BMW i8 Roadster: Eco-friendly convertible supercar

A convertible supercar is the ultimate status symbol. But can the same be said about an eco-friendly convertible supercar? Does such a machine have the same aspirational pull or power to make that status statement?

When it comes to the head-turning BMW i8 Roadster, the short answer is yes. The two-seater convertible i8 Roadster is pure eye-candy. If anything looks like a supercar, it is this futuristic-looking plug-in hybrid electric sports car.

It’s a car that draws the eye, the exterior bragging of its assets and prowess.

Low-slung and wide of girth, with powerful wheel arches and imposing rear end, the elegantly stretched BMW i8 Roadster is a visual feast. And when the soft-top roof is down, and the gullwing doors are soaring, it is even more eye-catching.

So, looks are up there, and so too is this sports car’s green performance.

Its strong, bold form belies its eco-credentials. As a hybrid sports car the i8 Roadster has the advantage of two power sources: an electric motor and three-cylinder 1.5-litre turbo-charged combustion engine. This offers a powerful combination of emission-free mobility and high-performance driving.

That it delivers on looks in spades is not in question. But performance is a very necessary attribute if the road to securing the future of eco-friendly supercars is paved. And the i8 Roadster does not disappoint.

Space capsule

Entering and exiting this low-slung beauty with its airborne gullwing doors is slightly less refined or effortless than one might want. But take heart, all eyes will be on the car and no-one is likely to be watching you. If they are, it’s with envy.

This plush cockpit wraps around you like a glove. Figure-hugging leather seats come with standard heating. The leather sports steering wheel, with multifunction buttons, also comes with shift paddles for manual gear changing.

Familiar BMW switchgear makes for intuitive operation of this machine. That’s not to say it doesn’t boast all the latest tech; it does, and then some.

The i8 Roadster is equipped with fully digital multifunctional instrument display and an 8.8-inch freestanding screen that displays everything from the navigation system to the vast range of infotainment and connectivity offerings.

An array of standard camera-based driver assistance systems includes cruise control with braking function; collision and pedestrian warning with city braking function; park distance control; high beam assistant; speed limit info, including no-passing info display; and side view and top view functions.

The i8 Roadster’s two additional rear mini-seats are really only meant to accommodate tiny tots, but I was determined to try out the modest rear space. Suffice to say that rear entry required more than a modicum of agility and when my skinny form was finally ‘seated’, my knees were nearer my ears than the floor!

But behind these mini-seats is a rather handy and fairly large compartment that provides storage space adding to that offered in the boot.

Standard fare in the boot is a mode-2 charging cable that allows for the electric motor’s battery to be recharged from a standard domestic socket in under four-and-a-half hours. A new mode-3 cable can also be used at public charging points for high-power charging.

Top-down driving

It was a smooth start, with the i8 Roadster’s electronically controlled soft-top roof opening fluidly within the specified 15 seconds. It’s a roof able to open or close even while travelling at up to 50km/h.

But testing optimal performance was more difficult as the route presented scant opportunity for the i8 Roadster to get the bit between its teeth or display its agility.

This test covered a route that, unlike the scenic and undulating delights of Cape Town, mostly took in the more hectic urban and suburban spaces of Gauteng.

Still, as the test demonstrated, both urban and country roads are the i8 Roadster’s territory; its blend of sustainable, emission-free driving and sports car performance perfectly suited to both environments.

Ideal for city driving, the electric motor alone is able to propel the i8 Roadster for a range of up to 53km, just 2km shy of its 60kg lighter sibling, the BMW i8 Coupé.

But virtually silent, pure-electric city motoring does come with some potential hazards for those that don’t hear this car coming, making the optional extra acoustic pedestrian warning a practical fitting.

With electric power comes instantaneous and high-speed response. And there’s more electric woema too, the latest lithium battery provides an additional 9kW of power over the original used at the i8 Coupé’s launch some three years back.

Five driving modes with a combination of all-electric and combustion engine driving can be employed providing virtually silent pure-electric mobility up to a speed of 120km/h, to a somewhat swifter and sportier drive accompanied by the distinctive soundtrack of a turbo-charged engine.

When the eDrive button is depressed, the combustion engine will only cut in automatically if the battery’s energy reserves are nearly depleted or the driver summons full power.

Full throttle brings the combustion engine with its exhaust snarl to life, providing an authentic sports-car driving experience, the open road allowing the i8 Roadster to unleash the full 275kW of power that both motors provide.

It is very, very quick and very responsive. The low centre of gravity and even weight distribution in addition to all-wheel drive and 20-inch light-alloy wheels contributes to an exhilarating and grippy driving event.

Given that the top has been lobbed off, the unique two-seater convertible is understandably not quite as stiff as the i8 Coupé, but this is really only mildly discernable when driving over badly blemished roads.

Performance on the road in general is taut and composed, and the ride comfortable.

With the soft-top up, the cabin is surprisingly well insulated from road and wind noise.

And top-down driving is less noisy or windy than anticipated. A rear window, which can be raised or lowered at whim, helps to break both the breezy experience and noise factor.

There was little opportunity to unleash the i8 Roadster’s true performance, but I gave it my best shot… and got pulled over for speeding.

Luckily, I dodged that bullet and was waved off with: “I didn’t know it was old people!”

This though was more likely about a young officer wanting a close-up peek at a new convertible supercar than excessive speed on my part.

And who can blame the traffic officer? It is an extraordinary looking car.

While the i8 Roadster’s somewhat unconventional eco-performance and synthetic-assisted soundtrack may not leave you as breathless as would its conventional combustion supercar peers, the hybrid i8 Roadster delivers much of everything a supercar should; the stuff of dreams.

Owning a supercar though is not light on the wallet.

But for those who want to make a statement and send a message about their financial and social status, it doesn’t get any better than a convertible supercar.

Now they can still do that and be environmentally responsible with this pioneering eco-roadster, 48 of which will be making their way to our shores this year.

This article originally appeared in the 5 July edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here. 

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