BMW's carbon-fiber toy mixes plug-in efficiency with eye-popping style and driving fun.
This is not a car for introverts.
More so than anything I can remember driving in recent years, the burnt-orange BMW i8 Roadster draws questions, compliments and photos wherever you go. There's something about this car's sci-fi movie design that stops people in their tracks even before I open the upwards-swinging doors. They're even more intrigued when I tell them that, yes, this wild-looking machine is a hybrid.
Just like the coupe that has now been on sale for half a decade, the BMW i8 Roadster is a fascinating vehicle. A plug-in hybrid that also delivers almost-supercar performance and Instagrammable style? The i8 is really something different.
That plug-in hybrid powertrain is key to the experience. Aft of the seats is a turbocharged 1.5-liter inline-three engine rated for 228 horsepower and 236pound-feet of torque. It drives the rear wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission. Ahead is an electric motor that can send 141 horsepower and 184 pound-feet to the front wheels by way of a two-speed automatic. Either power source can work independently, or they can join forces to deliver a combined 369 horsepower and 420 pound-feet.
In that case, the dash to 60 miles per hour is accomplished in 4.4 seconds. That's a negligible 0.2 slower than the coupe because the Roadster is 132 pounds heftier. Yes, this is the point where I acknowledge that comparably priced six-figure cars are much quicker than the i8 -- but they also don't have a plug.
The i8's most important technical detail is its 11.6 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, which can be charged up at a Level 2 charger about three hours. I spent $0.64 at a public ChargePoint plug for a full charge. The EPA says you'll get 17 miles of all-electric driving, but I must have a thrifty motoring style because the dashboard promised ranges in the mid-20s with the battery fully filled.
Charged regularly, the i8 slinks around town just like an electric car, keeping its gas engine quiet. Acceleration isn't as brisk, though sharp throttle response and plentiful torque keep lead-foots happy. But your all-electric top speed is limited to 75 miles per hour in the Max eDrive driving mode (the other option is Auto, where the computer decides which power source to use). Still, this is the i8's huge advantage over a traditional supercar: Silence and zero-emissions motoring when you're just ambling around town.
Left in the aforementioned Auto eDrive mode, the BMW's computers regularly fire up the gas engine, mainly to provide more oomph. The three cylinders' thrum isn't particularly sonorous and there's a jolt when it kicks in at lower speeds. But the gas engine allows you to keep driving the i8 even if you can't stop to recharge the battery -- as with other plug-in hybrids . The EPA predicts 27 miles per gallon combined when driving like this, though I regularly saw figures just peeking past 30 mpg.
The best thing to do, though, is knock the shifter over to Sport mode for the raciest performance. Along with stiffened adaptive dampers and a sharper throttle map, Sport mode keeps the powertrain on the boil for max performance. Sure, 4.4 seconds is not headlining, neck-snapping acceleration by 2018 standards, and power falls off as you approach highway speeds. But with a big serving of electrically assisted torque, the i8 punches above its weight class around the suburbs. Sure, Sport mode's sportier engine note is mostly synthesized for the benefit of the driver, but it does help with the feeling of excitement.
So, too, do the low seating position and quick steering, even if the squishy, fat-rimmed steering wheel delivers no real feedback from the road. Body roll and pitch are kept in check, and while the i8's chassis doesn't exactly inspire apex-hunting, it's competent and delivers plenty of grip. Calling it a supercar is a misnomer, but the i8 gives me a bigger grin -- and makes me grin more often -- than any other hybrid.
The BMW i8 Roadster is as exciting to look at as to drive. Carbon-fiber construction enables some seriously wild shapes, like the channels inset into the rear haunches that guide air around the bodywork as efficiently as possible. The i8 is low and wide, with its 20-inch wheels pushed far to the corners. And if the nose looks dramatic on its own, wait until you see the rear, where those air channels, sculpted taillights and giant buttress make themselves apparent.
The defining component of the i8 Roadster is a power soft-top mechanism that can be raised or lowered in 16 seconds while driving at up to 31 miles per hour. One major frustration: the side windows do not fully lower into the doors, so a tiny bit of glass is always visible above the sill, which looks odd when driving topless.
With the top in either position, you can also raise or lower a glass wind-blocker panel between the buttresses. It's quite important you know where the wind-blocker button is because buffeting on the highway is noticeable. Air seems to catch on the buttress and rush back toward my head. Those buttresses produce sizeable blind spots, too, and with no electric blind-spot monitoring, it's worth double-checking the mirrors before merging.
If only the styling and construction allowed for getting inside the car more easily. The tall, wide sills required of the i8's carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP) tub make entering a somewhat graceless maneuver, especially because the pedal box is set far back under the steering wheel and thus the driver's seat is always far forward. Things are a smidge easier with the roof down.
The cabin's design is mostly familiar from other BMW models, though dressed up in this case with orange seats and stitching, as well as plenty of exposed carbon fiber. Where the i8 coupe has teensy back seats, the Roadster instead has a modest storage space. Modest as in 3.5 cubic feet. The actual trunk, located farther back (there is no "frunk" as in many other mid-engined cars) adds 4.7 cubic feet of storage. In other words, pack lightly.
Atop the dash is BMW's familiar 8.8-inch touchscreen iDrive infotainment system. The screen itself supports pinch-to-zoom on maps, though in general it's easier to the console-mounted jog controller to operate the system. Built-in functions include the expected AM/FM/satellite, Bluetooth calling and audio connectivity and navigation. You'll also find menus for monitoring and optimizing the i8's charging schedule.
Apple CarPlay is included, though unfortunately BMW is moving to a subscription-based model for the smartphone tech on all its 2019 model-year vehicles. You get the first year of CarPlay for free, after which you'll need to pay $80 per year to keep using it. (Owners who lease will pay $160 for the entire three-year lease.) It's an infuriating pricing strategy for a software feature, especially given that far more affordable cars like, say, a Honda Fit include CarPlay for free. Previously, BMW charged a one-time $300 fee to include CarPlay.
Android Auto isn't supported at all. Unlike some other new BMWs, the i8 Roadster also doesn't offer a Wi-Fi hotspot or wireless charging. And there's just one USB port, tucked into a preposterously tiny storage cubby that also houses the power convertible-top button.
As to safety technology, the i8 features pre-collision warning and braking, parking sensors and a 360-degree camera system. Other advanced driver-assist tech (such as lane-keep, adaptive cruise and so on) is simply not on the menu.
A full-color head-up display shows the battery's charge level and a gauge indicating whether the battery is being used or recharged; swap to Sport mode and you get an orange tachometer instead. A color head-up display provides speed and navigation info, or an M car-style tach with shift lights in Sport mode.
Pricing for the BMW i8 Roadster starts at $163,300 before options and destination ($15,800 more than the coupe), with my tester listing for $166,795. Ouch. There are thriftier plug-in hybrids available for much less money. There are quicker and sportier convertibles available for less money. Where does BMW's carbon-fiber toy fit in?
Perhaps the biggest selling point of all is that the BMW i8 Roadster is different. Certainly that's true of the styling -- even today the car looks like it's from the future. It's also the only plug-in car of its class. As the Comparable Picks section below attests, the cars that are most similar to the i8 Roadster really aren't all that similar at all. So part of the i8's appeal lies in the fact that it's not like anything else on the road.
Another big part of the appeal is that it's a look forward. The i8 was conceived as and still is a hint as to what performance cars will look like in years to come. Its lightweight construction and electrified powertrain may be stand-outs now but will become more commonplace now. Owning the i8 comes with the cachet of being an early adopter.
Sure, you can write off the i8 Roadster as an outlier because its performance lags behind similarly priced rivals and its electric efficiency is good-not-great. Or you can appreciate that this is an exciting, unique car with a whole lot of virtues. By combining zero-emissions driving, eye-popping style and a healthy serving of driving fun, BMW has made the i8 Roadster a winner.