FIRST DRIVE: BMW i8 Roadster – It’s all about the journey

Test Drives | April 29th, 2018 by 10
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The BMW i8 Roadster is a very unusual car to review for an automotive journalist. Firstly, there is nothing on the market that comes close …

The BMW i8 Roadster is a very unusual car to review for an automotive journalist. Firstly, there is nothing on the market that comes close to its design and technology, so the inevitable comparison to a competitor is missing. Secondly, if there is one thing that everyone agrees on is the design of the i8 family. The older brother, the i8 Coupe, has won several design awards and has unequivocally been labeled as one of the coolest BMWs to own, or at least to look at.

Then finally, the performance of this plug-in hybrid is, for once, not a priority for the reviewer. Now of course, this is just my opinion and maybe not shared by my fellow automotive journalists, but nonetheless, those were my thoughts heading into Mallorca, Spain to sample the beautiful two-seater futuristic roadster.

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As with any car that I get my hands on, I always try to put myself in the shoes of its owner, keeping an open an mind and always acknowledging that cars are not a “one shoe fits all” type of thing, but rather individual tastes that dictate the direction of your thumb. So in my mind, the owner of an i8 Roadster is sophisticated, accomplished, confident and most importantly, owns more than just one car. To this type of customer, the i8 Roadster is that extravagant car that attracts the envy of many, but without getting the “douchebag” label attached to it.

It’s environmental-friendly, futuristic and to many, it’s still an enigma. While most of the BMWs are easily recognizable, only the automotive connoisseurs know who the “i family” is and implicitly, the cars that emerge under it. A similar experience occurred when I first drove the i8 Coupe – some recognized it as a BMW, but were unaware of the model type, while many were simply dumbfounded that this is indeed a bimmer.

A Visual Magnet

Fast forward a few years later and now the i8 Roadster is going through the same process of building market awareness. Its design is just as stunning as the i8 Coupe, in some cases I would say it’s more exotic and unique, and for those that live in the sunny parts of the world, the roadster might become the jewel in their garage.

While I was exploring the beautiful backroads and shorelines of Mallorca, I immediately ran into a problem with the i8 Roadster – its beauty was making my life as a journalist harder than ever. Countless times I found myself pulling over to capture that perfect shot with an amazing backdrop, just to be immediately surrounded and harassed – in a good way – by bystanders or by drivers who would simply stop to ask me about the roadster. Forget about filming the car with a drone; the moment I would step away to take myself out of the frame, a horde of curious people would begin lengthy photoshoot sessions and endless social media activities.

“What is it? Is it fully electric? It’s really a BMW? What’s the range and consumption? How much does it cost? When does it come out? But is it really a BMW that you can buy today”?

So a change in strategy was needed – answer the questions a couple of times, then proceed with my drive since a long day was ahead of me and all those stops would cut into my precious driving time.

Technical Highlights

But first, let’s get some of the technical specs out of the way. The three-cylinder, 1.5-liter turbocharged petrol engine is untouched in the i8 Roadster, producing 228 hp and 236 lb-ft and is mated to an electric motor and six-speed automatic gearbox, powering the rear wheels. While an electric motor powers the front wheels, thus giving it real-time torque-vectoring all-wheel drive. The latter engine makes 141 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, up only slightly from the non-LCI BMW i8.

So 0-60 mph happens in about the same 4.2 seconds. BMW claims there’s no performance penalty with the Roadster, and we can attest to that.

Now for the techies in the house, here is some data on the battery pack in the i8 Roadster – The capacity of the lithium-ion battery has been increased, now at 34 ampere-hours instead of 20, and gross energy capacity now 11.6 kWh, up from 7.1. This permits an increased electric-only driving range up from 20 to 33 miles.

Replacing the fixed hardtop roof of the BMW i8 Coupe is an electrically-operated soft-top roof on the i8 Roadster. The heavily soundproofed, soft-top roof can open and close in less than 16 seconds, which is actually quite quick. It can also operate on the move, up to 31 mph, so getting caught in the rain won’t be so bad. “Luckily”, I had the chance to test the mechanism several times during my drive, thanks to the quick-changing weather in Palma de Mallorca.

BMW has used a mechanism with such complex parts that they had to do 3D printing in order to create certain components. In return, with the hidden roof, we have a nice silhouette and two “humps” that in turn serve as a safety structure in the event of a rollover.

One positive thing when compared to the always-closed off i8 Coupe is the entry and exit from the roadster, which is far less awkward when the roof is down.

Another design element that some may find odd when compared to the fixed roof i8 is the closed-off air vent in the front bonnet. According to BMW engineers and designers, the idea behind this functional – or non-functional element, depends how you look at it – was to remove the hot air blowing over the header rail onto the roadster’s passengers. Instead, the air is now redirected out through the front wheelarches and under the car, which would affect its aerodynamic coefficient. In order to address that, a new rear diffuser was designed, along with a front splitter that directs the air accordingly to minimize lift as it travels under the car.

Inside, the configuration is the same as the i8 Coupe, but with the updated technology, and a more modern look. The cozy cabin features a sports steering wheel, a multi-function instrument display, head-up display and perforated leather upholstery. The seats, while sporty, are very ergonomic and behind them, even the compartment has been designed in a way to accommodate two small bags, or a small set of golf clubs or tennis racquets.

The weight penalty for the Roadster is only 132 pounds over the Coupe, for a total curb weight of 3,521 lbs. So in other words, performance during normal driving is similar. Yet, there are some refinements in the i8 Roadster which makes it a bit more fun to drive than the Coupe.

New spring and damper settings are giving the i8 Roadster a more direct front-end steering, the wheel feels slightly heavier and there’s more grip and less understeer than before. Now to be fair, those things will probably not going to be noticed by many i8 Roadster drivers since the experience and the journey is what matters most to them.

But my job is to point out and inform of these “little changes”, which in fact are marvelous engineering achievements.

One refreshing aspect of the i8 Roadster lies within its power delivery. Regardless of the driving mode you’re in – hybrid, sport or electric – the power delivery is predictable, with an edge to the electric mode where the car feels really special. The brakes have been refined as well and are more intuitive – the swap from energy regeneration to physical braking feels relatively seamless, and doesn’t take any effort or time to get accustomed to.

On the Mallorcan roads filled with half the cyclists of Europe, the i8 Roadster slides between endless curves with a lot of precision and confidence, fast and steady, and with plenty of traction to bail you out, if needed. It was also quite fun to constantly and consistently “dance” on the road to avoid the true owners of those scenic roads – the “next generation” of Tour de France champions.

One good thing about these backroads driving experience was the ability to quickly recharge the electric battery, so there is a silver lining in everything.

As always, I engaged the Sport mode to get that BMW feel some of us still love and cherish. The little but potent three-cylinder delivers plenty of oomph and responsiveness, making the tight corners even more fun to overtake. The exhaust sound is not too shabby either – BMW says that it has been improved compared to previous Coupe – and makes the open-top driving experience even more exquisite.

The electric mode of the i8 Roadster makes city driving to be actually enjoyable, and coming from a BMW i3, I was quite used to the quick-off-start acceleration and to the brake regeneration process at every opportunity in traffic. A firm push of the throttle though can quickly engage the three-cylinder engine, but I found myself rarely in a city driving situation when that made more sense than the eDrive.

The hybrid mode is likely the one where most i8 Roadster drivers will live in. It was built for maximum efficiency and cruising, and it’s relaxing, effortless and pleasant.

As with all convertibles, wind noise is an important concern, but fortunately, due to its design and driving position, the cabin is fairly quiet and a soft-spoken conversation can easily take place.

A few hours later and some sun tan, I once again knew who the i8 Roadster will cater to. As my opening title says, the i8 Roadster promotes the idea of a journey, from your home to your summer house or boat, to a vineyard or simply a cruise down a shoreline. While performance is still important to BMW’s core values, the i8 Roadster doesn’t aim to put that at the forefront, but rather using the power and dynamic driving as an enhancer of your already beautiful life. And car.

In a nutshell, the BMW i8 Roadster manages to combine sustainability with the emotion of a luxury sports car, and will make sure you will be at the center of attention everywhere you go.

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