We are living in an all-new age with the latest and greatest sports cars. As hybrid and electric vehicles have become more mainstream, the same technology is filtering into other categories of autos.
Simply put, it’s not just your Tesla Model 3 or Toyota Prius that’s powered by batteries. Today’s exotica also benefit from the added juice. There’s just one problem: they can cost upwards of seven figures.
One of the first vehicles to change that was the BMW i8. Featuring similar technology akin to those hypercars that require writing checks with a lot of zeros, it’s considered a bargain in comparison. Provided you have at least $147,500 to spare. There’s a catch, however. Years ago BMW showed off a concept of the i8 sans roof. And, frankly, ever since then people have been chomping at the bit to get that variant. A coupe is nice but there’s nothing quite like having the wind in your hair.
Well, BMW finally delivered.
When I saw it for the first time I was surprised at how BMW managed to keep its design largely the same. When most automakers chop the top off of a vehicle it becomes a bit ungainly and the bulky tops never look quite right when implemented. That’s far from the case with the i8. It’s a natural fit – so much so that I wager most folks will only realize it’s the roadster variant when it’s parked and the soft top is in use.
When the cloth roof is stowed away, there’s two distinct humps behind the passenger compartment – one behind each seat – that essentially serve as buttresses. Neatly integrated into these elements are the air channels that funnel air past the vehicle for aerodynamic purposes. These are critical design elements that are now the i8’s calling card.
What’s disappointing though is how BMW decided to style the i8 Roadster’s rear deck lid. Or, should I say, lack of design. For whatever reason BMW’s designers just painted the deck black and, for cooling purposes, applied some venting that flank the wide expanse of nothingness. For bragging purposes there’s some branding that reads “Roadster” to let folks behind you know what’s up. This entire element just seems uninspired and rather lame.
Getting into the i8 Roadster is similar to the coupe. That part hasn’t changed one bit. The doors open to the sky and then you have to twist while stepping over the tall doorsill and slide into the low-slung driver’s seat. Expect to practice this several times before nailing it down in one fluid motion.
And once you’re inside you’re treated to a nicely outfitted cabin. My test vehicle was equipped with a black and orange interior. The leather seats make use of cloth for the upper bolsters as well as for trimming, which makes for an interesting touch. Personally, I like it but I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks are perplexed as to why there’s cloth in a vehicle of this price point. As I experienced with my previous ride in an i8, the steering wheel’s leather isn’t exactly best in breed, an oversight in a vehicle of this ilk. Aside from that, the infotainment system is exactly what you’d find in just about every other BMW vehicle these days. To me, iDrive is simple to use if you prefer menu-based systems. At the touch of a button, the fully power soft-top is stored away in less than 16 seconds.
Now, you’re ready to drive.
Equipped with a turbocharged three-cylinder, gasoline-fed engine and aided through the use of batteries, the total system’s output is 369 horsepower and 420 lb.-ft. of torque. Mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, this equates to a zero to 60 time of about 4.4 seconds.
Although many reviewers will complain this simply isn’t fast enough for the price, I will point out several things. What other vehicle can you buy at this price point that has the style, ability to go roofless and earns mpg in the low 30s (real-world driving conditions)? There’s a reason why the i8 coupe is the highest-selling sports car.
Pushing the gear shifter to the left, so you can control gear changes yourself, and engaging up Sport mode is where you want to be. Getting aggressive on country roads, the i8 still impresses. It has plenty of grip thanks to its all-wheel drive setup and the car feels as though it’s been hewn from a solid hunk of metal. You can thank its carbon fiber construction for that. Unlike most exotic convertibles that don’t feel quite solid, the i8 feels virtually identical to the coupe.
The only drop tops that feel this close to its slick-top siblings are those from McLaren. That’s because they too also benefit from carbon fiber construction. Typically, there is a penalty for this though: harsh ride quality.
In the i8, however, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In my daily commute to and from my Manhattan office, the i8 was astoundingly comfortable. Bumps and road imperfections are absorbed through the chassis in a way that makes you wonder why some of BMW’s sport sedans aren’t as finely tuned.
It isn’t perfect though. The biggest let down with the i8 Roadster is its steering. This isn’t a huge surprise given that most high-performance vehicles lack road feel these days. It just would make this vehicle that much more appealing if it benefitted from a hydraulic steering rack.
Also, points are deducted for its hybrid powertrain. Sure, it does boost your mpgs from what a vehicle with this kind of power would achieve but, conversely, it only nets around 15-18 miles of pure electric driving on a full charge. The rest of your time you’re going back and forth using the gasoline-fed motor and the batteries.
Keeping this in mind, it’s a vehicle that sets out from the start as a compromise and, frankly, I am not OK with that. From my point of view, BMW should have just fully committed to building an all-out electric vehicle or produced a conventional high-performance vehicle that would have paid homage to the M1 the i8 takes plenty of creative license from.
Although the i8 Roadster may not get this car snob’s vote, one thing is certain: It will capture the attention of many people looking to dip their toes into the future while having the luxury of limitless headroom.
By Richard Posluszny