By the time an i8 Roadster first shows up in somebody's driveway, BMW's Vision Efficient Dynamics Concept will be ten years old. While that was just a wild show car with a turbodiesel plug-in hybrid drivetrain, what followed in 2011 was the production i8 coupe, a carbon fiber hybrid sports car with a body like nothing we'd seen before.
BMW followed it up with the i8 Concept Spyder in 2012, but that concept was never supposed to spawn a production model. It was purely a mockup. All show. No go.
BMW's bean counters informed the board very early on that there was no business case for the roadster, so the i8's backbone, the CFRP Life module, wasn't engineered to work without a hardtop.
The i8 Coupe hit the streets in 2014. Chris Harris drove it for us, daring you to compare it to an M1. Then, we revisited BMW's most daring experiment three years later, only to leave the cockpit asking for more performance in light of the rapid rate of technological development presented by the competition.
But just when the i8 Coupe's already low sales figures started to decline faster than the latest iPhone X's, BMW's engineers did something quite remarkable. Believing that the Roadster was a must, they drove a blue i8 Coupe into their workshop and plugged in the angle grinder, presumably equipped with diamond blade.
Before this old school chop job could begin, the team led by long-time BMW veteran Rainer Rump had to find a way to make the soft top economically viable.
That's where the people at BMW's Leipzig factory chipped in. Within the BMW Group, only the Leipzig factory would work. It has a team flexible enough to produce both high-selling steel cars like the 1 and 2-Series, volume carbon models like the i3, and halo products like the i8. The wizards there made low-volume production possible by integrating Roadster production into the regular i8 line without the need for special tooling and without messing up the plant's complicated logistics.
A new production deadline was set for spring, 2018, which left just 22 months for Rump's team to heavily re-engineer the model. After the first crash tests confirmed that the i8's structure was rigid enough without a roof, the design team got more freedom to end up with both the shapes they wanted and a drag coefficient of 0.28 Cd.
Okay, so let's have a look at what happens when you saw the roof off your i8 Coupe, just in case you're planning to do that:
- A wave of hot air from the front air vent will roll up the windscreen, and get sucked into the cockpit. The solution is to seal that air vent on the hood, and re-direct the hot air from the radiator to exit behind the front wheels.
- At speed, you'll notice there's a weird noise coming from somewhere behind your head. Several 3D-printed prototypes and wind tunnel tests later, you'll realize it's coming from the speaker grilles. You'll need to create new grilles covered in molleton fabric, and make sure that they can be produced at an industrial scale.
- You'll need to come up with special hinges to keep the signature butterfly doors. You'll figure it out.
- Roof. You don't have one. You need to. Eventually, you'll settle for a folding soft top that folds vertically in a Z-shape in fifteen seconds at up to 30mph. To make it work, you'll also need to 3D-print a metal part that looks like this:
It's left naked on purpose, since BMW wants to show off its roadster-specific engineering solutions. And while the soft top team went north to check comfort under extreme weather conditions, the powertrain and chassis people kept busy improving performance and handling.
The Roadster debuted with the same upgrades as the 2019 i8 Coupe. That means it has a whopping 12 extra horsepower–now it makes 369–and up to three extra miles of pure electric range thanks to a higher density battery pack that grew from its original capacity of 7.1 kWh to 11.6.
More importantly, both new i8s also come with revised suspensions featuring upgraded shocks and anti-roll bars. Apparently, people were complaining about the Coupe's tendency to understeer.
The island of Mallorca isn't the most suitable test track for a sports car, because of the thousands of cyclists on its mountain roads you really can't hit with your eco sports car, for both ethical and legal reasons.
What I did manage to learn is that the i8 is still the most comfortable spaceship money can buy, and its pure electric range of 18 miles is perfectly adequate for this application. That's because, despite what some BMW ads may seem to suggest, this isn't an EV. It's a fast hybrid that will drive silently pretty much every time you need it to.
The flow of power is complicated in theory, but very straightforward in practice. When cruising, you're in hybrid mode, and the car will switch to its 102 horsepower electric motor only under low loads. If you hit traffic or a residential area, the car will switch into EV mode. However, you can choose to stay on battery power at all times, as long as you don't exceed 75 mph. Yes, eventually, the battery will run out. But it won't really have time to do that, since once the road clears off, you will flip the lever into sport, and surprise, surprise, not only will you get all the combined 369 horses, but your electric range will also start to climb, thanks to increased braking regen.
It's a highly efficient combination that works flawlessly in daily traffic. What's more, the suspension upgrades led to a balanced chassis, and while the i8 still isn't an oversteering burnout machine, the 2019 version is markedly better in the corners. The electric boost also makes it feel quicker than the zero-to-sixty time of 4.4 seconds suggests. The Coupe is another 0.2 seconds quicker, mainly because it has to carry 132 lbs. less weight.
Do those butterfly doors squeak ever so slightly under load transitions? Yes. Did you lose two tiny seats in the name of a fancy roof mechanism? I guess, but who cares? Is digitally-enhanced three-cylinder turbo sound pumping from the speakers while your brain is fooled by active noise cancellation? Yeah, but it's not unpleasant, actually. Is the i8 Roadster expensive at $164,295? That's not even a serious question.
But you know what? You're daily driving an insane concept car from 2012 that was made real six years later by a bunch of dedicated people within a giant German company. And the soft top i8 is not a bad way of celebrating that achievement. Silently or not, turning heads everywhere, for many years to come.
Rest assured, the i8 Roadster will always be a rare sight.