Road Tests

First Drive: BMW i8 roadster (2018) attempts bark and bite

It’s the car that got us excited about hybrid

As the vanguard of hybrid performance and desirability, that feeling hasn’t changed. I mean just feast your eyes on the images. BMW hasn’t tinkered with the basic proportions but now, bowing to popular demand, the company has introduced a roadster version to scoop up any temptation that might see customers head over to a 911 convertible, Mercedes-AMG GTC roadster, or Audi R8 Spyder. In the sportscar segment nearly everyone is expanding with a roadster alternative so this is BMW ticking another box.

Wasn’t that back in 2012?

Yes first images of an i8 roadster were teased that long ago and between then and now we also had something called the BMW i Vision Future which debuted at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show. But they’ve always fizzled out.

Until someone in Munich took a saw to the roof

And that’s genuinely what happened. A standard i8 coupe became a guinea pig for chassis integrity and airflow studies. The complexity is far greater than it looks because unlike competitors who develop a coupe and a roadster in parallel, work on the original i8 focussed entirely on coupe form. The roadster had to be improvised at some big rigmarole; new seat design just to pass crash studies. Get the idea?

BMW i8 roadster South Africa

The compromises are barely noticeable

Who said anything about compromise. The roadster hasn’t vetoed those butterfly doors. That’s the sort of hinge-witchcraft you get with a McLaren 570S Spider. Around the back, the differences are pronounced yet it’s the sort of taut, flat styling that justifies BMW’s choice to use a fabric roof which it folds into neat diagonals, leaving a small but deep boot.

Is this when you start talking kW/h

Battery tech has come a long way since the launch of i8 and i3 so it’s a matter of deposing the old with the new. This is possible because although the new batteries yield higher efficiency, the physical dimensions haven’t changed. Mind you, it’s still hard to get excited by the alchemy of battery tech; does a cell capacity of 34 Ah (from 20-) and gross energy capacity up from 7.1 to 11.6 kWh gird your loins for the future of speed? Either way, the important relatable number is 105kW of electric power which is up by 9kW. Hardly the development progress leap we were expecting – you usually see bigger gains from each evolution of the internal combustion engine. Except in this case because the 170kW, 320Nm 1.5-litre 3 cylinder is unchanged. Pity.

Let’s stick with the numbers

Hybrid cars are all about numbers. What seems like small gains on paper blossom into big improvements in emissions free driving. Speeds up to 120km/h (previously 70kph) in EV mode with an electric range of just over 50 kilometres which sees the new i8 around 10km further up the road compared to what came before it. But for me it’s the performance numbers that are disappointing. A 0-100km/h of 4.4 for the coupe is no faster than before. If you opt for the heavier roadster, it fares worse in every measurable test from range, C02 and acceleration. The marriage between hybrids and roadsters is flawed on multiple metrics compared to its coupe sibling. Weight is the enemy of any hybrid so opting for the roadster is counter-productive to the final objective – although at TopGearSA we still would…

 There’s a long tunnel approaching. Shift down and…

I don’t need to spill the guts on this one except to say I think this is where the whole hybrid roadster supercar thing falls a bit short. The bark isn’t bigger than the bite in the i8 roadster, or vice versa. A BMW M2 makes the hairs on your neck stand up a little faster – in fact anything from the M catalogue thrills a little harder. The i8 has to be the proverbial jack of all trades. And the pioneer of many new ones.

But I’m an early adopter. Technology excites me more than speed

Then by all means, choose the i8 roadster (R2 329 300) or coupe (R2 095 200). Piece by piece there’s nothing else that comes remotely close to possessing the same bandwidth. The i8 remains a benchmark marriage of speed and efficiency, drawing the roadmap for others to follow. In fact, the i8 inspires bright minds. The modern poster car. I feel proud to be at the wheel on the cusp of a new paradigm but I do wish BMW had poured equal amounts of R&D into its combustion engine as it has done with the EV side of things.

Is it all autonomous and big screens inside?

Carefully lower yourself by supporting your weight with your one arm outstretched to the door and the other poised to soften the crash while trying to clear the wide sill and apart from the i8 roadster being a 2-seater and the coupe a 2+2, both cabins are similar. Ok so the i Vision Future Spyder with its Air Touch interface that shunned all buttons is sadly not replicated in any shape or form (concept frustration) so the cockpit is guided by the familiar iDrive system, a small touch-enabled screen in the centre, TFT dials, and new head-up display, all of which plug in seamlessly with our sixth sense.

The i8 roadster adds noise cancelling which uses little microphones to record interior noise. The system then inverts the polarity and plays it back through the speakers. The result? A supressed supercar-ish shriek but a pleasant conversational GT cruiser. Such is the design and attention to detail that new fabric covers for the speaker grilles stop wind from swirling around in the old ones.

Verdict

Remarkable that given how quick brands are to close gaps that the i8 has existed in this segment almost completely unchallenged for the last four years. The next six months will change all that with a swell of newcomers but BMW’s holding the lead and within a growing i-brand, both the i8 coupe and i8 roadster remain at the apex of technology.

Pricing: 

  • BMW i8 coupe:          R2 095 200
  • BMW i8 roadster:       R2 329 300

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Show More

Related Articles