For all the billions poured into R&D, the motor industry can still come across as a rather conservative place. Innovation is largely incremental and quantum leaps are few and far between, held in check by a thicket of regulations and the ever-present fear of (expensive) failure. All credit, then, to BMW. When the company announced its 'Project i' programme back in 2008, the lengthy gap between concept and reality might have tried everyone's patience. The wait was worth it.
The original BMW Concept Vision Efficient Dynamics was first shown in 2009. That car became the BMW i8, although the final production version didn't break cover until four years later in 2013. It wasn't until summer 2014 that the first customers took delivery of a car that - by rights - should have felt distinctly last season. Yet it's a massive credit to the company's design team that the BMW i8 still looks like nothing else on the road. Concocted from a wilfully abstract arrangement of intersecting curves, it is recognisably a sporting BMW that combines nods to the great M1 of the late 1970s with distinctly avant-garde surfaces inside and out.
From the gull-wing doors to the sinuous line of blue trim that weaves its way around the interior, the i8 is perfectly executed futurism. Few modern cars attract the same attention. Passers-by might turn their heads at the approaching howl of a conventional supercar, but any visual drama soon pales against the aural onslaught of a barking exhaust pipe, especially in the cramped, echoing confines of the city.
Thanks to its complex but utterly convincing combination of compact engine and electric motors, the i8 just glides by in silence. Even when your battery charge is depleted the car is still hushed and refined on conventional power. BMW's engineers have cannily synthesised a more sporting exhaust note for occupants' ears only, played discretely through the stereo, so you can feel like you're tearing up the streets without appearing like a total hooligan in the process.
Out on the open road, the i8 accelerates and handles like a true sports car, proudly bearing BMW's traditional focus on balance, dynamics and steering precision. It's not quite as razor sharp as a Lotus or Porsche, but in mitigation the benefits far outweigh its immediate challengers. Thanks to the weight saving carbon fibre construction that offsets the heft of the batteries, the plug-in hybrid system not only delivers strong fuel economy but also excellent performance from a tiny petrol engine - the same as found in a Mini. At the same time, the packaging allows room (just about) for four, while the dashboard technology is class-leading and the cabin is a joy to sit in and operate.
Were we to give out a 'car of the year' prize, there's no doubt the i8 would be a strong favourite. In the next 18 months, others will attempt to replicate this formula - an electric Audi R8 is rumoured, for starters - but there's no doubt that right now the BMW i8 is the future made convincingly real and highly desirable.