While the i8 recharges its lithium-ion batteries during regenerative braking, the batteries can also be charged up by a household socket in three hours.

The petrol engine will fire up if the throttle is stepped harder and the vehicle will be running on a combination of petrol and electric power or just petrol power alone.

Engine power delivery, accompanied by an amplified exhaust note, is immediate, linear and refined, and not like some other turbocharged sportscars which unleash their brute force in a sudden surge.

The electric power steering still provides adequate feedback to make steering feel natural.

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Getting the i8 up to the Italian highway speed limit of 130kph is effortless.

The car’s well-tuned suspension ensured a solid footing and excellent handling at all speeds.

Its good sound insulation and aerodynamics of 0.26Cd means little wind noise intrusion into the cabin at high speeds.

BMW says the i8’s original LED headlights can be upgraded to the laser-type if the owners want longer range illumination.

In short, the i8 is an exciting car to drive with style, performance and eco-friendliness rolled into one.

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We felt like celebrities while driving it as we got countless encounters with motorists driving up close to our car and pulling out their smartphones for snapshots.

There will be smiles if BMW Group Malaysia brings the i8 to the local market.

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