I drove the future. Well, only for about six minutes. A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to spend a sunny Friday morning thrashing about in a selection of very fast (and very expensive) BMWs. Among the various flavors of M-badged vehicles at our disposal was a topless bronze-colored example of BMW’s plug-in hybrid sports car, the i8. The car looks like it drove straight out of a sci-fi movie. Visually, the i8 is a stunner: low, wide, and mean, with bulging fenders and a body sculpted by gracefully flowing air channels and ducts. Lower the convertible top and my goodness. Science never looked so good.
Power is provided by a three-cylinder gasoline engine and two electric motors, good for a total of 369 horsepower and a zero to illegal speeds time of fast enough. Not bad for a car that’s essentially a souped-up Prius. In all-electric mode, the batteries can take the i8 up to 18 miles. When the juice runs out, the gas motor kicks in. Like other hybrids, the i8 has nifty energy-saving features like regenerative braking. Rather than antiquated analog dials, the dash is a slick LCD screen with electric dials. Akin to other BMWs, the i8 has a heads-up display showing your speed and the speed limit. We discovered (accidentally, of course) that both the speed indicator and the speedometer turn red when you exceed the speed limit.
It was interesting comparing the two methods of power delivery, gasoline versus hybrid electric. Electric motors provide instant torque, which made accelerating from any speed in the i8 fun. At low speeds the car goes into all-electric mode, which was an eerie sensation. With the gas engine off, you just sort of waft silently around. The i8 is not a small car, but it was maneuverable and agile. Electric torque and all-wheel drive pulled the car through corners and kept it firmly planted to the road. The i8 felt smooth and refined, but with an edge of sport. It was like a combination of different types of shoes, all wrapped into one: the comfort and sport of an athletic shoe, the style of a dress shoe, and the practicality of an 8-inch stiletto. Seriously, with two occupants, there’s barely enough room to stow your bottle of Perrier.
The 600-horsepower V8-powered M5, on the other hand, was like a body builder in a fine tailored suit one protein shake away from a fit of roid-rage. It was plenty docile and comfortable around town in normal mode, but then again “normal” mode starts at 8 on the dial and full sport cranks it up to 11. Set everything to full sport and you get the sense every time your foot touches the ‘go’ pedal that the M5 wants to rip off its button-down and punch someone in the face. According to tests by Road & Track and Car & Driver, the 0-60 time is 2.8 seconds. For a few reasons, I’m glad I learned that statistic after I drove the M5.
As a car-lover, the future of cars is bittersweet. The i8 is proof that hybrids can be both sexy and fun, and cars like the M5 remind us why we love petrol. Gas engines will, at some point, no longer be the preferred prime mover for automobiles. Technology will be the fuel–and the driver–of choice. We’ll just be along for the ride. Until that day, though, I’m perfectly happy manually driving cars that turn liquified dinosaurs into fun. As I like to say: my car might not get the most miles per gallon, but it sure as heck gets plenty of smiles per gallon.