A Year in Cars, 2014: The BMW i8 Is Impossible to Ignore

Dec 25, 2014 03:02 PM EST | Jeff Jablansky

Tags BMW, i8, hybrid

"Roll down your window," pleaded the hirsute man in the black Lincoln Town Car, gesticulating wildly as Friday evening bumper-to-bumper traffic trudged along Manhattan's FDR Drive. I uneasily obliged. With a huge thumbs-up, and a look of bewilderment on his face, the man screamed, "That is car is BAD-ASS."

The vehicle in question was the 2015 BMW i8, the enigmatic, idiosynchratic, and charismatic plug-in hybrid coupe of unexpected origin, and for the 48 hours that it was in my stead, the gawks always seemed to follow.

Whether pedestrian or fellow motorist, it seemed that no one really knew what it was. And that's before they saw the doors open, butterfly-style, and its occupants clumsily emerge from the i8's carbon fiber tub. It helps that the i8 looks like the future, an amalgamation of sharp cuts and lines that define the Batmobile and a Lamborghini, driven straight from the auto show floor onto the streets of New York. The $135,700 i8 looks most at home among a row of hypercars with exotic badges, and painfully cool when placed with its plug-in hybrid peers.

It would almost be easier to recount my experience with the i8 based on individual reactions to seeing it—from starstruck Instagram fanatics to the school bus packed with children giving audible cheer—but that's only part of the excitement of driving it. Underneath the futuristic-looking skin is a hybrid powertrain motivated by an exceptional three-cylinder engine and a battery pack that give the i8 the performance of a true supercar with the footprint of an economy car. To wit, indicated mpg readings of 30 and above were far from flukes; even a heavy-handed style of driving resulted in exceptional thrift.

Pushing the i8 to its limits was as fun as it gets in a car, knowing that its tiny engine had to work hard to keep up with my demand. In the greenest of drive modes, the i8 acts the part of an environmentalist, quietly exerting only as much force as necessary. Switch it into sport mode, and a decisive growl emerges, along with tightened steering and handling, and the i8 does its best impression of a bona-fide sports car. It was hard to comprehend that it was tuned by BMW's i engineers, and not its M team. Hybrid system fully charged, the extra electric boost is an exhilirating push when most needed. (Over the course of my loan, I was unable to plug in the i8, but rather used its self-regeneration feature for additional, electric range.)

Its interior is a work of beauty, too, as forward-thinking as its exterior without being too difficult for everyday use. Instrument panel graphics are sublime; the iDrive system is top-class for readability, usability, and control; and stellar ergonomics means that no control is truly out of reach. If the i8 has one flaw, it is its coziness factor, but I heard no complaints from any passenger—whether my road trip companion or one of many Wall Street types who huddled around the i8 while I went for a sandwich in the Financial District.

But everything about how the six-figure i8 drives and feels is basically irrelevant to those bystanders who see the i8 for the first time agog, wondering how your lot in life fell so perfectly. That, mixed with a superior combination of driving dynamics, handling, and quality, comprised my most memorable 300 miles driven this year.

For the last week of 2014, we're recounting some of our most memorable drives of the year. Check back each day until the new year for a new installment.

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