The BMW i8 is the sports car of the future, and we drove it through America's past

The BMW i8 is a technological tour de force. It’s a twin-engine plug-in hybrid with show-car looks, supercar performance, and economy-car efficiency. It’s BMW’s vision for what the future may hold for sports cars. Recently, BMW lent Business Insider a white i8, and we took it on a road trip through historic New England.

As a plug-in hybrid sports car, BMW i8 is unlike anything on the road today.

Sure, there are other high-performance hybrids out there, such as the Porsche 918 ...

... the McLaren P1 and ...

... the Ferrari LaFerrari. But these are million-dollar exotic hypercars.

The i8, on the other hand, starts at a somewhat more attainable $136,500.

At the heart of the i8 is a hybrid powertrain. Up front is a 129-horsepower electric motor powering the front wheels. In back, a 228-horsepower turbocharged three-cylinder engine that drives the rear wheels. Together, they form a 'virtual' all-wheel-drive system.

Sadly, you're out of luck if you want to see the powerplant. It's hidden behind a bolted engine cover -- seen here in Saabkyle04's i8 walkthrough on YouTube. Unless you're a BMW service technician, you won't get to see the engine.

According to BMW, the i8 is good for zero to 60 in 4.2 seconds, although that stat seems a bit conservative based on our experience with the car. In fact, Car and Driver managed to achieve that in 3.6 seconds.

Which means, based on price and performance, its contemporaries are such industry stalwarts as the Porsche 911 Carrera ...

... the Jaguar F-Type ...

... the Audi R8 and ...

... even the new Mercedes-AMG GT.

Driving the i8, we set off from Northern New Jersey for the Connecticut coast.

Immediately, the BMW's futuristic looks caught the eyes of our fellow motorists. In fact, many thought the i8 was a prototype that somehow managed to find its way onto public roads.

That's a reasonable assumption. The i8 production car is based on the i8 concept, and as you can see, they look remarkably similar.

The i8's design is also inspired by BMW's legendary M1 supercar of the 1970s.

Along with the i3 city car, the i8 forms BMW's high-tech 'i' division.

On the highway, the i8 proved to be comfortable. Its hybrid electric powertrain is incredibly responsive when called upon to provide an extra burst of power for passing.

Cruising down the highway, the i8 will run under both gas and electric power. But once the battery is charged, the car can go into full electric mode.

In eDrive mode, the i8 can go up to 15 miles at a max speed of 75 mph, under only electric power.

Sport mode unleashes the i8's full performance potential -- allowing the engine to maintain higher revs. Although Sport mode is the quickest way to charge the batteries, it's also the quickest to drain the car's gas tank.

However, the i8 was most at home when cruising at 65-75 mph in Comfort mode.

On New England's winding country roads, the BMW's finely tuned chassis and superstrong carbon-fibre construction made the i8 a confident performer around the corners.

Although the i8's 357 horsepower is modest by modern sports car and supercar standards, the car's torquey engines never once left me wanting for more power.

After a couple of hours on the road, we made our first stop to shoot photos near the lighthouse in the town of Stonington, Connecticut.

And there we encountered the only real complaint we had with the i8 -- getting in and out of it. It's a chore.

The proper technique for getting in the car involves an extended procedure that calls for you to sit on the door sill, slide your butt back into the seat, then swing your legs under the steering wheel. In short, there's really no elegant way to get in and out of the i8.

About those doors ... we're not sure exactly what to call them. Some cars, such as this Lamborghini Countach, have scissor doors, while others ...

... like the Mercedes-Benz SLS have gullwing doors while ...

... Tesla's upcoming Model X has falcon-wing doors.

I guess we can go with Car and Driver and call them 'swan doors.'

Once you do climb into the i8, you'll find a stylish but surprisingly conventional cabin.

Like other BMWs, the centrepiece of the i8 center console is the company's iDrive infotainment system.

The driver can use a set of buttons located next to the shift lever to select one of the car's three drive modes.

In the back are two seats. In theory, they are supposed to carry people, but in practice, they're better suited for cargo.

After we finished up with photos, and the gawking crowd finished up with theirs, we left Stonington and headed up the coast.

Our next stop was the Gilded Age vacation haven of Newport, Rhode Island.

On the way to Newport, we enjoyed a soundtrack produced by the BMW's 1.5 litre, three-cylinder engine.

Since it's essentially a more powerful version of the engine found in the base MINI, I wasn't sure what to expect when I first got behind the wheel. But the i8 sounds terrific, especially in Sport mode.

The muted rumbling reminded me of the BMW's tradition inline-six engine, just at a smaller scale.

In Newport, we checked out the numerous summer homes of America's 19th-century robber barons. Eventually, we found ourselves at the front gate of the Vanderbilt family estate: The Breakers.

After spending the night in Boston, we head toward Massachusetts' North Shore.

The tree-lined roads outside of Gloucester made for a wonderfully relaxing drive.

We stopped for ice cream at Stage Fort Park.

Eventually, we found our way to Good Harbour Beach, where the owner of a 1996 BMW Z3 roadster stopped by to check out the i8.

The roadster's owner reminded us that two decades before the i8, it was the Z3 that turned heads up and the road. After all, the Z3 was James Bond's ride in 1995's 'GoldenEye.'

The final stop of our tour of New England was Rockport, Massachusetts. You can't drive through this part of the country without getting some fresh lobster. Rockport delivered.

All in all, our trip to Massachusetts and back covered more than 750 miles by highway, city streets, and winding country roads. Through it all, we made only two stops at the gas pump to fill up the i8's 11-gallon tank.

In total, we filled the car with just 16 gallons of premium and observed roughly 40 mpg. Had we done the trip in a similarly hot Porsche 911, we would have required almost twice as much gas.

Owners can also choose to charge the i8's batteries through a plug situated in front of the driver's door. Using a 240V plug, the batteries can be fully rejuiced in just over two hours.

At the end of the two-day trip, we found the BMW i8 to be nothing short of spectacular. Its was very fast, but perfectly capable of cruising in quiet and comfort. Oh, and the car looks gorgeous ...

... like the New England coastline itself.

Also, check out the BMW i8 on video.

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