i8 MYSELF FOR (NOT) LOVING YOU
2019 BMW i8 Roadster Review: Yesterday’s Vision of Tomorrow
The BMW i8 Roadster is, in one sense, the Bavarian Motor Works‘s halo car—a range-topping two-door with a lofty price tag that represents where the company is headed. On the other hand, it’s a middling compromise, neither as fast (or fun to drive) as its similarly-priced competitors nor as efficient as many other modern-day vehicles boasting wheel-powering battery packs and electrical ports.
The Good: It’s hard to argue with a sports car that can accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour in four seconds and get the combined equivalent of 69 miles per gallon between its gas engine and battery pack. Still harder when it looks as wild as the i8 does, with its gullwing doors and aquatic predator lines.
Who It’s For: People whose primary reasons for buying a six-figure sports car are more along the lines of showing off on the streets and drawing stares than shooting for lap times or carving up rural B-roads. In other words, probably the majority of people who buy six-figure sports cars.
Watch Out For: Climbing in and out, which is pretty much impossible to do with any decorum. Also, mockery from anyone owning a newer luxury car in the same price bracket; the i8’s interior would look cheap in a car half the price to the discerning eye.
Alternatives: The all-new 2020 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S Cabriolet ($133,400), the Mercedes-AMG GT C Roadster ($158,850), the Audi R8 Spyder ($182,100). Oh, and there’s the brilliant all-new Aston Martin Vantage ($149,995), if you’re not wedded to that convertible body style.
Review: The problem with visions of the future is that they rarely come true—and they tend to date quickly when they don’t. The i8 first reared its head a decade ago; granted, it was called the Vision EfficientDynamics then, but a glance at that concept car is all it takes to see that most of its style and substance made it to the streets. In those days, the idea of pairing a compact gas-powered engine to a plug-in battery pack was fresh and exciting; after all, General Motors had just unveiled the production version of the Chevrolet Volt, and Tesla was still three years away from flipping the automotive space on its head with the Model S. The i8’s idea of allying a turbocharged inline-three with a lithium-ion battery pack and electric motor to make a car that combined Porsche performance with econo-car efficiency felt like a window into a better tomorrow—one where even the threat of $7/gallon gas couldn’t suppress our sports car dreams.
But in 2019, when fully electric vehicles have been embraced—by the zeitgeist, if not the mass market—the i8 feels like a throwback, not a look forward. It’s a feeling that’s exacerbated the moment you swing your legs over the awkward door sills and plop into the interior, which already feels dated. The all-digital instrument panel looks two sizes too small by today’s standards, with an unfortunate amount of black plastic bezel on each side of the screen. Same goes for the iDrive screen, though at least that now includes touchscreen capabilities—handy for operating Apple CarPlay, if nothing else. The wiper and blinker stalks feel old and cheap. And the radio presets allocated via iDrive, oddly enough, don’t correspond to the hard buttons next to the volume knob.
It’s not all bad, though, The orange-leather-and-gray-cloth trim found in my tester add a distinctive touch; the color combination is a matter of personal taste, but the material pairing feels premium in a way that breaks it apart from the six-figure car pack. The seats are comfortable—far more accommodating than the hard-sided Recaros and their clones found in many similarly-priced sports cars whose owners want to hit the track (or at least make it seem like they do).
The exterior, though, is how i8 sales are made. The car is still every bit as visually arresting as it was a decade ago, even now resembling a refugee from Minority Report or I, Robot—a shape too irrational to co-exist with ‘97 Honda Accords and late-model Chevy Silverados and busted-up panel vans. Low and slippery, it looks like a well-oiled shark as it cuts through traffic towards you. And unlike some hardtops that meet the Sawzall, the drop-top conversion does the look no harm; it’s still every bit as alien on the road, it just happens to now let others see the human hosts within. And the roof’s quick transition time means you won’t be caught with your top down often; it can flip from open to closed in 16 seconds—shorter than plenty of traffic lights.
Going Roadster also alleviates some of the flaws of the coupe. It allows for near-silent top-down running, which is both delightful and rare; in fact, I’m pretty sure this the only convertible on sale today that lets you drive under electric power alone, allowing you to savor the rush of the wind and the smell of the air, undisturbed by clattering pistons or carcinogenic exhaust. It makes driving the i8 more about enjoying the experience of motoring as a whole, rather than just the kinetic thrills of carving through corners and blasting past speed limits.
Which is good, because this Bimmer lacks the power to punch as hard as its competitors. The i8 received the mildest of performance updates for 2018, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference the added battery power (capacity rose from 7.1 to 11.6 kilowatt-hours, and the electric motor went from 129 hp to 141) brings to the table. The maximum system output of 369 horses is hardly the sort of fact worth whipping out at the bar in an era when Dodge sells four cars making more than that for around $40,000 or less.
Still, the more I drove the i8 over the course of a week, the more it grew on me. It’s legit fast when you floor it, the electric motors and turbochargers joining forces for an immediate shove of torque off the line and speed alike. Thanks to that rifle-blast kick of instant power, it feels faster than even its 4.1-second 0-60 time would lead you to believe.
Three cylinders and a turbocharger aren’t what most motorheads would consider the orchestra needed for a melodious internal combustion soundtrack, but the i8’s gas-burner doesn’t offend the ears once you’re really pushing it in Sport mode—aided, somewhat cheaply, by subtle synthetic enhancement that plays through the speakers. At lower speeds and rpm, though, it’s a bit clattery, hardly the sort of purring soundtrack.
Leave the car in the default Comfort mode or toggle up Eco Pro, and you won’t have to deal with that; unlike Sport, which leaves the engine on all the time, those fuel-sipping modes kill it at every opportunity around town, using the front axle-powering electric motor to hum from A to B. They’re not completely silent, but the only time you’ll hear their high-pitched whine is with the stereo off and the roof shut at low speeds—and even then, it’s hardly annoying.
Still, electric driving comes with its quirks. While the motor can carry you at speeds of up to 75 mph, getting the most out of that requires some very delicate feet. The accelerator tricky to modulate in maximum-efficiency Eco Pro mode; it’s resistant to input at first, leaving the i8 falling behind traffic when pulling away from a light, but push too hard and the gas engine clatters to life unnecessarily. Likewise, the brakes’ battery-recharging capabilities are difficult to master; there’s a bit of lift-off recapturing—about 25 percent of the full ability, according to the gauge—but even the slightest tap on the brake pedal pushes it way beyond that into the friction braking zone.
But if the electric motor is handy, the battery pack that feeds it may be its worst characteristic. That 11.6 kWh of electron capacity only delivers a claimed 18 miles of zero-emissions range; based on my time with the car, that estimate ought to come with an asterisked caveat along the lines of: *with a sole occupant and no cargo, on a perfectly flat surface, at a speed of 40 miles per hour, when the external temperature is between 68 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit, when driving towards the moon at high tide. 15 miles seems more realistic in real-world conditions. Even if the full 18 miles were easily attainable, though, it’s just not very much for practical purposes—only enough to cover the average American driver’s 16-mile commute if he or she can recharge at the office.
Which brings me to one grand ol’ your-mileage-may-vary caveat: I spent my week with the i8 in New York City, which is arguably one of the worst places to live with a plug-in car. To use them most effectively, plug-in hybrids and EVs require a garage at home or a parking spot at work with a dedicated outlet—somewhere you can reliably depend on leaving the car for several hours so it can charge while you’re away.
Which is exactly the sort of thing most New Yorkers lack.
Those who commute via private vehicle can rarely depend on having the same place to park every day, while most of those who own cars but commute via mass transit leave them parked —where EV charging ports are few and far between. Tesla, at least, offers a fair number of Superchargers scattered around the Tri-State area—and besides, they have enough battery capacity to make once-a-week charging a possibility. The i8, however, doesn’t offer such luxuries, forcing New Yorkers to cobble sketchy extension cord chains out their apartment windows if they want to charge up at home.
And even then, it’ll take a long time to add power: Seven hours suckling on a 110-volt wall outlet yielded between six and seven miles of EV range. In an ironic twist, the fastest way to add electric driving range seems to be to drive it hard with the gas engine running; five miles of stop-and-go between 0 and 45 mph—about 20 minutes of driving—loaded the battery up with five additional miles of electric-only driving range.
Still, even under less-than-ideal conditions, the i8 proved itself fairly efficient. My average fuel economy sat right around 25 miles per gallon over 100 miles of mostly city driving, which favors electric motivation. Plugging it into the wall socket in every day and gaining even those six miles of battery power from a free source would have probably sent that up a bit. Considering any comparable Mercedes-AMG GT would be lucky to hit its EPA-rated 16 miles per gallon over the same stretch.
Verdict: Decent fuel economy isn’t enough to excuse the biggest issue with the i8: It’s neither sporty enough nor green enough to justify the price. At $165,000, those looking for straight-line thrills or virtue-signalling power would be better served with a Tesla Model S P100D; or, on the flip side, if your ultimate goal really is to be kind to the planet while still driving a sexy, speedy German drop-top, it’s hard not to argue in favor of buying a Porsche 911 Carrera GTS Cabriolet and spending the extra 20 grand on carbon offset credits. (Fun fact: At $5 per 1,000 pounds of offsets, that $20K could offset 4 million pounds of carbon dioxide—the equivalent of 78,430 gallons of gasoline.)
Still, there’s a specific space out there for the i8 Roadster. If you can reliably plug in your car for a few hours each day, and if you’re more concerned with the lifestyle aspects of sports car ownership than driving engagement, the i8 will treat you well. Otherwise, though, there are better choices for the money.
2019 BMW i8 Roadster Specs
Powertrain: 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder connected to rear axle via six-speed automatic transmission; AC synchronous electric motor connected to front axle via two-speed automatic transmission
Total Maximum Horsepower: 369
Total Maximum Torque: 420 pound-feet
0-60 MPH: 4.1 seconds (Car and Driver testing)
Cargo Capacity: 2.3 cubic feet
BMW provided this product for review.
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