BMW i has introduced a soft-top version of its cutting-edge i8 sportscar – we drove the newcomer on the Spanish Island of Mallorca...
BMW i is the next-gen-technology arm of BMW. It focuses on developing new technologies, materials and drivetrains that optimise efficiency and, the i cars in which they're implemented (the i8, for example), act as testbeds for future use in BMW's petrol-electric hybrids and PHEVs. The i cars have become so popular that, globally, BMW sells more i cars than M cars.
More than a straightforward derivative of its Coupe sibling, the BMW i8 Roadster is rather important for the growth of the i brand. Indeed, BMW has done a little more than just develop a soft top – the newcomer can be thought of as part of an overall model update with the coupe version also acquiring the new upgrades.
The i8 retains its gullwing doors with the Roadster and they are now frameless.
BMW i likes to call itself a "start-up" business – the division is forward-thinking, dynamic and able to adapt to (and incorporate) tech changes, whereas its parent company (BMW) might not be able to shift product focus as dynamically. So when the time came to start the development of the Roadster, BMW i took the "jaws of life" to the Coupe's roof and sawed it off. A couple of engineers then drove the chopped i8 for a bit, were pleasantly surprised by how stiff it remained/well it performed... and so the next iteration of the i8 began taking shape.
The soft-top roof folds down in 15 seconds at speeds of up to 50 kph. When BMW i tested the roof operation, engineers found it worked just fine at speeds of over 100 kph, but the division decided to stick with a safe limit of 50 kph. There is a new set of 20-inch Roadster specific wheels and some decals around the bodywork that denote the i8's roofless status.
The Roadster gains a few new details over the hardtop version, along with a R230k price hike.
On the inside, the seats are covered with a more weather-durable material, but they look and feel a bit more premium than if BMW i had simply tossed anoraks over them. There’s an optional head-up display that features a cool shift light display and the infotainment screen can be used via touchscreen and the iDrive controller.
Underneath the bonnet, the i8 Roadster and Coupe gain from an updated battery pack that delivers 9 kW more power and can now run in fully electric mode at 120 kph. BMW i claims an all-electric range of over 50 km for the pair of derivatives.
How does it drive?
The roads of Mallorca are tight and twisty as they meander through the mountains in the north of the island. You get a mix of point-and-squirt and hairpin to hairpin sections, then it opens out a bit on the flatter plains to the South (the latter offered a good test of mid-corner speed and stability). The roads were absolutely heaving with cyclists but I happened to get an excellent, mostly unimpeded stretch of 200 km behind the i8 Roadster's wheel.
The roads of Mallorca are tight and twisty, the i8 feels agile and nimble on these sorts of roads.
The carbon fibre tub of the i8 Roadster is stiff, which helps to keep the car's movement from corner to corner direct and reactive. Carbon fibre is great for keeping the body stable, mitigating body roll and exerts fewer forces on the tyres. This means you can turn in harder, corner faster and get on the power earlier – all good things in a sportscar and even more so for a roadster, it is properly entertaining to drive with the roof stowed away and the wind whooshing by your ears.
It really is a great driver’s car and feels like a small, nimble sportscar along the lines of an Alfa 4C or Porsche Boxster. Even the steering feedback and feel are decent with the shift paddles perfectly positioned at your fingertips.
I can’t say I noticed the extra 9 kW of battery power (now 105 kW), with the 1.5-litre turbopetrol 3-cylinder unchanged at 170 kW. The engineers have done their best to coax a pleasing sound out of the engine and exhaust, but it can’t match that of the bigger, more cylindered rivals. There’s a throaty gasp, but it never develops into anything more sonorous.
Switchback central. Low-speed corner exit shove is where the i8 Roadster shines as the electric motor delivers immediate torque.
The electric and petrol engine combination is not as perfect in practice as the theory suggests. The electric engine deals with the low-end power, delivering instantaneous torque and low down shove. Then the petrol engine comes on song higher up in the rev range as the electric effect starts to taper. In the slow hairpin bends, it works just like that, where the electric motor gives instantaneous results. However, in medium speed corners, there’s notable lag as the electric motor doesn’t have more to give and the petrol engine is still to come on boost.
That leaves a lot of time where not much is happening and it’s a bit of a downer as the car has the ability, but the hybrid powertrain doesn’t match up to what the i8 feels capable of.
The soft-top i8 appears to have no real drawbacks from the Coupe, bar the sacrifice of a little loading space. It still rides well and corners with stability and accuracy befitting a car built around a carbon fibre tub. It’s exciting to drive and look at, but lacks perfect synchronization between its turbopetrol and electric motors.
The cabin features weather-resistant seats and a touchscreen infotainment system.
BMW i had to utilise the 1.5-litre 3-cylinder motor in order to meet the "efficiently dynamic" mandate the division embodies and it does that. While driving sportily over the 200 km it achieved 8.3 L/100 km, but I can’t help feeling there is an M car inside this i8 that's itching to come out. It has the chassis to deal with the extra power, more so than the likes of the M2/3/4/5. And, judging by what the engineers had to say, it could likely be the next iteration of i car we see, except, we may come to know it as the BMW M8.
The updated i8 and i8 Roadster will be locally available from late May/early June 2018.
BMW i8 Coupe R2 095 200
BMW i8 Roadster R2 329 300