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BMW finally answers Tesla with a “green” supercar

Up till now, Tesla (TSLA) has had the market for high-end greenmobiles pretty much to itself. But that first-mover advantage is ending.

BMW has just rolled out the head-snapping i8, a plug-in supercar that will test just how much big spenders are willing to pay for a racer with a green badge. This real-life Batmobile starts at about $140,000, but availability is limited for now, and some sellers are asking well over $200,000 for the car. BMW says production should ramp up by next year.

The i8 is the first plugin hybrid that really gets XCAR excited. Not only will it manage amazing MPG, but it'll see a Porsche 911 off to 62mph. It's truly a special car.
The i8 is the first plugin hybrid that really gets XCAR excited. Not only will it manage amazing MPG, but it'll see a Porsche 911 off to 62mph. It's truly a special car.

The i8 isn’t a full electric like the Tesla Model S, but a hybrid that has both an electric motor and a nifty little three-cylinder, twin-turbo gasoline engine. What you notice driving the i8 is that you simply go fast, whichever drive mode you’re in.

For geeks who care about the details: The i8 lets you go about 20 miles on electric power alone, and recharge the battery at home. When the electric power runs low, the gas engine kicks in, while regenerative braking continues to push a small electric boost to the front wheels. Put both systems together and it adds up to a 357-horsepower rocket wrapped in super-lightweight carbon-fiber and aluminum. Fuel economy ranges from 28 MPG to 78 MPG, depending on which mode of driving you're in.

Nobody will buy the gull-wing i8 for fuel economy alone, but BMW hopes this supercar will attract superbuyers who want to show off their concern for Mother Earth.

“The i8 will absolutely pull buyers away from Tesla,” says Karl Brauer of car-research site KBB.com. “It's got a similar philosophy while being even more overt and distinctive in its exterior design.” There’s also BMW's novelty: The Tesla Model S has become commonplace on California highways and in other trendy locales, and its cool factor is fading. Few Americans, by contrast, have seen an i8 on the road up until now—but the moment they do, they’re sure to stop and stare.

BMW loaned us an i8 for a few days, and we tested it out at the Monticello Motor Club north of New York City, as shown in the video above. The car has far more capability than an ordinary driver can handle on a track. In curves, it dares you to challenge the laws of physics. Acceleration makes you wonder who put JP4 in the tank. (Note to BMW: We kept our track speed under control, and traction control ON.) You could spend a few hours studying the complex interplay between the two powerplants, or just grin and enjoy it.

How different is it from Tesla?

Teslanauts might argue that the i8 is completely different from the $70,000 Model S, a spacious sedan that seats five comfortably, with a much bigger battery pack than the i8 and an all-electric range of 265 miles. The i8, admittedly, won’t get the whole family to the soccer game. It has two comically small rear seats that would barely fit a Barbie doll. Its smaller footprint, plus all that carbon, make it about 1,000 pounds lighter than the Model S , which is why it’s so agile. And Tesla, to preserve bragging rights, will soon roll out a “dual-motor” Model S with extra power that will make it even quicker, on paper at least, than the i8.

But keep in mind -- electric vehicles aren’t about horsepower wars. For the technology to succeed, it needs to become affordable enough for ordinary drivers who don’t have a superbudget. And that’s where BMW may have the biggest edge. The i8’s little brother is the i3, a $45,000 plug-in that can go about 70 miles on a charge, with saucy handling meant to assure you this is no emasculated Prius.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is probably smirking, because the i3 looks like a Scandinavian hearse. Still, BMW fielded a lower-priced EV before Tesla, and Yahoo Autos recently named the i3 its Green Car of the Year. Other automakers are likely to get ahead of Tesla in this segment as well, since Tesla’s own downmarket model isn’t due until model year 2017. And let’s not forget, mass-market brands such as Chevy (GM), Nissan and Ford (F) already offer even lower-priced electrics.

All of this is good news for car buyers, because electric vehicles are now considered proven enough that automakers are willing to field a variety of models. For that, we do, in fact, owe a debt to Tesla, which invested big in electrification when others were barely willing to experiment with it. But now that Tesla is facing some extremely tough competition, the race will get a lot more interesting.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.