BMW i, Test Drives | October 9th, 2018 by Nico DeMattia
Prior to writing about cars, I didn’t have a great job. I had an hour commute each way, unsavory working conditions and mind-numbing work. However, during my lunch breaks, I’d scour the interwebs for car news, as I was still an enthusiast at heart. During that time, the BMW i8 had launched and I remember sitting at my work desk reading about it, dreaming that someday I’d have the opportunity to drive something so wild and futuristic. Fortunately, that day recently came just a couple of weeks ago.
Because I remember its launch, and that feeling of optimism that I’d someday drive it, I’ve always loved the BMW i8, despite its flaws. Its stunning and other-worldly looks combined with its hybrid powertrain and carbon fiber construction make it like nothing else on the road and completely blinded my eyes to its minor shortcomings.
Because it isn’t perfect, the i8. It’s not powerful and/or fast enough to keep up with other cars in its price range, it doesn’t really pack much pure electric range and it doesn’t really bring a supercar sound, or even a sports car sound, to its driving experience. But hot damn, it looks good.
Then, BMW updated the i8, giving it the brand’s typical LCI treatment. With that treatment came slightly revised looks, a bit more power and electric range and, most importantly, an entirely new model — the BMW i8 Roadster.
While the i8 was always a stunning car, able to turn heads with the likes of anything from Lamborghini, McLaren or Bugatti, the BMW i8 Roadster, is just so much better looking. There’s something about the i8 that looks just absolutely breathtaking sans roof. Admittedly, it’s more of a targa top than in is a full-on convertible, but ditching that section of roof makes the Roadster variant look significantly better than its fixed-top sibling.
When I had asked BMW for a press car, I had put in a request for a few different cars, just to see which would be available. The new BMW i8 Roadster was thrown into my request, even though I wasn’t really expecting it to be available. But an email came back shortly, telling me that one would be available and in short time, too. I almost jumped out of my shoes.
Walking up to the Donington Grey BMW i8 Roadster filled me with joy, as I knew I’d be handed the keys. Once keys were in hand, I popped open the hilariously dramatic swan door and slid myself across the large chassis sill and into the E-Copper leather seat, rather clumsily I admit. As fashionable as the car is with its doors up, actual ingress is far less graceful that the opening of the swan doors themselves. No matter. It’s a small price to pay for such automotive theater.
I was also happy with the color scheme. Having seen tons of photos of the i8 Roadster wearing its coppery-orange paint over E-Copper interior, I’d become sick of the color. It was too much, especially on a car that already has a lot to look at. So when I saw it in Donington Grey with its black accents, and just the subtle orange interior bits peaking through, I was instantly smitten.
It didn’t matter how it drove, how fast it was or how good of a hybrid it was, I was smitten. Turns out, though, the BMW i8 Roadster is a superb car and one that peals back the curtain a bit to reveal what supercars will be like in the future.
We all know electrification will eventually take over the automotive world and the internal combustion engine will one day be as novel as the rotary phone. Many enthusiasts dread such a day, a day where the sound of performance is closer to an electric toothbrush than it is a racing car. However, I’m here to tell you that, if you’re among those fearful enthusiasts, you need not worry. The future looks bright.
When you turn the BMW i8 Roadster on, you’re doing exactly that — turning it on. Like a laptop or a smartphone. The i8 does have a gasoline engine mounted behind the driver’s head but it only comes on when necessary, or when it’s intentionally engaged. Otherwise, the i8 starts in pure electric silence. That’s not unusual anymore, as all electric cars act as such. But it seems unusual in a car that looks capable of intergalactic flight.
Once on, it’s time to choose how you’re going to drive the BMW i8 Roadster, which is actually something that’s more enjoyable than many enthusiasts might think. There are three different ways to drive it; you can either drive in your normal “D”, which switches between full EV mode and hybrid mode at its own will; you can drive in pure electric mode, by pressing a button labeled “eDrive”; or you can slap the gear lever into Sport mode, which keeps the engine on and gives the powertrain its full beans.
That powertrain, by the way, consists of a 1.5 liter turbocharged three-cylinder engine mounted in the middle and paired with an electric motor. That combination makes 228 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque, which is then sent through a six-speed automatic gearbox to the rear wheels. Additionally, there’s another electric motor at the front axle, which makes 141 hp and 184 lb-ft and drives only the front wheels. All in, the i8 Roadster makes 369 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque and sends power to all four wheels, despite there being no physical connection between the axles, as the i8’s brain manages the all-wheel drive system. As complicated as that sounds, it drives remarkably smooth and shockingly normal.
Back to the three ways to drive it. Its standard drive mode, which varies its hybrid powertrain as it sees fit, it the basic and normal driving mode but, honestly, it’s no fun. During my week with it, I went back and forth between full eDrive and Sport. Both of which are a ton of fun.
One morning, I ran out to pick up some bagels and donuts for family who was staying over, as both a little treat and an excuse to take the car out at 6AM with no traffic, cool weather and the top down. I flipped it into max eDrive and drove it down the beachy boulevard near my house in near silence, with the only some faint wind noise and the slight whir of the electric motor. Its stunning looks, eerily quite yet surprisingly punchy performance and crisp morning air combined to make that one of the most memorable drives I had in the i8 Roadster, despite never once cresting 45 mph.
Then, after snagging the morning breakfast, I flipped it into Sport mode, engaging the engine and keeping the powertrain running at full chat, and blasted back home. With the powertrain in Sport, the BMW i8 Roadster is plenty fast enough to be fun. It would be left for dead by a Porsche 911 Carrera S or AMG GT, both of which are less money, but neither car can drive under electric power alone. And that’s the true beauty of the BMW i8.
Purely judged as a sports car, the BMW i8 is good, if a bit unremarkable. It’s fast, the steering is direct, accurate and well weighted, even though it’s quite numb, and it handles quite well. It’s fun to drive but it won’t thrill you like any other car in its price range will.
There are no driver modes for the suspension, so you get a fixed ride setup. Which is actually to its benefit, to be honest. Personally, I find that it’s better to have a fixed suspension setup and become accustomed to how it feels and learn how to drive it than to have multiple setups to choose from, none of which are ever just right. Plus, the i8 Roadster is remarkably well damped. It’s a very low, mid-engine hybrid with some sort of motor at each end and 20-inch wheels. It should not ride as well as it does, yet it soaks up bumps and potholes with ease, while always remaining firm, composed and compliant.
There’s no body roll to speak of and it remains flat through corners, yet is never upset by mid-corner bumps. BMW’s chassis and suspension engineers knocked it out of the park.Also, thanks to its carbon fiber passenger cell, it’s the most solid feeling convertible I’ve ever driven, with nary a shake, squeak or rattle during my entire week with it and I rarely, if ever, drove with the top up.
Its engine noise is artificially enhanced, yes, but it sounds kid of crazy. It’s deeper and far more burbly than you’d expect from a three-cylinder (because it’s a three-cylinder and some speakers making such noises) and it’s louder than you might expect. It’s not the sexy baritone of an AMG V8, nor the spine-tingling wail of a Porsche flat-six, but it’s loud and raspy enough to make driving it hard a bit of fun. Though, while listening to it, you’re always reminded that it’s being powered by a three-cylinder hybrid and, no matter how artificially enhanced its noise is, it’s hard not to smile at the fact.
So when you’re in maximum attack mode (which admittedly is nowhere near as maximum as its competition), you’re always smiling, despite it not being the most dynamic or thrilling car to drive, because of what it is. There’s this overwhelming sense of character to it, this sense that you’re driving something that’s not from this era but from one we haven’t yet reached. The BMW i8 Roadster points to the future and there’s always that sense while driving it.
It’s equally as fun driving in pure EV mode with the top down than it is when you’re in full-attack. And when you’ve run out of battery for its pure-electric mode, which happens quite quickly as it realistically only gets about 15 miles of electric range when driven like a normal human, slap it into Sport mode and have some fun because that recharges the battery.
While driving in Sport mode, you can almost completely refill the battery in just about an hour of driving. Which is an awesome feeling, because it almost feels efficient to be driving hard and burning fuel. The BMW i8 is the only supercar in which you can start out the day using as much electric power as you possible, then have a blast burning gasoline while also recharging your battery and then switch back to using purely electric power at the end of the day. It’s remarkable and, weirdly, a lot of fun.
When I walked up to the i8 Roadster, I was honestly a little worried that it wouldn’t live up to my high expectations. I had hyped it up in my head for years, despite the claims I’d heard of it being sort of weird feeling and lacking the fun of a proper sports car. Turns out, the BMW i8 Roadster was more than I could have hoped for and it opened my eyes to a new style of driving by peeling back the curtain and showing me the future.
It’s not cheap, the i8 Roadster and at its price range there are several other cars that would eat it for lunch, in terms of performance. Cars like the Audi R8, Porsche 911, AMG GT, Aston Martin Vantage and the list goes on. However, all of those cars do things the same way they’ve always done. The BMW i8 Roadster shows us a new way, the way things sports cars will be decades from now, and that in itself makes it worth every penny and worth my long wait.