BMW’s New i8 Roadster Is Getting Overlooked. But It Shouldn’t Be
(Bloomberg) -- BMW has made plenty of futuristic electric cars lately.
Ironically, the one that’s been overlooked in the press is the 2019 BMW i8 roadster. The $163,300 drop-top still looks as gorgeous as ever. Its arched sides are sculpted to reveal air vents swooped across the body of the car like it’s perpetually in motion, while its low stance, squished-to-distinction kidney grille, robot-worthy interior, and propensity for two-tone paint jobs made it an immediate Instagram darling.
This version is even more striking than the i8 coupe, which premiered as a concept in 2009 and is, if you ask me, the best-looking production hybrid car ever made.
What’s more, the roadster launched only a few months ago, the first-ever open-air version of the hybrid coupe that BMW put on sale as a 2014-model-year vehicle. On a conference call for last year’s second-quarter earnings report, Chairman Harald Krüger called it “an ace up our sleeve.” We’ve been waiting for this ace since 2015, when BMW announced its impending arrival.
So What Gives?
There are significant reasons why the i8 roadster has been overlooked. For one thing, it’s not offering much new to the existing coupe model, except for a soft-top that drops in less than 20 seconds and improves the overall look of the car. The most prominent reason it remains relatively unheralded is that its performance isn’t as progressive these days as its spaceship body suggests.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy it. The BMW i8 roadster is a well-built, thoughtfully designed, fairly priced (among its competition), and even practical high-end hybrid sports car. But this does merit some inspection.
I drove a dark gray 2019 i8 roadster for a week in New York City. Even with its admittedly few direct competitors, it’s not as fast as other electric and hybrid options. For instance, its zero to 60 mph sprint time of 4.4 seconds and top speed of 155 mph fall far behind the much sharper-handling $160,000 Acura NSX hybrid, which records a sprint time of 3.1 seconds and a top speed of 191 mph.
The latest electric vehicles do even better. The Audi e-tron, although still in conceptual stage, is a working car that goes zero to 60 in less than two seconds and has a fully electric range of 310 miles. The forthcoming plug-in electric Porsche Taycan, which, even though it’s a larger, heavier sedan, lists a zero to 60 time in 3.5 seconds. In pure-electric mode, the i8 musters a max speed of only 75 mph. Tesla’s Model S has an electric-only top speed of 155 mph.
The brakes on the roadster also left something to be desired in my testing. Rather than having the aggressive bite of carbon and ceramic analog-style brakes, they feel computerized, like stopping in virtual reality instead of the real thing. It’s an abrupt transition between regenerative and friction modes, which helps charge the batteries but does nothing to ensure the smooth stop you’d want from a car that looks so smooth to begin with.
The Bright Spots
That said, the 2019 i8 roadster does offer some improvement from previous generations of the model line. Its updated lithium-ion battery includes more-efficient cells than in the coupe, packing 11.6 kilowatt-hours of energy into the same space that originally stored only 7.1kWh.
In practical terms, that meant I could drive roughly 18 miles under electric-only power, which I loved because it was super-stealthily silent navigating Manhattan streets and because it was super-responsive every time I pressed the gas pedal. (Once I switched over to using the conventional engine, there was a slight lag between the time I pushed the accelerator and when the car would lunge forward.)
Better yet, if you drive the i8 roadster in the six-gear “manual” mode, you automatically recharge the battery faster and for longer as you go. A small gauge on the dashboard shows how much energy you gain as you drive; it proved to be a fun game as I drove 90 minutes out on an airport run one evening. I gained back 12 miles of electric-only driving on the 13-mile drive there.
Elsewhere, the lightly weighted, electrically assisted power steering remained as direct and precise as you’d expect from a company that claims the title of “Ultimate Driving Machine,” even in convertible form. (Physics mean convertibles, with their lopped-off tops, are often stiffer and slower to drive aggressively than their coupe counterparts.)
And let’s not forget that the award-winning engine and hybrid system set the standard for what a hybrid sports car should be when they made their debut. The roadster comes with an updated 141-horsepower electric motor that sources energy from the lithium-ion battery to power the front axle; it switches seamlessly back and forth from the 228-horsepower, three-cylinder combustion engine that drives the rear wheels.
Other positive notes: The vertically opening doors look cool and are light and easy to lift, though their novel angle and the low ride height of the car mean it takes some expert duck-and-rolling for anyone over 5-foot-10 to get inside. If you have a beer belly, forget about it—I watched helplessly as valets struggled awkwardly to wedge themselves behind the steering wheel at angles usually reserved for backyard barbecue limbo tournaments.
The interior dash is as clean and crisp as BMW is often wont; the heated, leather-wrapped seats, cloth and carbon-fiber trimming, and driver-focused steering wheel and controls combine comfort and sport as well as anything else today. While interior noise with the top up is not as low as you might hope, the soft-top roof unfolds quickly and silently at the touch of a button. The trunk is even large enough to fit two small duffels, or one medium-size hard travel case, and the rear cubby behind the two seats is surprisingly useful in the absence of even a small back seat or rear ledge.
In the Meantime
I’m deliberately not calling the i8 roadster a hybrid supercar here, because it’s not. That would be something closer to the Porsche 918 or McLaren P1, both plug-in hybrids.
In fact, the i8 roadster is not as progressive an apparatus as what you might find in the Jaguar I-Pace SUV or the Audi e-tron quattro, or even in the latest Tesla models. But it is fun to drive and shows off well—it’ll get plenty of positive attention in your neighborhood, especially in the handsome dark slate colorway offered with the roadster version.
It’s also extremely drivable on a daily basis, with an AWD and forgiving suspension system that easily handle the potholes, steep inclines, and abrupt curbs that are sure to cause an ulcer, or at least a few gray hairs, for those who own truly low cars like the McLaren 720S or Lamborghini Aventador.
It’s no accident the i8 is still the best-selling plug-in hybrid sports car on the market today; it premiered in near-perfect form and since then has withstood the test of time. It looks as cool as any supercar but is a whole lot easier to own and more fun to drive. I expect the roadster version to carry on that tradition well.
BMW’s Krüger has said that by 2025 he plans to sell 25 electrified models, 12 of them pure electric. Until we see any other exciting options from BMW hitting the road, the 2019 i8 roadster is more than enough.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.