Driving the BMW that looks like the future
I never bothered to figure out exactly what it was, but I recognized it immediately. Growing up in a farming community, I have the smell of an orchard on the first hot day of spring burned into my memory. Frankly, I’d rather it wasn’t, as I’m pretty sure it’s rotting fruit. As I rolled roofless through Majorca’s back country in near silence, the unpleasant scent flooded the little cockpit of the new BMW i8 Roadster, accompanied by a torrent of memories.
As a lifelong sci-fi enthusiast, I’ve always been fascinated by the ability of a scent to transport you back in time. Given the option, I’d still prefer a DeLorean with a Mr. Fusion, which can be directed to the exact date and time I’d like to visit or revisit, but until then, the i8 Roadster in good weather is a decent stand-in.
There are more than a few similarities. Both are wedge-shaped exotics with mid-mounted gasoline engines. Each sports a pair of signature top-hinged doors giving way to seating for two. Just as the DeLorean gained more features and got greener as the sequels progressed—going so far as to switch from dirty plutonium fuel to literally recycled garbage—so too has this updated i8 improved. It may not fly yet, but it flies down a country road better than ever.
To get there, BMW did more than cut the roof off (though that’s literally how the first prototype was made). Improvements in battery technology over the past few years have led to a larger battery with more powerful cells, giving both the Roadster and Coupe more power and greater EV range and hybrid fuel economy. Battery capacity jumps from 7.1 kilowatt-hours to 11.6 kW-hr, extending range from 20 miles (32 km) to 33 per BMW’s testing on the generous New European Driving Cycle standard. (For context, the EPA rated the 2017 i8 for up to 15 miles (24 km) of all-electric range.) All-electric driving now has a top speed of 65 mph (105 km/h) in Drive (up from 43 mph (69 km/h)) and 75 mph (120 km/h) in eDrive mode.
With the extra available power, the electric motor at the front axle generates an extra 12 hp for a total of 143; torque holds at 184 lb-ft. At the rear, the turbocharged inline-three has found an extra 3 hp and no extra torque, but a particulate filter cuts exhaust emissions. The 8-hp electric motor/generator connected by belt to the gasoline engine is unchanged. Total system output climbs to 374 hp from 357. BMW wildly underestimates 0–60 mph at 4.6 seconds. The pre-refresh i8 Coupe we tested did it in 3.8 seconds with less power and only 130 fewer pounds (59 kg) to pull.
The updated Coupe model gets the same enhancements.
You won’t notice the extra 17 hp from the driver’s seat, but you will notice how little the gasoline engine is pressed into service. The old model’s lower battery output and EV top speed meant you’d regularly hear the little I-3 kick on to provide extra acceleration and higher speeds. Now, you’ll be surprised at how rarely it intrudes. The i8 isn’t just quiet cruising through town. It’s quiet on the freeway and even on a back road if you’re stuck behind a tourist’s rental car. The always-peaked torque is more than enough to zip you around in most situations with a perfectly linear whoosh of power.
The most impressive aspect of the i8 continues to be how it blends power when the gasoline engine fires up. You hear it rather than feel it, as despite the two powertrains not being mechanically connected, they work in perfect harmony, and you mostly hear it because BMW employs electronic sound enhancers in the cabin to boost the pleasant growl from the intake. Once engaged, the gasoline engine doesn’t change the character of the car. It simply makes it quicker. It’s not eye-bulging supercar power, just an appropriate amount for the chassis and tires. It’s every bit as quick as it needs to be, so you can use all of it whenever the mood strikes.
Just as you don’t feel the gas engine integrate into the power delivery, you don’t feel either the front two-speed or rear six-speed automatic change gears. Only by coming off the throttle and going quickly back on in the middle of a shift did I get a stiff-legged response from the rear transmission, and only once.
The sum of the parts is a car as suited for shooting down the freeway as it is whipping down Majorca’s unreasonably narrow mountain roads. Like a pure EV, instant power is always at hand for passing. Slotted into Sport, the gas engine becomes a full-time employee and runs up and down the revs with an angry little snarl to complete the sports car experience.
A wide track and low center of gravity, the latter afforded by the batteries between the seats, gives the car a confident demeanor. The steering is quick and light, affording you great precision in a corner. It doesn’t talk much, likely due to the power being sent to the front wheels. The car is stiffly sprung, as its look would suggest, and combined with the width and shortness of it, it feels like it would be impossible to get a wheel off the ground while cornering no matter how hard you tried. The seats aren’t bolstered particularly heavily, but the car corners so flat and the cockpit is so snug that you don’t really need them to be.
The brakes have a whiff of that familiar hybrid wonkiness to them as they transition from regenerative to mechanical, and having just wrapped-up a year behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Bolt EV, I have two thoughts on the matter. First, the feel of the BMW’s pedal is vastly superior, as you would hope of a car multiple times the price. It still feels artificial, but it’s closer to the feel of a purely mechanical system than anything else on the market. Second, I long for more control of the regenerative braking. The i8 does everything for you in that regard, and I prefer the Bolt’s ability to drive with just the throttle pedal and fine-tune regenerative braking both with driving mode and a steering wheel–mounted paddle.
The real limitation of the handling and braking components, though, remains the tires. BMW has done a commendable job of balancing handling performance and low-friction efficiency in its tire choice, but it remains a difficult compromise. Most of the time, you won’t notice it. On the day you really want to drive it like a sports car, though, you’ll need to be cognizant of the tires, brake a little earlier, and brake in a straight line. Trail braking invites understeer. The tires have a lot of grip in them, but you can and will ask too much of them if you drive it like an M4.
You’ll also want to make liberal use of the DSC Sport function. In its default mode, the traction and stability control system is conservative and won’t give you much if any power when the steering wheel isn’t centered. If you want to leave corners aggressively, you need to switch it to Sport. You’re left with plenty of don’t-bin-it safety net but are allowed to get on the throttle with some gusto exiting a corner, enough to make the inside rear wheel slip a bit.
When the red mist isn’t clouding your mind, you’ll find driving quickly in an i8 a special experience. Roof open to let the sun and smells in and gas engine off to hear the world, you feel more connected to the scenery blurring by the windows. It’s not just a drive in the hills. It’s a drive with the hills.
Getting the roof down requires slowing to under 31 mph (50 km/h) for all of 15 seconds (with the same time and speed requirements to put it back up). The switch is hidden under the center armrest, and the control for the roll-down rear window is next to the rearview mirror. By default, the rear window stops with an inch still exposed to act as a wind blocker, and it does a pretty good job of it. You can set it wherever you want, roof up or down. BMW has also added self-adjusting louvers to the hood vent to prevent hot air tumbling into the cabin when the roof’s open.
The targa-like section of roof that comes off stores vertically where the vestigial rear seats would be in a Coupe, taking up as little space as possible and leaving you with a storage slot behind the seats. Running the width of the interior, it’s big enough to slide in a few items such as backpacks, briefcases, duffel bags, and maybe a small carry-on or two. Be glad for it, because the trunk is big enough for maybe two backpacks, and there is no frunk.
As you might imagine, getting luggage behind the seats is easier with the top open, and so is getting in and out of the car. Given the i8’s monocoque design, the sills are wide and must be climbed over as gracefully as possible. Complicating matters slightly is the long windshield, which places the header nearly over your head if you have short legs and sit close to the dash. It makes an already cozy cockpit feel even tighter.
You’ll also have to look around the massive carbon-fiber A-pillars, especially when attacking a particularly sharp corner. Per BMW, they’re no thicker than those on the Coupe, which is not only an impressive engineering achievement given the butterfly doors now hinge off them but also cold comfort from behind the wheel.
This is the story of the i8 Roadster in a nutshell. It’s a collection of small compromises and eccentricities you’re happy to make for a car that, as a reader once told me, “looks like the future.” Said eccentricities are, like the rest of the car, more polished this time around, and the whole vehicle has a feeling of being 20 percent better than the last iteration.
Usually when we make excuses for a car’s impracticality and idiosyncrasies, it’s for some charming but flawed British or Italian thing, but this German, with its unmistakable future-now looks and wholly unique and involving driving experience, has earned a place in the hall of cars I recommend for people who care more about the journey than the destination. Especially the ones who have $165,000 USD to spend, a love of technology and/or the environment, and a desire to stand out in the supercar crowd. All 10 of them.