Here’s the thing about the BMW i8 – despite its looks, handling, and overall snob appeal, I don’t really consider it a supercar. I’ve spent thousands of kilometers behind the wheel of these cars now, including a significant road trip to Northern Ontario, and each time I come away with the same opinion. It’s a great grand tourer, and is quite possibly the most efficient of the “supercars”, but it does very little to evoke that exhilaration. We wanted to see if things would be any different once the Germans chopped the top off, so we took a look at an early production 2019 BMW i8 Roadster for a week’s worth of testing.
The i8 (reviewed here) is still one of those cars that brings out the fans. Whether it’s cruising on the highway with the top down or parked at the local outlet mall on a rainy weekend, it somehow manages to attract anyone and everyone. Most of the exciting test vehicles we spend time with are reserved to getting their attention from car enthusiasts, but this gets just as much attention from elderly men to early 20s women, and everything in between. This factor only multiples when the “billionaire doors” open upwards, a feature that particularly stands out when the top is open.
Under the hood, things are mostly unchanged. The i8 Roadster is powered by the same turbocharged 1.5L inline three-cylinder from the MINI (reviewed here), as well as a permanent-magnet synchronous electric motor. Combined output is 369 (up from 357) horsepower and 420 lb-ft. of torque. It’s not slow by any means, and knocking the gear selector to the left engages “Sport” mode and also forces on the gasoline motor. This brings upon engine noise that sounds sufficient for the car’s personality but it’s definitely synthetic.
When the i8 is left in “Comfort” or “Eco Pro” modes, it works as a traditional hybrid would. Torque delivery off the line is instantaneous due to the boost of the electric motor, but power builds on quickly with minimal turbocharger lag. It’s not supercar fast, but 0-100km/h can be pulled off in 4.3 seconds effortlessly. Think of it as the coolest 440i (reviewed here) you’ll ever drive, but it has appeal that surpasses the racy M4.
A six-speed automatic transmission, also shared with the MINI, puts power to the wheels, and in the i8 all four wheels are powered. The overall dynamics of this car are very smooth, though nothing to brag about. It handles like it’s on rails, and the steering is extremely quick. Recent BMW models have a more digital personality and focus on effort rather than the analog heft in performance vehicles of the past, and the i8 is reflective of this. It’s very obviously a car that makes a statement rather than delivering the all-out no-compromises performance of the Audi R8 (reviewed here).
The i8’s electric-only range is approximately 33 kilometers in optimal conditions from our testing, though BMW only estimates 29km (a slight update over last year’s model). One interesting note is that when in “Sport” mode, the car operates solely on its gasoline engine and actually generates EV range fairly quickly. We were able to re-juice the car completely in roughly 75km of highway driving. Those who do a healthy mix between highway and city commuting will quickly find a sweet spot that works optimally. One cool tidbit is that the i8 can be driven up to full highway speeds in EV mode.
Since the i8 first debuted a few years ago, it has undergone minor tweaks to the suspension and handling characteristics. The result is a car that feels much more balanced and the weight better distributed. BMW estimates the Roadster at weighing just over 130 pounds over a comparable coupé, and this makes sense. It’s worth noting that while the standard model has a pair of (absolutely useless) rear seats, the Roadster foregoes them in favour of the retractable top. There is enough storage for a small backpack, laptop bag, or similar behind the front seats.
The interior overall is fairly standard issue for BMW, save for added difficulty during entry and exit thanks to the high doorsills from the carbon fibre tub. The iDrive system remains a benchmark for connectivity in the segment, and BMW remains the only automaker at the time of this writing that offers wireless Apple CarPlay connectivity. The seats are impeccably comfortable, and the stunning ambient lighting throughout the cabin (configurable in consistency and colour) is some of the best we have seen.
Options on our test vehicle included a $5,800 Premium Package, which adds Apple CarPlay integration, ceramic controls, LED headlights, a heads-up display, and black brake calipers. Standalone check-offs are 20” alloy wheels in style 516, carbon fibre trim, and a Travel Package. The CarPlay integration is a must-have, but it does need to be standard issue. After all, most mainstream vehicles right down to the basic Kia Rio are already equipped with this connectivity from the factory.
Operation of the i8 Roadster’s convertible top is slick worthy of real bragging rights. It operates at the touch of a button in under 16 seconds, and can be opened or closed while moving at very slow speeds. While the car was on test, I happened to find myself leaving the very busy entertainment district in downtown Toronto, and accidentally found out that pushing and holding the “unlock” button on the remote would retract the top. This naturally resulted in much “ooh” and “ahh” from onlookers, and totally random passersby wanted to take selfies with the car. We happily obliged…
Where the i8 does have an advantage is with regard to competition – it has none. While it’s priced very close to the Audi R8 Spyder, it’s a completely different animal. The closest hybrid in performance would be the Acura NSX, but it’s also far more powerful and much more expensive. The NSX also is a performance hybrid and has no rated EV-only mode or plug-in ability. At $169,900 base and $177,300 as-tested, the 2019 BMW i8 Roadster legitimately sits in a class of its own.