The BMW i8 is sleek and stunning, but it's no V-8-powered supercar. Is it the car that will give plug-in hybrids sex appeal?

First, you need to know what makes the i8 go.

This is no straightforward supercar: The i8 gets power in a complex way--it can be front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive, depending on the situation.

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Here’s how: Between the front wheels there’s a 96-kilowatt electric motor--the equivalent of 131 horsepower. It sends power to the front wheels through a two-speed transmission.

That electric motor taps into a 5.1-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery mounted in the tunnel between the seats. It can run the car's front wheels in its electric-only "Max e-Mode" up to 75 mph.

In the back, there’s a turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder gasoline engine producing 231-horsepower. That power goes to the rear wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission.

Combine them, and you have 362 horsepower, and a 0-62 mph time of 4.4 seconds when using both powertrains together.

Put the BMW i8 into Comfort mode, and the i8 behaves like a hybrid, blending gas and electric power as needed. Go faster than 40 mph, and it sends power to every wheel, for all-wheel drive.

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Flip into Sport mode, and the gauges glow red, a tachometer replaces the power meter, and the powertrains go into beast mode.

Can the i8 really be an eco-friendly sports car? The EPA says it can run in pure electric mode for 15 miles; in hybrid mode, the i8 earns ratings of 28 mpg combined and 76 MPGe.

Drive it like a sports car, and you might only see 50 mpg on average. But when you do, you'll get attention. A lot of it.

Let’s be clear: The i8 really isn't a track car. It strikes a nice balance between sporty performance and high efficiency. It has really neutral handling, and precise electric power steering with decent simulated feedback.

It also has what we call "engineered" noise: BMW pipes in simulated power noises to make the i8 sound more sporty. Those noises get louder in Sport mode...but the i8 never is really, truly, blindingly fast. It’s just quick.

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The drivetrain is exotic, but the i8's shape is truly outrageous. Sure, there's a BMW grille and something like a 6-Series shape, but it's all swept up in huge futuristic swoops and scoops and wings--which all help smooth out its aero profile.

It's something of a chore to get into the i8, but once you're in, the usual iDrive controller and infotainment screens will be familiar.

The climate control and stereo both feature actual knobs, which is nice, and the gauge cluster is an LCD screen, which reconfigures itself based on the driving mode you've chosen.

These front seats are very comfortable, with heavy contouring. You sit low in the car, but visibility is just fine. BMW may say the i8 is a 2+2, but don't expect to put average-sized humans back there if an actual adult sits up front.

The BMW i8 hasn’t been crash-tested yet, and frankly we want to see it happen--its bodyshell is made of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic on an aluminum rolling chassis, and little crash-test data exists for cars made that way.

The i8 gets the standard suite of safety tech, from six airbags to the usual electronic safety systems, plus such active safety systems as a forward-collision warning system and surround-view cameras.

Priced from about $135,000, the i8 comes well-equipped, with iDrive and a 10.2-inch screen, navigation, BMW’s i Remote App, six-way power front seats, heated seats, LED headlights, and satellite radio. There are few options other than color.

So what’s the bottom line with the BMW i8? It’s a ground-breaking sports coupe with an advanced hybrid powertrain that has super economy and style, if not quite supercar performance.

Special thanks to Dream Drives For Kids for use of its BMW i8.


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