#ThrowbackThursday: BMW i3 and i8 launch (2015)

The BMW i3 (left) and BMW i8 (right).
The BMW i3 (left) and BMW i8 (right).
Image: Supplied

Welcome to yet another instalment of #ThrowbackThursday, where we flip back the calendar and marinade in nostalgia for motoring experiences from years past. Today we journey to March 5 2015, when BMW launched its i3 and i8 on local soil. This week the company announced its all-electric iX3 model, anticipated to arrive here in 2021. From novel concept to mainstream – the electric mobility wave is unlikely to slow any time soon.

Note: the author is quite aware that he may have been carried away with the descriptions of how the i8 sounded. Excitement ran high at the helm of the future-thinking sports car!

Manufacturers are striving to spark a positive response to electric cars. And although these quieter and cleaner power sources might not supplant internal combustion overnight, the revolution is well under way.

The “green” progress of the industry seems to take some weight away from certain conspiracy theories we have heard - you know, that monolithic fossil fuel corporations use all their might to stymie the momentum of alternative energy being rolled out to the masses.

Almost every carmaker has hopped aboard the bandwagon, playing some part in lubricating the electric mobility machination as a whole. Last week BMW made its contribution, launching the i3 and i8 on South African shores.

There is a good chance you’re reading this by candlelight, so I am aware of the inevitable reticence buyers will have to electric cars. Let’s get to that part a bit later, and for now, focus on the excitement of the concept itself. In this unconventional new duo, the i8 is the more daring model.

The pictures splashed across these pages don’t do justice to the immense presence it has. I hope you get to see one in the flesh — and perhaps even steer one — to grasp the gravitas.

This looks like no other production car on our roads today, with its Space Odyssey styling and scissor doors that elicit childlike awe as they rise up like a pair of wings. Now, it’s a given that you’re going to garner attention from behind the wheel of an M3 or an M5 — but those carry stigmas of hubris and other not-so-nice traits.

Instead, the i8 inspires genuine fascination and reverence. Bystanders can’t believe that something so futuristic and progressive could come from the clinical confines of the Bavarian marque’s headquarters. The fascination grows when you consider what makes this striking shell move.

It’s a three-pot engine at the back (170kW and 320Nm) combined with an electric motor (96kW and 250Nm) sending power to the front wheels. While the engine gives go-juice to the battery on the move, the hybrid can be charged at home too — either through a standard plug point or a wall box BMW sells that expedites the process.

Plugging in often is recommended should you want to maintain the level of performance offered with the engine and electric motor in unison. And you definitely want this. It’s a synergy that yields a 0-100km/h time of 4.4 seconds. We squeezed into the snug quarters of the i8 and hit the start button.

With the electric motor singing its sounds of silence, the car stealthily crept through the hotel parking lot in an eerie fashion. The only emission being released into the air was smugness at being at the helm of something with such impressive performance credentials — yet polluting less than the Volkswagen Golf GTI alongside at the traffic light.

Flick it into the more appropriate Sport mode and that trio of cylinders fire up. It’s the same engine you’ll find in a Mini or the BMW 218i. Serious sorcery went into giving it a sound befitting its character – for the occupants with ears close to the speakers anyway.

The result is a synthesised tune that samples almost as much as Puff Daddy used to in his heyday. It lifts elements from the previous, eight-cylinder M3, with a hearty baritone. There’s a throaty snarl not unlike the current turbocharged M3 and M4 as you bust the throttle open.

Mechanical belching greets up-shifts and with the windows open you’ll detect the usual array of flutters that define a boosted engine. It is garnished liberally with a distinctive electric whirr that adds to those spaceship vibes.

Be in no doubt that the BMW i8 is fast. It turns the outside world into a collage of fuzzy blotches and offers the noise to match. But the biggest surprise came in the bends. I was expecting something raucous — with that slightly precarious feeling you get behind the wheel of an M-car. But this is more of a grand tourer than an out-and-out speedster with track day ambitions.

Poise and balance exist in heaps and very little unsettles it. Throw it into a hairpin - a smidgen of squeal ensues. Any waywardness at the rear is promptly countered by the electric kick to the front wheels, pulling you safely through to the other side. Its mountain pass-scything talents are accessible to any kind of driver. And the i8 felt composed, with its 50/50 weight distribution and four-wheel traction keeping us well away from the deathly drops at Franschhoek Pass - which was good, because we were keen to sample the i3 afterwards.

Unlike its big sister, this relies on a full electric powertrain. But more money will get you a range-extender, in the form of a 650cc petrol engine serving as an electricity generator for the car’s battery. This enables a maximum range of 300km. In standard guise, a fully-charged i3 renders a range of 160km. This is of course dependent on your driving style, although features such as regenerative braking help prevent wasted energy.

Opt for BMW’s home wall box and charging it up to 80% could take as little as 30 minutes. Through a standard socket, expect a charging time of eight hours. You’ll be taken aback by how swiftly it moves. It takes 7.2 seconds for the i3 to hit 100km/h. The 0-60km/h sprint is done in 3.7 seconds — handy for seizing gaps in traffic. Its motor serves up 125kW and 250Nm of torque.

But it’s also light, tipping the scales at 1 195kg thanks to the extensive use of carbon fibre reinforced plastics and other light materials. We got to test its zippiness after losing track of time during a much too leisurely lunch, forcing us to make haste to the airport. Top speed is pegged at 150km/h.

Does it drive like a conventional BMW? It’s rear-wheel drive — and it also has a 50/50 weight distribution. But you can’t expect it to handle like a 1-Series, given its tall physique and skinny wheels. It’s undoubtedly happiest in the city. The interior has a rustic feel; some components were manufactured from recycled materials.

BMW kept mum on the forecasted uptake of its electric duo. But these will not be volume sellers. These venerable green machines carry a premium, as you might expect. The i3 starts at R525,000 and the i8 goes for R1,755,000.

Nissan might have been the first on the local electric car scene, but you already know that whatever BMW touches turns to sold. By virtue of that blue-and-white propeller and the cachet that comes with it, one suspects that a number of consumers in the premium segment will reconsider their stance on electric mobility.

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