First Drive: 2018 BMW i8 Roadster

First Drive: 2018 BMW i8 Roadster

When BMW unveiled its Vision Efficient Dynamics concept back in 2009, we assumed it would probably stay just that, a concept. But then BMW actually went and put it into production in 2013 as the i8. It changed slightly from the concept of course, but today, five years after it first rolled off the production line, it still looks like a concept car, something from the future even in an era where cars of the future are rapidly becoming cars of today.

Just a year after the i8 concept was unveiled in 2011, BMW revealed the Concept Spyder but production on the open-top version was delayed a number of times. Six years after the Spyder was first shown, the company has finally delivered on the promise it made back in Beijing in 2012 and delivered the i8 Roadster, still looking every bit the concept car.

In spite of the fact that the i8 has been around for a while, it still remains a rare sight, especially on the island of Mallorca off the coast of Spain where, in all honesty, the narrow roads full of thousands of cyclists and tourists in French and Korean hatchbacks, are definitely more suited to a Mini (we drove the latest Mini while there — more on that in a future issue).

Designer Matthias Junghanns didn’t have too much work to do on the Roadster. Essentially it has kept most of the looks of the coupe, but obviously the soft-top required a few changes. The gullwing style doors remain but gone are the window frames from the coupe. Here there is a clear engineering limitation though, because the windows do not disappear completely into the doors, (an issue that also plagues the coupe), leaving a slight design irritation with a couple of centimetres of glass remaining above the upper door line.

Behind the cabin, the sweeping pillars have been remodelled slightly and between them the glass of the coupe has been replaced by the storage cover for the roof which can be opened or closed in 15 seconds at speeds up to 50km/h. There is also an electrically operated window which helps to reduce wind noise and an engine cover with ventilation grilles. There is also a new panel to replace the rear windows of the coupe with the Roadster badging across it.

The interior is the same as the coupe although of course with only two seats instead of the 2+2 of the hard-top and you get some unique Roadster trim options and the new head-up display with gearshift indicator. There is also 92-litres of additional space behind the seats, enough for a couple of weekend bags or backpacks and even a golf bag, though without the clubs we were told. BMW has also created a set of tailored luggage for the space.

Everything about the i8 Roadster retains that futuristic look, but it gains something by being a soft-top too. It is unlike any other sports car out there, by which we mean the Audi R8, Porsche 911 or more exotic machinery such as the Lamborghini Huracan or Ferrari 488. But we can only compare it to these rivals under the category of sports car, because the i8 is very different to all of them because of course, it is a battery-electric hybrid.

Advances in battery technology have allowed BMW to increase the capacity of the lithium-ion batteries from 20 to 34Ah, and energy capacity also rises from 7.1 to 11.6kWh. The power of the electric motor is up an additional 9kW to 105kW. This all translates into the ability to drive faster on the electric motor, up to 105km/h although push the eDrive button and you can push it to 120km/h. BMW is claiming 53km of electric-only driving but that is all dependent on driving style and speed.

Fortunately the electric motor still gets some help from the three-cylinder 1.5-litre Mini engine. Here power remains the same at 170kW.

Combined the Roadster hits 100km/h two tenths slower than the coupe at 4.6 seconds, mainly due to the additional 60kg of weight for the soft-top. Fortunately not too much strengthening of the body was required, with Robert Irlinger, senior vice-president for BMW telling us that when they cut into the carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) structure, they found it retained its characteristic strength.

Another weight reduction, albeit a small one, was through the use of a 3D printed aluminium clasp for the soft top. It’s a very clever and intricate piece of engineering and the first full production BMW component to be 3D printed.

But does it drive like a sports car? Well yes and no.

Firstly, some changes have been made to the vehicle dynamics and while the narrow roads of Mallorca and the possibility of cyclists coming at us on the wrong side of the road did restrict exploring the Roadster’s limits somewhat, it all felt very positive. There was tremendous grip and the car felt very well sorted even on some of the bumpier roads.

That instant power from the electric motor made light work of rapid acceleration and on more than one occasion the electric mode startled a cyclist or two when they turned around to find an i8 cruising silently behind them.

It is this lack of sound that is a big problem though.

Traditionally sports cars make noise. In the future they might be silent. The i8 sits in the middle, being silent sometimes but then that three-cylinder motor boosts the power. It doesn’t boost the sound. Driving through a tunnel with the windows down it sounds nothing like a sports car at all, it doesn’t even have the great sound of a Mini.

There is some synthesised noise but BMW has wound it down slightly at the request of customers, but it is all rather disappointing, especially in something that looks so fantastic and costs R2 329 300.

So who is it aimed at then? Well discussions with the BMW execs revealed that it is unlikely to be bought by anyone as their only sports car. Buyers will probably have at least one other piece of performance machinery in their garage that makes proper sports car noise. Essentially the i8 coupe and Roadster are statements, a toe being dipped into the water of future motoring trends.

You want performance, you want automotive art and you want to be a trend-setter, to show that you have a slightly green heart but still like to have a bit of fun. In this regard the i8 is brilliant, but in the ways that will count to many who relish the true sports car experience, it will be just a bit too expensive and a bit too flawed. – Mark Smyth