People in the U.S.A. like cars. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, “Big cars, little cars and in-between cars.” Not only are cars necessary to get from point A to point B, but they also make fashion and personality statements. They indicate subtle expressions of status. Cars disseminate and define the cultural atmosphere within which we breathe and process.
At the present juncture, the newest next thing is hybrids: cars that run on gas and electricity or a combination thereof. And because of Toyota’s Prius, a certain existentiovoyeuristic problem rears its ugly head any time anyone says the word ‘hybrid.’ The problem, despite the fact that Priuses flood the freeways and highways of America and are well-designed, along with being fuel-efficient, is that Priuses are less than esthetically pleasing. When a Prius goes by on the freeway, a commonly heard question is: “Why do they have to be so funny looking? Couldn’t they look like a regular car?”
In other words, the term ‘hybrid’ has become so closely associated with the funny Prius look that, upon hearing the word ‘hybrid,’ discerning, discriminating individuals automatically envision a cookie-cutter shaped car that one shy’s away from. It’s a branding problem reminiscent of Kleenex, which, strictly speaking, is a brand of facial tissue. Nevertheless, the word ‘kleenex’ is now utilized as a generic term for facial tissues, no matter what company manufactured them. From Kleenex’s perspective, this is a good thing. For it means Kleenex owns the market, at least from a branding point of view. However, when it comes to cars, it’s not so good, because it means people are reluctant to think of hybrids as viable options when shopping for a new car.
Of course, due to the ever escalating price of fossil fuels and the world’s dependence upon this dwindling resource, automobile manufacturers have seen the writing on the wall. So hybrids are popping up all over the place and thankfully, most of them resemble real cars. Luxury car makers have entered the arena such as; Mercedes, Audi, Tesla, Lexus, even Porsche.
Bayerische Motoren Werke AG
Venerable luxury car manufacturer BMW will introduce its i8 coupe this year. The i8 coupe will be available in April 2014, which is right around the corner and rumor has it that a roadster will make an appearance in 2015. BMW claims the i8 as “the most progressive sports car of our time.” A car that extends “sustainability to a new vehicle segment.”
Designed to compete with other supercars in both the looks department and the performance department, the i8 is a plug-in hybrid. The i8 is capable of driving a distance of 22 miles on electric power. When using combined power, gas and electric, the i8 achieves 40 mpg in the city and 45 mpg on the highway. Admittedly, these are ball-park figures.
Stylistically, the i8 resembles a sleek, mid-engine exotic sports car. With its scissor doors, what Mercedes would call gullwing doors, flat tunnels on the rear fenders, underside air intakes located on the side sills, radiator exhaust in the center of the hood, and knife-like edges on the rear fenders, the i8 presents an eye-catching silhouette, one that will magnetize onlookers. In fact, the i8’s profile and overall design ranks right there with such exotics as Lamborghini, Ferrari and Maserati, the European supercar look. Unbridled exhibitionism at its best.
Entering via the scissor doors, the cockpit is a high-tech wonderland, complete with color graphics display that indicates driving mode. The i8 has three driving modes: comfort, economy and sport. The default mode is comfort. Roomy describes the cockpit, which utilizes gradations of color tones to expand the interior. There is a rear seat, but it’s small and more conducive to luggage than human passengers.
Up to 40 mph, the i8’s propulsion is electric through the front wheels, at which point the gas engine kicks in, sending power to the rear wheels. When the i8 is in sport mode, both the electric engine and the gas engine provide power to the front and rear wheels.
Primary propulsion is by means of the turbocharged 1.5 liter three-cylinder gasoline engine that is mounted amidships and puts out 231 horsepower and 236 foot pounds of torque. The electric motor sits over the front axle, providing 129 horsepower, along with 184 foot pounds of torque. There’s another small, electric motor that fulfills two functions: as a generator for the battery, and as an alternator, accumulating kinetic energy. The combined horsepower is rated at 362; while the collective torque measures 420 foot pounds.
The three-banger utilized in the i8 is destined to appear in the Mini Cooper, where it produces 134 horsepower and 162 foot pounds of torque at 1,250 RPM, which isn’t too bad. Of course, the i8 version of the three-banger is given a course of therapy, which almost doubles its power output.
Anyone lucky enough to own and drive the i8 doesn’t have to worry about shifting, because the i8 has two automatic trannies. A two-speed gearbox handles the primary electric motor, which is capable of pushing the i8 to 75 mph. An Aisin six-speed gearbox is tasked to the gas engine. The spread of ratios on the six-speed box is specific to the i8’s performance output. All this mechanical wizardry produces impressive numbers; top speed of 155 mph; 0 to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds. In other words, the i8 can run hand-in-hand with BMW’s M3. Remember, the i8 is a hybrid. This isn’t a 600 horsepower V8. That means BMW has extracted scintillating performance from a car that weighs 3,300 pounds, running on a combination of gasoline and electricity.
Of course, this is a BMW high-performance car. Thus as expected, the automatic six-speed transmission can be superseded. Simply engage the Sport mode on the gearbox, which allows the driver to use the paddles mounted on the steering column.
Although all of this sounds more than a little complex, even byzantine, in concept, like a group of monkeys trying to solve a Rubik’s cube, in application it works. The i8 is as smooth as cashmere in operation. The electric motor’s transmission is undetectable, while the six-speed gearbox shifts as slickly as that of the BMW 750i. There is no awkward transition from the electric engine to the gasoline engine. The two engines, while independent, function as one indivisible unit.
The BMW i8 is a glamorous, desirable exotic sport car for the discriminating driver, a car that exudes elitism. With a price tag of $136,000 you aren’t just buying a car, but a way for you to help the environment.
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