First drive Mission Impossible? Four years after its launch, how could BMW make the i8 hybrid sports car more desirable? Easy… they simply chopped off its roof, as Shane O’ Donoghue discovers. Photos: Bernhard Limburger.
2019 BMW i8 Roadster … New hybrid sports car tested
When BMW launched the i8 in 2014, I wonder if the company’s product planners spared a thought for how difficult it might be to improve things when it came time for an update? After all, the ground-breaking hybrid sports car married jaw-dropping good looks (which haven’t dulled with age), sporty dynamics, exciting performance and useful efficiency, straight out of the box. It was going to be a tough act to follow.
Owners who took part in the Pure Impulse programme told BMW they wanted even more focus on the electric side of the i8, with more range and speed in pure-electric guise, while keeping the distinctly sporty alter-ego as accessible as ever. In certain parts of the world, buyers also wanted to feel the wind in their hair… So here’s the result, the LCI (Life Cycle Impulse) version of the i8, led by the debut of the new i8 Roadster.
The striking, concept car-like looks of the i8 Coupé (including the dramatic gullwing doors – though they’re of a new frameless design for the Roadster), have been carried over to the new version with few major changes. Indeed, the designers resisted the temptation to make any significant visual alterations to mark the 2018 update. Apparently, during initial testing of the Roadster, it was discovered that the hot air exiting the bonnet vents made its way into the cabin when the roof was lowered, at up to 70°C, which wasn’t a good thing! So, the solution was to re-channel it under the car via the wheelarches, which required the creation of a smoother floor. In fact, this has been applied to both Coupé and Roadster models, although the change isn’t visible from the outside.
Other than that, both models get bold new script badging on the sides and rear, and there are new designs of 20in alloy wheel to choose from. BMW has also added two new paint colours – classy Donington Grey metallic and the simply gob-smacking E-Copper metallic, that seems to suit the Roadster better than it does the Coupé. These colours are paired with Frozen Grey metallic accents, incidentally.
Swing open the driver’s door, manoeuvre yourself between the ultra-low windscreen and the wide side sill and into the snug sports seat, and you’re greeted by a cabin that’s much as it was before, though there have been plenty of detail changes, most obviously to the infotainment screen. It’s now an 8.8in display with BMW’s latest ‘live tile’ menu system, and it’s touch-sensitive, although that’s almost redundant as the screen position hasn’t changed; it’s a real stretch to get to.
Thankfully, the rotary iDrive controller remains on the centre console, and is as intuitive to use as ever. All the rest of the switchgear appears to be unchanged and, hence, perhaps not as cutting-edge in design as that in newer BMW models, but still perfectly tactile and satisfying to use. The distinctive steering wheel has been carried over, as have the digital instruments that change appearance depending on driving mode. By the way, the head-up display is optional, and I particularly like how it switches to a more sporting layout when you’re driving manually in Sport mode.
The standard interior finish, called Carpo, includes black leather upholstery, while the Halo option is a cloth/leather mix in the Carum/Dalbergia colour scheme. New, however, is the Accaro option, at £2,750, which is distinguished by its lovely, E-Copper-coloured natural leather with cloth accents.
All this applies to both body styles, but the major difference between the Coupé and Roadster inside is the lack of rear seating in the latter. In fairness, the Coupé’s rear seats barely deserve that title, but they do provide some muchneeded extra luggage space. To package the folding roof of the Roadster, however, they’ve been sacrificed. In their place is a small stowage area. The roof itself is a lightweight fabric design and, thanks to stylish buttressing behind, isn’t a very large panel. Visually, it has been neatly integrated with the lines of the i8, with only the lower roofline and kink in the buttresses betraying its presence.
The fabric roof itself folds completely out of sight in a mere 15 seconds; an operation that can be performed on the move at speeds of up to 30mph. The button for all this is hidden within the centre console storage cubby, or the roof can be lowered from the key fob from outside the car. Lastly, but actually quite important to the car, is the ability to lower the glass rear window, whether the roof is up or down, enhancing the open-air feel or reducing draughts as needs be. It also allows more engine noise into the cabin when you’re running in Sport mode.
Speaking of which, the selection of the driving modes is a little different with the i8 than in other BMWs. There are effectively five different settings. The default is hybrid running in Comfort mode, and the driver can then toggle the Driving Experience Control button to choose Eco Pro to maximise efficiency. Sport mode is accessed by slotting the gear lever over to the left. For Comfort and Eco Pro, the driver may also press the ‘eDrive’ button to select purely electric power. Only if the battery is fully drained – or the driver pushes the accelerator pedal down to the ‘kick-down’ switch – will the engine assist.
Now, owners requested more electric running, and that’s precisely what they’ve got for the updated i8. Neatly, the upgraded lithium-ion battery pack is of the same physical size as before, but it has higher energy density. So BMW quotes an increased capacity, up from 7.1kWh/20Ah to 11.6kWh and 34Ah. This allows for an extra 12hp from the front-mounted electric motor, boosting the total to 143hp.
The turbocharged, three-cylinder, 1.5-litre petrol engine mounted behind the cabin delivers the same 231hp as before, though BMW says it has been tuned to sound even sportier, and it now features a particulate filter to clean-up the exhaust stream further.
Those changes to the electric part of the powertrain have enabled a higher top speed on electric power (now 75mph), while the electric range has also increased from about 24 miles to over 34 miles. That’s for the Coupé, incidentally, as the slightly heavier Roadster does about a mile less on the official test cycle.
Roof down, the i8 Roadster makes for an even eerier experience the first time you unplug the charging cable, get in, start it up and move off. You can hear the tyres moving on the ground and, at times, the machinations of the electric motor-generator at work but, otherwise, it’s gloriously quiet and, it must be said, very relaxing.
With both door windows and that behind the seats lowered fully, there’s no buffeting in the cockpit at low speeds. Only on the motorway did we feel the need to raise the windows for comfort, but the roof remained folded away. With it up, there’s surprisingly little wind roar over the fabric and it’s very easy to forget you’re in a Roadster.
Indeed, a considerable amount of work was carried out to recover some of the torsional stiffness for the Roadster, lost when the roof was cut off but, as most of the body changes have been made in CFRP (Carbon Fibre Reinforced Plastic), the weight gain has been kept to an impressively low 60kg. And while that means slightly different suspension settings between Roadster and Coupé, BMW also took the opportunity to revisit the dynamics of the hard-topped car.
As before, there’s two-mode Dynamic Damper Control – simply Comfort and Sport depending on the driving settings selected. It’s not an adaptive damping system. However, BMW has altered the damping, in conjunction with the electric power steering, roll stabilisation and Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), in a bid to make the i8 more enjoyable to drive.
The original car lacked the front-end bite that we usually associate with BMW’s sportiest models, meaning you never felt like you could really lean on the front tyres on the way into a corner, while it was also possible to get understeer on the exit. Along with that, the nose of the BMW i8 used to have a tendency to bob about, reducing your confidence in how well it was keyed into the road beneath. That latter characteristic seems to have been eradicated for the most part and, while the nose still isn’t as incisive as that of, say, an BMW M2, it’s far better than before. This is helped no end by the deliciously-weighted steering and lack of unwanted body movements. Indeed, BMW’s engineers have made the calibration of the power steering ‘meatier’ for the Sport mode, too, and it shows.
While the i8 isn’t designed to be used on track, nor for those seeking hardcore driving thrills, it’s even more fun than before from behind the wheel. In Sport mode, it’s a real hoot. The three-cylinder engine becomes much more vocal, and it sounds more loud and powerful than any unit of its layout deserves to.
The default calibration of the six-speed automatic transmission is decent enough in this guise, but if you have an empty, snaking mountain road in front of you (as we did at the car’s international launch in Palma de Mallorca), you’ll soon reach for the tactile gearchange paddles mounted on the back of the steering wheel to take control of the transmission.
Down-changes are punctuated with gratuitous, grin-inducing throttle blips and this helps with response out of tighter corners no end. Once you get into the swing of it, it’s time to hold down the DSC button to switch it off completely and then it becomes second nature to wind back on the power before the apex, as this has the effect of getting the tail of the i8 moving. It must be said that, even with your foot all the way down, unless the surface is slippery, the rear only steps out a fraction before the four-wheel-drive effect of the electric motor up front pulls the car straight and rockets it towards the next turn. However, this is a new side to the i8, and it makes it feel sportier and more rear-driven than before, without sacrificing its inherent safety and stability.
What’s more, all this fun can be had seemingly regardless of the surface underneath. On glass-smooth tarmac, it’s quite inert, if effective in the corners, allowing smooth and rapid progress to be made, revelling in the direct controls. On rougher surfaces and over bumps, the BMW i8 is more amusing, as it allows the driver to safely play with the chassis. Body control is top notch, the brakes are as good as you need them to be and, even in Sport mode, it’s never what you’d call uncomfortable.
Arguably, how the i8 Roadster drives will be of little importance to a lot of its potential buyers. They’ll be swayed as much by the traffic-stopping design and advanced powertrain as they will by the on-the-limit handling. That’s borne out in BMW UK’s prediction that, of the 2,000 i8s a year it hopes to sell, 1,500 of them will be in the Roadster style, despite its higher starting price. Nonetheless, the i8 is a car its creators can be more proud of than ever before. They’ve made the impossible, possible.
Improving on the original i8 was always going to be a tall order but, by creating the Roadster, BMW has done just that. There have been plenty of detail changes inside the new i8. It now features an 8.8in display with BMW’s latest ‘live tile’ menu system. Accaro is a new interior option, featuring lovely, E-Copper-coloured natural leather with cloth accents.
While the BMW i8 isn’t designed to be used on track, nor for those seeking hardcore driving thrills, it’s even more fun than before from behind the wheel. The fabric roof is small and suits the overall design well. It can be electrically folded completely out of sight in just 15 seconds. The glass rear screen can be lowered whether the roof is up or down, to enhance the open-air feel or reduce draughts. Externally, apart from the lack of a roof, this new i8 Roadster remains just as striking as ever.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 2019 BMW i8 Roadster l15 ( l15 – BODY TYPE)
PRICE: 2018 in UK £124,735
DRIVETRAIN: Hybrid-specific, all-wheel-drive; 231hp, 1,499cc three-cylinder petrol engine powers rear wheels, 143hp electric motor powers the front wheels
CO² EMISSIONS: 46g/km
TOP SPEED: 155mph (limited)
POWER: Petrol: 231hp @ 5,800rpm / DIN net and Electric: 143hp @ 4,800rpm / DIN nett
TORQUE: Petrol: 236lb ft @ 3,700rpm / DIN nett
Electric: 184lb ft
“Body control is top notch, the brakes are as good as you need them to be”
“This is a new side to the i8, and it makes it feel sportier and more rear-driven than before”