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BMW i8 2016 review

2016 BMW i8

"Good job," comes the now familiar voice across the cosy cockpit of the BMW i8. My co-driver Glen Weston, a three-time Australian Rally Champion navigator follows up with a grin and, "How was that?"

The 'that' he refers to is the last three days of steering the hybrid BMW supercar through days four, five and six of the 25th Targa Tasmania. I couldn't answer straight away, there was a lot to process.

Our Targa was run ahead of the racing cars in the Tour category with 5:30am starts, shepherded by Bavarians new and old - the firecracker M2, the M3/M4 pair and an immaculate E46 M3 CSL. Also along for the ride was an M6, driven (without pace notes, would you believe) by BMW GT3 racer - and multiple Bathurst winner - Steven Richards.

The first day was a little nerve-wracking

At first glance, and looking over the rest of the Targa entry list, the i8 looks like a stunt entry. While its performance credentials are proven, with its thee-cylinder turbo engine turning the rear wheels and electricity powering the fronts, it doesn't seem like an obvious choice. Hybrids need stop start traffic to keep the battery full. Right?

The i8 I drove was completely stock-standard - no sticky tyres or big brakes, no extra power or torque.

The first day was a little nerve-wracking - $299,000 (plus options) of BMW, mist, pace notes, another chap's life in my hands and some utterly glorious but occasionally treacherous tarmac. I've driven the i8 more than once and enjoyed every second of it, including the awkward method of entry (already mastered, if you're wondering - I tutored a number of curious and occasionally stuck rubber-neckers). So the experience wasn't all new.

While we were part of the Targa, we were on the non-competitive Tour - speeds are limited to 130km/h but you're able to run a standard road car without the need for helmet or roll cage or the additional safety requirements of a race-ready car. If you want to run in a Mitsubishi Mirage, you can - the rules allow for such masochism but I didn't spot anything so prosaic.

A RallySafe GPS device is fitted to the car to keep an eye on that top speed. Keep going over it, and you're sent home. Simple, then.

You sit supercar low in BMW's carbon fibre and aluminium wonder, the following car's headlights dazzling me on the transport stages. Well, on any stage, but when you're on the closed roads, the rear-vision mirrors are the last place you're looking, partly because overtaking is banned.

Forward vision is good, but if you want to look through a tighter corner, you'll be tipping your head to the side to look through the side window as the A-pillar dives towards the front wheels. The steering wheel is small and the fully digital dashboard changes depending on your driving mode.

Switching to Sport mode on start-up became a ritual, the dash lighting up red and switching the right-hand dial to a tachometer. There was never any question of rolling along on electric-only power because the Targa Tasmania rattles along at a cracking pace - stage, transport, stage, transport, stage, transport, lunch, stage, transport, stage, transport, stage.

The triple sounds like a flat-six, the electric motor like something from The Jetsons

We stayed in Sport the whole time, as it does two things essential to the task of Targa. It ups the aggression of the throttle and six speed automatic transmission (and lets loose some more noise) while maintaining brake and coasting regeneration of juice to the battery. But when you pin the throttle to the floor, you've got the front wheels' 96kW and 250Nm of torque pulling you along in addition to the three-cylinder turbo's dizzying 170kW/320Nm, from just 1.5 litres driving the rear wheels.

The combination of sound is terrific - the triple sounds like a flat-six, the electric motor like something from The Jetsons.

Glen handed me the pace notes and he took the wheel for the first stage to show me how it all works and to help me understand his job. Montumana is a short stage but the overnight damp and mist made me grateful he was first at the wheel. I kept dropping into a Nicky Grist Welsh accent (in my head) as I tried to decipher the numbers, abbreviations and getting the timing right. Long story short, it's hard. Really hard. You need concentration, spatial awareness and a cast-iron stomach.

Waved off from my first start, the 12km Irishtown stage, Glen's calm, clear words cut across the cockpit. He kept one eye on the road to make sure I wasn't utterly terrible and slowly built up the amount of information he passed on from the notes. The previous evening we'd had a chat in the car from the airport where I assured him I'm the last of the early brakers, but I'm not sure that helped.

It quickly became clear that the i8 was more than up to the challenge of the Targa Tour. The roads of Tasmania's north-west are tremendously twisty and often hug rock walls on one side while offering drops so long on the other it would be weeks before they found you.

In a car this low with limited suspension travel, the fear of bottoming out is real. Over the three days of extremely bumpy roads, we scraped the i8's belly precisely zero times and came out the other side with straight spines and all our fillings. Well, mine stayed in, Glen doesn't have any.

As I may have mentioned, I'm a tarmac rally novice so I spent a couple restless nights wondering if I could maintain the concentration required to listen to the notes, visualise what they mean and act accordingly. While there wasn't any competing going on, one didn't want to be a mobile chicane and ruin the fun of following entrants.

The i8 is a terrific starter car - easy on the spine, the controls are light with just the right amount of feel in the brake pedal to inspire confidence when piling into corners. That's not easy when you consider that the i8 recovers energy from braking, which can sometimes mean a weird pedal feel or sudden transition from energy recovery to actual braking.

The brakes themselves are mighty, with just 1485kg to stop and a very low centre of gravity it means the stopping power is well-matched to the go.

The core of the i8's handling brilliance is its carbon fibre composite construction - this makes the car incredibly stiff, giving BMW's chassis engineers a superbly stable platform on which to build the handling. The result is an almost neutral handling car, with understeer only appearing in extreme circumstances, easily wiped away with an ease of the throttle.

It had jaws scraping the ground at every turn and people falling over themselves to come and talk to us about it

Its change of direction is instant, with predictable responses in every condition - not only did we deal with the craziness of different types of sealed surfaces, we had a couple of gravel transport stages, the i8 excelling in the wet and dry no matter the surface. The combination of adaptive damping and seamless all-wheel drive - no mean feat from two power sources and two different gearboxes - makes the i8 unbelievably light on its feet.

And like no other car on the Targa - with the possible exception of the McLaren P1 - it had jaws scraping the ground at every turn and people falling over themselves to come and talk to us about it. It really was the rockstar car.

We didn't bother looking for a power outlet at the end of the days running, either – we never dropped below 17km of electric range, all those corners and long downhill runs saw to that. We tested the no plugging-in theory on Saturday morning – I'd shown off a bit in Hobart town centre by running on pure electric, the range falling to 5km on the dash display, confident in our hypothesis. I shifted straight into Sport and by the time we were halfway to the first stage, we were back to 20km of range.

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
HYBRID 1.5L, Hyb/PULP, 6 SP AUTO No recent listings 2016 BMW I8 2016 HYBRID Pricing and Specs

“Back to Glen's question. "How was that?" I thought for a while, searching for the right word, eventually landing on, "Fantastic." It was all I could manage. I was shattered but elated. I'd just finished three days on some of the best driving roads in the world and in one of the coolest cars ever made. Not only that, we'd averaged just 10.5L/100km according to the on-board computer, didn't need to plug in at night and proved at the same time that the i8 is born to race.What would be your choice of wheels to do Targa Tasmania in? BMW's i8 or something else? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.”

Click here to see more 2016 BMW i8 pricing and spec info.

Peter Anderson
Contributing journalist

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