In psychology there is a term call cognitive dissonance, which is having two mentally contradictory thoughts. It is, apparently, very uncomfortable. I can only liken it to that moment when you, as a child, picked up that large present from one of your older relatives – in my case, my grandmother. Mentally you wished that large, gift-wrapped box held the Toy Of Your Wildest Dreams (TOYWD), but you also knew that this particular relative always sent you flannel pyjamas. It is at the moment of unwrapping when cognitive dissonance gives way to disappointment.
I distinctly remember opening the box to find dozens of flannel pyjamas. My grandmother, worried about her mortality, had decided to give me a lifetime of flannel pyjamas, but they were all unfortunately one size. Her foresight was about as good, in this instance, as her eyesight. So, unless I remain stunted at my 10-year-old height, I was going to have a lot of unused flannel pyjamas in my teens. They happened to make good rags in my future garage.
What does this have to do with an i8, you may wonder? Well, after recently trading in my BMW E92 M3 and purchasing a 2015 i8 in September, I decided a lot of the dislike around the i8 stems from cognitive dissonance. It is a car that, with its (still) outlandish looks, promises your brain one thing, but at least on paper doesn't deliver it.
To put it more bluntly, its swooping lines and curves promise the rewards of supercar speeds and performance, as currently defined in the sub-3sec 0-100km/h times or post 300 km/h top speeds and the ability to sling it like a go-kart around a track. When you see it, when you get in it, when you open those dihedral butterfly doors, these are all the memes bouncing around the car enthusiast's brain.
But in the back of your mind, because you – as a car enthusiast – have done your homework, you know that its 0-100 time is 4.4 seconds – good, without being outstanding – and its top speed is limited to 250km/h. What's worse is that, unlimited, the top speed would hardly be better than 260km/h. Again, not bad. Indeed, better than some other hybrids like a Toyota Prius, but not even in the reaches of the E92 M3's 280+km/h or the 300+km/h of McLarens or Lamborghinis. You get the picture. The car is like that present promising you a TOYWD, but in reality only giving you future oil rags.
But is it a bad car because of it?
And I would say no, because there was no cognitive dissonance in the minds of its designers and engineers. Their goals, you see, were not mine and yours. They wanted a car with performance to match the 2014 Porsche Carrera S, which they achieved, but with the ability to do it on the whiff of an oily flannel rag.
In essence, the car is more of a sporty GT, albeit without any luggage space, coupled to the fuel economy and green credentials of smaller, uglier cars. It was meant to represent a more sustainable future that didn't look like it was designed to be a large doorstop. The sustainable future, it says, can be both beautiful and quick. So enough of what the car is not and more on what the car is...
First, it's a petrol-electric hybrid in that it has both an electric motor at the front pushing out 96kW and a petrol motor pushing out 170kW. In between there is a third electric motor operating between the two pushing out a few kilowatts and generally smoothing the drivetrain transition. That can either be seen as a bad thing, if you liken it to a Prius, or a very good thing, if you think in terms of a, say, McLaren P1 or Porsche 918, which operate on similar principles.
If you compare the i8 to the latter category of true hybrid supercars, then it is quite the K-Mart red light special being a fraction of the price with attention-seeking looks. Of course, like a K-Mart red light special hybrid supercar, it doesn't have the performance or handling of the full-price ones, but it does have some advantages.
First, it is attainable. The P1 or Porsche 918 are, as far as I can see in the Australian markets, made from Unobtainium. Second, it is affordable, in relative terms that I'll get to a bit later on. Meaning that it is possible for the well-heeled to buy without being John Paul Getty rich. I suspect there are Porsche 918s and P1s in Australia, but they are so far above anything almost anyone can afford, the closest all but a dozen people in Australia will get to them is having them as the screensaver on your mobile phone.
I imagine a number of you will scoff at the word 'affordable' when you look at the sticker price of AUD$320,000+. However, with stocks languishing and burning a hole in the dealers' pockets, and with the new i8 Roadster released for 2018, you will find the price for an 18-month-old dealer demo will be in the low $200,000s and possibly even less. I think they will go down further and once they start to hit $170,000 or so, then you are looking at the price of a new M4, or X6M, to a dealer demo i8. Bargain. At least, to those who want something that stands out, has sportiness-sort-of capabilities, and don't have the cash for a McLaren P1.
Then there are the doors. Those butterfly-opening doors make getting into and out of the car an event. You can both love their looks and hate having to contort your body and legs getting in and out of the car. See, another bit of cognitive dissonance. Once inside, however, things get duller much quicker.
True, there are LED bits and backlights, plus an LCD screen in the instrument cluster, but the rest of the interior is standard BMW fare. This is a good thing, in that if you're familiar with BMW interiors from cars of the same era, then you will not be too at sea wondering how things work, but it's also a bad thing in that it doesn't look all that special.
Still, I reflect on the last interior I saw as a teenager that I thought would be ageless, and recall just how wrong I was with the 1980s Aston Martin Lagonda. Maybe trying to guess the future of the interior isn't all it's purported to be.
The iDrive looks normal, plus the climate controls and entertainment work well. It will Bluetooth to my Android and you can store up to 20GB of songs on its internal hard drive. It would be a little disingenuous to complain there isn't a CD player, since there's also no tape deck either. Both have fallen off the technological tree of evolution.
But, there are other odd things missing. What's worse is that these are missing for no (apparently) good reason. So the i8 has collision warning, which is a good thing, but not lane change warning. Why? Just exactly what is being saved by not including a little bulb on the door mirrors or in the instrument cluster? What's worse is that all the technology, bar a little LED on the door mirrors, is there. The front, rear and side cameras all exist, so why has this been excluded?
Another annoyance, it has electric seats but no memory buttons. What?! Again, it has cruise control but it's not adaptive cruise control. This last one is more understandable, since a radar unit in the front may have added too much weight, but in BMW's flagship car it's an odd oversight. Finally, the steering wheel is reach and height adjustable, but it's manual and not electric. Even my old E53 X5 had electronic reach-and-tilt steering wheel.
Nevertheless, I found the seats are comfortable and ergonomically excellent, even for extended driving. There are back seats, but I shall spare you much detail on them, suffice to say they are neither usable for anyone who is not a circus contortionist, nor easy to get in to or out of unless your limbs can bend in any direction. The back seats are simply places where you can securely belt your carry luggage on the trip to the airport.
The i8 has several driving modes. Sport mode is the performance version. The dynamic suspension hardens and both the electric and petrol engine work in an AWD configuration to give you the best oomph, but least economical drive. In this mode the car can accelerate from 80 to 120km/h in 2.6sec, which is remarkably fast.
Sport mode is the only driving mode that recharges the battery, but even here there are minor disappointments. The main one is steering. Coming from my old E92 M3, which had one of the best steering racks outside of an E46 M3, I find the i8's steering to be light. That's not to say the steering isn't accurate – it is – but the tactile feedback is light. Yet, the car is rigid due to its carbon fibre on plastic construction, and is neutral in both handling and cornering.
The next mode is Comfort, which drives in electric and petrol. Full credit in that the car hides the fussy mixing and matching of which drivetrain it uses to present to the driver a uniform experience that feels, well, normal. At least, in most situations. Occasionally you will catch the car mid-thought about what to do, but on the whole the experience is very pleasant.
There is also Eco-pro mode, which is like Comfort except it does stuff to extract even more kilometres per litre. I've driven in this mode once, and only for a short time. Finally, there's an All-electric mode. This gives, at least for me, about 28 kilometres of battery only, which is laughable compared to a Tesla, but pretty good for day-to-day commuting.
That's correct. This car would make the ideal daily driver with enough electrical power to drive me to work and home, if I wanted and could find a place to park it. But therein also lies the problem. Unlike my previous M3, the i8 stands out. You can't drive it discretely to work or nip to the shops. Also, because it has 150 litres of unusable boot space and no 'frunk', you can't really take it on an extended drive interstate.
There is no ability to put roof racks on it, so in the end it's what Doug De Muro termed "a point A to point A" car. You drive it out, have fun, smile and wave, try not to get sour at the occasional bird flipped your way, and then drive it home. It is your other car, in my case a 2008 A170, that is your daily.
Finally, how does it compare to my old E92 M3? Well, the E92 M3 had no cognitive dissonance about its purpose. It was designed to eat tyres as you smoke your way sideways around the track – and it did that with aplomb. Its back seats were useable, it had a larger boot that you could put a suitcase in, the ability to have a roof rack if you were naff, and a glorious V8 that revved to 8400rpm.
When I speak about the two cars, I often compare them to runners at an event. The M3 is that muscular runner who's all knots and bulges that will be in the front of the pack. The one whose face is not exactly ugly but purposeful. The i8 is that slender runner with long blonde hair bouncing on the track with the news cameras focused on him. You know he'll be at the back of the pack, if he finishes at all, but those looks are what he uses for commercial endorsements and advertising.
And it is in this category that the i8 works well. Weddings, formals, going to important dinners. Anywhere there are people to 'ooh' and 'aah' as those butterfly doors swing open, but then laugh themselves silly as you stumble out. A final piece of ironic cognitive dissonance?
As for me, I love the car. I know exactly what it is and why I bought it. I do miss the rawness of the old M3, but the i8 offers a different experience that I'd normally have not experienced outside of buying a Ferrari or Lamborghini. What's there not to like?