SANTA MONICA, CA – The success of the Tesla Model S proves there’s a market for attractive, electrified luxury vehicles, so it’s no surprise the old guard of luxury is dipping a toe into this water.

Come August, BMW’s $135,900 i8 plug-in hybrid will be trying to woo American buyers with deep pockets and ecological leanings.

The i8 is the second entry in Bimmer’s nascent ‘i’ sub-brand, which includes the just-launched i3 electric vehicle.

But unlike the nerdy i3, the i8 is drop-dead beautiful, designed to turn heads like perhaps no “green” luxury car before it.

Sinuous character lines? Check. Butterfly doors? Check. Laser-beam headlights? Check.

But the car’s green cred is debatable, as the point of a plug-in hybrid is to limit gas consumption, and our i8 tester didn’t achieve that feat very well. More on that later.

To offset the weight of a complex powertrain and undoubtedly give the car even more of an eco-friendly leg to stand on, BMW engineers used a multitude of lightweight materials in the i8.

It rides on an aluminum chassis, has a carbon-fiber-reinforced-plastic “lifecell” (passenger cabin in non-BMW parlance) and thermoplastic body panels.

The i8’s interior rear window also has the first automotive application of Corning’s Gorilla Glass, used on smartphones for its thinness, lightness and durability.

The sports car’s total weight at minimum is 3,285 lbs. (1,490 kg), which the automaker says is about 20% less than what it would be had the i8 been made with a body.

Taking a page from General Motors’ Voltec propulsion system, BMW splits driving duties between an electric motor – the i8 uses the i3’s 129-hp (96-kW) unit, mounted in front – and a rear-mounted gasoline engine borrowed from the ’14 Mini Cooper.

The 1.5L turbocharged, direct-injected 3-cyl. in the i8 makes 231 hp and 236 lb.-ft. (320 Nm) of torque and can recharge the car’s 7.1-kWh lithium-ion battery pack in certain instances, making the i8 a partially extended-range electric vehicle.

Total system output is 362 hp and 420 lb.-ft. (569 Nm) – eye-popping figures for sure.

However, the problem with ecosmart performance cars is that utilizing their full capabilities makes them not so green.

On-Road Performance Mixed

Spirited driving along the Pacific Coast Highway by a cabin mate quickly saps our test car’s 13 miles (21 km) of electric range, fewer than the stated European-test-cycle maximum of 22 miles (35 km). Air conditioning, needed on a characteristically warm, sunny Southern California day, doesn’t help matters.

During WardsAuto’s first turn behind the wheel, we are solely on engine power, minus any trickle charge provided by regenerative braking.

At the end of 25 miles (40 km) of driving at speeds about 50 mph (80 km/h), we achieve 27.8 mpg (8.5 L/100 km). That’s outstanding for a large, powerful sports car, but not out of the realm of possibility with non-electrified competitors.

The ’14 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray coupe has an EPA-estimated 28 mpg (8.4 L/100 km) highway rating when its 455-hp 6.2L V-8 is matched to a 6-speed automatic transmission.

In a second i8, driven in heavy traffic after lunch with plentiful braking, range grows from 14 to 17 miles (23 to 27 km), and we achieve an average 71.9 mpg (3.3 L/100 km). Much better.

Still, it will be the rare buyer who has a daily driving route of less than 22 miles, or has access to a charger they can use during the workday. However, if a charger is available it takes a scant 1-½ hours to fill the pack on a 240V line.

Getting in and out of the i8 is a carefully choreographed endeavor and calls into question BMW’s target audience of 40- and 50-year-olds. Entry, by sitting on the wide, high sill, then shimmying down into the seat, is easier than exiting, which requires boosting oneself over the sill from a sunken seating position.

We won’t even get into what it takes to get in and out of the tiny backseat.

The i8’s interior is sedate and doesn’t mirror the dramatic exterior, save for turquoise seatbelts. But controls are in easy reach, and simulated gauges on the screen behind the steering wheel transmit lots of data and they coolly change from blue to red when the car is switched into sport mode.

Sport is one of two possible transmission modes. “D” is automatic shifting while Sport, essentially “engine on,” allows for manual shifting and quickens acceleration and gear changes. Sport also provides a bigger power boost from the electric motor and more active regenerative braking.

There also are two drive settings, selectable via center-console buttons. Comfort is the default mode and blends motor and engine for optimal performance and fuel efficiency; Eco Plus is for those dedicated hypermilers who don’t mind a not-so-responsive accelerator and reduced AC output.

Still, we find off-the-line acceleration not shabby in Eco Plus. This car always is raring to go thanks to the motor’s 184 lb.-ft. (250 Nm) of torque, which is just as present in higher gears as it is in low ones.

We avoid wide-open throttle in Eco Plus, which brings on the engine, as the car thinks you may be trying to avoid an emergency situation.

The i8’s disc brakes are a tad grabby, especially creeping along in PCH traffic, but we’ve experienced worse.

Steering is direct but transmits little road feel, especially when power is coming only through the front wheels.

Being a low-and-wide vehicle, the i8 has scant body roll and powers out of corners with all four tires firmly gripping the pavement. The car is front-wheel drive when on electric power but varies from rear-wheel to all-wheel drive otherwise.

Kudos to BMW for trying to redefine performance for less-gluttonous times, but for now the i8 is merely a novelty act, albeit an incredibly attractive one. It should get better in the future, as Li-ion technology improves and gives the car real electric range that won’t leave a buyer wanting.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com

'15 BMW i8 Specifications

Vehicle type 2-door, 4-seat plug-in-hybrid car
Electric motor 129 hp (96 kW) permanent-magnet hybrid synchronous
Power (SAE net) 362 hp (266 kW) total
Torque 420 lb.-ft. (569 Nm) total
Transmission Direct-drive (front)/6-speed automatic (rear)
Wheelbase 110 ins. (2,800 mm)
Overall length 185 ins. (4,689 mm)
Overall width 80 ins. (2,039 mm)
Overall height 51 ins. (1,298 mm)
Curb weight 3,285 lbs. (1,490 kg)
Base price $135,900 (not incl. $725 destination and handling)
Fuel economy TBD
Competition Porsche 918 Spyder, Tesla Model S
Pros Cons
Gorgeous, stunning, beautiful exterior Interior more sedate
Needs no gas Unless you want to travel beyond 22 miles
Fast Performance saps green-ness