If you're going to build a sports car, you have to be prepared to have it judged by the benchmark in the category: the Porsche 911. So when BMW brought its exciting new BMW i8 hybrid to California, we had a Type-991 Porsche 911 50th Anniversary Edition Coupe hidden around the corner. And when nobody was looking, we fired up the boxer-six motor.
While the Porsche 911 has a pedigree that's half-a-century old and personifies the German sports car, the BMW i8 is the new-kid-on-the-block. It promises driving fun without depleting the world's resources. It's also on the cutting edge of the very latest technology, while the 911 is desperately trying to hold onto its glorious past.
At 7am on another perfect SoCal day, the cream-coloured 50th Anniversary Porsche 911 was already basking in the early morning sun in Malibu. It was receiving plenty of admiring glances from early morning joggers, but what would you expect? Fifty years of development have matured the 911 into the iconic sports car, and the current 991 variant is arguably one of the best to date.
A few minutes later we detect a disturbance in the force. The BMW i8 glides into view, looking like a spacecraft from another galaxy. With no obvious soundtrack, it whispers past and comes to rest a few yards away.
We feel convention and tradition falter. The familiar rules of displacement, power, noise and acceleration are beginning to implode. Joggers stop dead in their tracks as all attention is focused on the newcomer.
Suddenly, the previously sleek Porsche looked like yesterday's news. And while the palm trees might still reflect in the 911's nose and voluptuous fenders, once the i8's scissor doors reach for the blue sky, all was lost. The icon has been relegated to the sidelines.
TechnologyWe run in tandem from Malibu to Beverly Hills, where Porsches are a common sight. Yet even here, with its unique paint scheme and checkered seats, the Anniversary model barely garners a glance.
In contrast, the BMW i8 is set upon by swarms of people. In a culture that appreciates new and shiny, the i8 is top dog. It's cool by default and dozens of phone cameras are pointed our way, snapping photos that will instantly be posted to social media.
The BMW i8 looks so similar to the original concept car that most people couldn't believe it was already in production and would soon hit showrooms.
If the primary task of a sports car is an extension of its owner's personality; a means to convey themselves to the world, then the i8 is the best sports car on the planet right now. Fast, yet with eco-friendly credentials, it's literally the best of both worlds.
More than that, if you're predisposed to making a grand entrance, this is the ideal car. After making a silent entry under electric power, you gracefully swing open the scissor door, exhibiting the swathes of exposed carbon fiber. After that, you'll be the undisputed local hero.
The only snag is trying to remain dignified while clambering over the wide carbon fiber sills. Practice will inevitably help but ladies might want to consider the length of their skirt...
The BMW i8 not only looks squeaky clean, it drives that way too. So long as you don't have to ascend steep hills, the first 22 miles can be covered silently and emissions-free in the eDrive mode.
Even when the three-cylinder turbocharged motor kicks in to charge the batteries or offer some assistance, you can still cruise while sipping the equivalent of 94mpg thanks to the hybrid drive.
"On average, the i8 consumes about half as much fuel as a conventional sports car in a comparable driving test," explained project manager, Carsten Breitfeld from BMW. As with most cars, if you don't concentrate hard in real world driving, the i8 might struggle to match the advertised numbers, although we only had a relatively short time to assess it.
While the rear of the Porsche packs the usual 3.8-liter flat-six engine with 400hp and 325 lb-ft of torque, the i8's output comes from two separate motors. Power to the front axle comes from the eDrive electric motor that produces 129hp with anything from 64- to 369 lb-ft torque, depending on gear, load, charge, speed, etc. The e-motor is connected to a two-speed gearbox and draws its power from a 7.1kWh lithium-ion battery pack in the central tunnel.
A three-cylinder 1.5-liter motor derived from the Mini powerplant drives the rear wheels through a six-speed automatic gearbox. Except it was tuned to a healthy 228hp and 236 lb-ft thanks to a small turbocharger. In addition, there's a second, smaller electric motor that acts as a starter and was designed to effectively fill the gaps in the petrol engine's torque curve. Total system output is 357hp with maximum torque of 420 lb-ft.
Because BMW crammed lots of technology into the i8, they spent lots of time attempting to reduce weight in other areas. So, like the i3, it features an aluminium/carbon fiber chassis with a carbon fiber body, dropping the weight to a reasonable 3270 lb.
While this is impressive for a plug-in hybrid with two engines and hundreds of batteries, it's only average for a high-performance sports car. The Porsche, for example, using conventional steel and aluminium construction, but with the weight penalty of its PDK transmission, tips the scales at 3313 lb.
Obviously, Porsche also has a hybrid sports car: the impressive 918 Spyder. With an output of 887hp, it's more than double that of the i8. The Spyder can also reach 215mph, travel 19 miles in e-drive and return an overall consumption of 78mpg. However, we're not comparing apples with apples. The 918 also has a price tag almost six-times greater than the i8. So in that respect, when you consider the jaw-dropping theater the BMW delivers, its $135700 price seems almost a bargain. It's also competitive with the $121400 911 Anniversary Edition, which is why both cars show up here.
DrivingMulholland Drive or Latigo Canyon in Malibu is where petrolheads like Jay Leno or Magnus Walker come out to play. Hollywood's high society shows off its automotive jewelry. This is where arriving in a Porsche is seen as a minimum requirement.
Away from the stoplights, the Carrera S sets the benchmark here with a 0-60mph time of 4.2sec. But the i8 can live with serious sports cars, and its 0-60 is identical. Both cars are also limited to 155mph.
With its battery pack in the middle of the floorpan, the i8 has the lowest center of gravity (18") of any BMW. And the cooperation of its electric and petrol motors delivers a traction advantage. That said, every sports car must be good in the bends, and for a car with this intent, the i8 is immediately handicapped by its relatively narrow 20x7.5 and x8" wheels wrapped in 215/45 and 245/45 tires, respectively - and while these are standard equipment in the US, European versions come with even narrower rubber.
The 911 is more appropriately shod with 20x8.5" and x11" wheels, wrapped in sticky 245/35 and 295/30 rubber, rather than the low-resistance Bridgestones on the BMW. As such, the Porsche feels as if it was born to hug the curves on our hillside test course, effortlessly sweeping around every bend like a well-developed thoroughbred.
Captain Future starts to feel out of his depth here. Even in Sport mode, with its active damping working overtime, the skinny tires screech and the ESP light flickers like a demented disco ball. The i8 protests at being asked to follow the 911, delivering more and more understeer the harder you push it.
This is frustrating because the rest of the car is so good. It feels as if the engineers avoided the temptation to make the i8 handle like a proper sports car, but they did have a lot more to consider...
Maybe canyon roads are simply too "old school" for the BMW, and not a priority for the New Age machine, but whatever the reason, the Porsche won that round by a country mile.
InsideBoth cars carry their respective themes to the interior, with the 911 dashboard exactly what you'd expect from a modern interpretation of a classic design. It has big analog instruments and a plethora of individual buttons that can be fiddly if you need to find something quickly at speed.
The BMW's cockpit could be described as either stylish or sterile, depending on your taste. Yet whoever designed the dashboard got carried away with digital displays. All lit up, it's like a video game with confusing graphics. Initially, it requires some effort to find and interpret the information you need. With each driving mode, not only the color but also the contents of the screens changes.
The good news is that the BMW controls, such as the electric power steering, feel connected and alive rather than like a simulator. In fact, we were surprised that the diminutive three-cylinder motor in the rear sounded as throaty and charismatic as it did.
Thanks to its layout and sound generator adding to the basic engine note, the turbo motor is reminiscent of Porsche's flat-six in an odd way. However, the Porsche motor is the more vocal and authentic of the two by far, especially when you press the button to open the exhaust bypass valve.
Predictably, these two sports cars have a few negative features in common, such as the meager luggage space, almost pointless rear seats and plastic panels denying owners a view of the motor.
WinnerSo which car is the winner? Is it the old school favorite or the intergalactic ambassador from the future?
With just a morning to compare and contrast both cars, the answer to the question was far from easy...
Above all else, the BMW had significantly more presence on the road, and was more rela to use for regular driving. But add a challenging road into the equation and, besides the abundant torque that launches the i8 out of bends, the accolade for driver's choice sits squarely with the Porsche 911; the paradigm of a traditional German sportscar.
And yet that's not really the answer either, because both of these cars are more than the sum of their parts. The Porsche is an emotional delight. It matches your enthusiasm and encourages you to push a little harder, rewarding the driver with a visceral experience.
The BMW can offer rapid transportation that's adept in all situations but maybe doesn't excel in the important areas. It might not be the car you'd pick for a Sunday morning canyon carving session, but it would probably be the one you'd choose for almost every other situation. It's stylish, well built, technologically advanced, fascinating in its complexity yet breath-taking in its application. It allows you to go green in the city and go wild in the country - not quite as wild as the 911, admittedly, but it's no slouch. The i8 has zero body roll, good breaks and great acceleration.
The diehard Porsche fans probably won't give the i8 another thought, although we'd recommend everybody test drive this car to experience how far plug-in technology has come. Porsche has admitted a hybrid will be part of the next generation 911 range. So before long we can see if Stuttgart is able to improve on Munich's fascinating combination of electric power in a sports car.
As for which of these sports cars we'd take, our vote narrowly goes to the BMW i8 for being like nothing else on the road today
Tech Spec2015 BMW i8
rear gasoline engine, RWD; front electric motor, FWD
1499cc inline B38 three-cylinder 12v gasoline engine with turbo, Vanos, Valvetronic, direct injection, BMW eDrive electric motor for EV and hybrid drive
six-speed automatic transmission rear, two-speed automatic front
four-piston calipers, 13.4" rotors f, single-piston, 13.4" r
aluminum double-wishbones f, five-link axle r
Wheels & Tires
20x7.5" f, 20x8" r wheels, 215/45 R20 f, 245/45 R20 r tires
Max power (gasoline)
228hp at 5800rpm
Max torque (gasoline)
236lb-ft at 3700rpm
Max power (electric)
129hp at 4800rpm
Max torque (electric)
Max power (combined)
Max torque (combined)
75mph (in EV mode)
Tech Spec2014 Porsche 911 50th Anniversary Edition
3800cc flat-six DOHC, 24v, VarioCam Plus with Porsche Powerkit
seven-speed PDK dual-clutch transmission, Porsche Torque Vectoring (PTV) with mechanical differential lock, Sport Chrono package
six-piston calipers, 340mm drilled rotors f, four-piston, 330mm r
MacPherson strut f, five-link r, PASM electronically controlled dampers
Wheels & Tires
20x8.5" f, 20x11" r Fuchs-style wheels, 245/35 ZR20 f, 305/30 ZR20 r tires
430hp at 7400rpm
325 lb-ft at 5600rpm
3313 lb (PDK)