Could the 2015 BMW i8 sports coupe, coming this summer, do for plug-in hybrids what the Tesla Model S did for battery-electric vehicles?
That is, could the sleek, sexy, attention-luring coupe with doors that open like insect wings make plug-in hybrids...sexy?
Certainly BMW's new i8 drew crowds wherever we went during a day-long test drive in and around Los Angeles last week.
Parked on swanky shopping street Rodeo Drive with its doors open, we counted eight separate people snapping cellphone photos--including some selfies with the car.
And that's a far cry from the anemic plug-in Toyota Prius, or the all-but-invisible plug-in hybrid versions of the familiar Ford Fusion and Honda Accord family sedans.
On the other end of the scale, at a price starting at $135,800, the 2015 BMW i8 is far more affordable than the limited-production Porsche 918 Spyder plug-in hybrid supercar, which comes in somewhere around a million bucks.
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Jekyll and Hyde
One of the things we liked best about the BMW i8, frankly, was its split personality--which more than one driver called its "Jekyll and Hyde" sides.
The i8 coupe is what's called a "through-the-road hybrid," meaning it has two separate powertrains, each of which can be used on its own--or both can be synchronized to deliver all-wheel drive and maximum power.
The front wheels are driven by a large 96-kilowatt (131-hp) electric motor, powered by a 7.1-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack fitted in the tunnel between the two front seats.
A 231-horsepower turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine sits transversely just behind the rear bulkhead, producing 236 lb-ft of torque and powering the rear wheels through a six-speed direct-shift gearbox.
The split personality comes in its three driving modes.
Running the i8 in its all-electric "Max e-Mode," it's a front-wheel-drive car with a top speed around 75 mph and range of somewhere between 12 and 20 miles. It's a gasoline hybrid when powered by the rear wheels in "Normal" mode, complete with start-stop for the engine at stoplights.
But pulling the shift lever to the left calls up "Sport" mode, in which reprofiled engine-control software produces faster response, keeps the car in lower gears longer, and calls on the front wheels for electric "Boost" when maximum power is needed.
Sport mode also uses engine overrun and regenerative braking to charge the battery pack to its maximum capacity to get it ready for maximum power delivery--unlike Normal mode, which keeps the pack at its set, discharged level to operate as a hybrid.
The whole affair is controlled by a great deal of software that keeps all the pieces operating harmoniously, maximizes efficiency, and still offers power on demand. In Sport mode, maximum output from both powertrains is 362 hp, and BMW quotes a 0-to-62-mph time of just 4.4 seconds.