BMW’s latest roadster will sure get you noticed. This roofless i8 blends new age tech with truly sensational styling but is it also a driver’s car?
How do you make one of the most dramatic looking production cars ever appear even more arresting? By removing the roof. BMW’s i8 is now a few years old but it still looks astonishing when one makes a rare appearance in traffic. The same goes for this new Roadster which is something else again. So is the price, but we’ll get to that.
The Roadster joins the Coupe as the headline act of BMW’s i line-up, the latter receiving the mildest of cosmetic updates, but would you mess with the i8’s design? The Roadster uses the same aluminium chassis as the Coupe from which hangs the suspension and it also houses the engine, battery and motor, while the passenger cell is formed from carbon fibre-reinforced plastic. It has its own frameless doors, rising gullwing like, and the windscreen frame is made of CFRP for added rigidity.
The Roadster also receives reinforced sills and additional panels and struts underneath. BMW says the weight difference between the Coupe and Roadster is 60kg at a quoted 1595kg, though the NZ spec car measured up at 1653kg, as it carries most of the optional equipment as standard. This convertible does have a solid feel about it, not in terms of weight but rigidity, with little in the way of scuttle shake.
While the exterior looks otherworldly the interior is fairly conventional. There’s a mix of generic BMW switch gear with carbon and leather trim and it’s all well constructed. The seats are new, and there’s the updated iDrive with CarPlay. The soft top disappears in around 15sec, and transforms at speeds up to 50km/h. With the windows raised, including the retractable rear screen, buffeting is minimal, though there’s the usual wind noise at speed.
Where the Coupe has two useless rear seats, the Roadster fills that space with useful storage cubbies to complement the small boot out back as there’s no frunk (translation; front trunk), the space up north dedicated to the electric motor.
The i8’s hybrid powertrain sees a motor power the front axle via a two-speed transmission while a conventional engine drives the rears. The lithium-ion battery capacity has risen from 20 to 34Ah giving the motor nine extra kilowatts, for a peak of 105, though torque remains at 250Nm. The bump in battery efficiency also sees the electric drive range improve to a quoted maximum of 53km.
The 1.5 three-pot turbo sees 170kW and 320Nm fed to the rears through a six-speed auto. There are no updates here, other than the addition of a particulate filter. The system output is quoted at 275kW and 570Nm, the Roadster realising 100km/h in a claimed 4.6sec, which we managed once Launch Control was activated; it primes everything for maximum effort, including the gearshifts. Simply flattening the throttle in Sport mode registered sprints in the low fives.
There are three hybrid modes and an electric drive button. In E mode, it’s zippy enough, the torque hit instant but the front wheels can struggle to deploy it all seamlessly. While there are enough whirring Jetson-type noises to keep young minds amused, and the brake pedal isn’t too snatchy at low speeds, the i8 is at its best in its intended hybrid mode.
In the Comfort setting, the motor gets things underway smoothly and the triple adds its motive force according to throttle inputs. It rides pleasantly for a sporty Roadster thanks to adaptive dampers and other than the compromised rear vision and a large turning circle, it’s an easy commuter. Even getting onboard isn’t especially difficult, though women owners would be advised to wear pants, and you’ll eventually whack those doors on something, as they open up and out.
Sport mode maximises the power boost from the electric motor and also the regeneration process, while power dials on the digital dash morph into a tacho. While there are some aspects of the i8 Roadster’s dynamic performance we can appreciate, others had us pondering what we would rather spend the money on. It doesn’t quite warm the cockles of a driver’s heart the way something like a Porsche 718 does, or even a Mazda MX-5. It’s interesting, at times engaging but doesn’t quite get it all right.
The steering is light and accurate but you can detect the corruption of the drive through the front wheels on occasion and while there’s a sense of the action, it’s not quite as intimate as you’d hope for from a BMW sportster. The front end can start to push wide when pressed but with all-wheel traction and strong low-end torque, it pulls itself out of tighter bends efficiently. The suspension copes with most bumps but as things get livelier, it can get a bit busy, even a little light over larger lumps while other sportsters we’ve pointed around the reference loop hardly notice them. It doesn’t have the best stoppers either, with a so-so pedal feel (blame the regen) and lacking a little in ultimate power.
You have to admire how a 1.5-litre triple and a motor move this however. It’s not lightning quick, but fast enough for the road. The engine sounds pretty racy, aurally enhanced we suspect, and while it has a decent midrange, it’s spun out by 6000rpm. The paddle activated shifts are crisp enough but with only six-gears there are times when downshifts are denied.
We guess this is a socially responsible sportster, easy on gas (hammer down the average never got into double figures), and it gives its best before speeds get too silly. The official average is 2.1L/100km but that’ll depend on your ‘average commute’ and charging frequency. Like most plug-ins, it uses AC charging so can’t utilise the ChargeNet system, but from our experiences with these plugged hybrids, you charge them at home and all i8 owners would buy the BMW Wallbox, which will recharge a dead battery in three hours.
The i8’s exotic look and tech come with a hefty price, the Coupe being $286,200, the Roadster $309,900, or $317,900 with the laser headlights. They are one of only a few options as NZ i8s are fitted with just about everything available, though active safety is limited to low-speed AEB. The i8 Roadster will appeal to those who appreciate its technology, style and conspicuous presence but there other drop tops that offer more for a driver and charge a lot less for the privilege.
|Model||BMW i8 Roadster|
|Engine||1499cc, IL3, T/DI, 170kW/320Nm|
|Drivetrain||6-speed auto, e-AWD|