Driven: BMW i8 Roadster

Few cars grab you quite like an i8. Five years on from its introduction, it still looks like it’s travelled from the future, a marker for what cars could look like in 2035. That’s the year the government is currently (wishfully?) thinking of banning petrol and diesel-powered vehicles from sale, but the BMW i8 Roadster is one step ahead already – it’s a petrol-electric hybrid, so ticks at least some of the ‘green’ boxes.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is an economical car though. That headline economy figure of 128.4mpg is, frankly, crazy, although I concede it’s possible to achieve that in very specific circumstances. No, the hybrid power plant is there for performance, with two electric motors and a 1.5-litre petrol engine combining to produce over 370hp. It’s a development of what’s gone before in the i8 Coupe, but now develops just a little more power than before, while benefiting from a carbon-fibre-reinforced-plastic and aluminium chassis that’s had a few changes made to it.

BMW i8 Roadster roof down

Chief amongst those are improvements to the suspensions bushings and geometry, as well as a new program for the electrically-powered steering. There’s also significant strengthening of the windscreen surround, and the rear side windows have been replaced by structural panels to increase strength and rigidity. It’s now strong enough to allow BMW to cut the roof off, turning the Coupe into the Roadster.

Part of that transition has also meant removing the entirely useless rear seats, giving somewhere for the roof to go when the sun is out. It’s an all-electric roof mechanism, as you would expect, that can be opened and closed at speeds of up to 30mph. Taking just 15 seconds, it hides away between the mid-mounted engine and leaves those rear buttresses standing upright.

It looks great, if a little short of a proper convertible, and that continues inside. It’s not quite so futuristic there, with more than a hint of a 5 Series dashboard, but the seating position is near perfect and the infotainment unit is now a touchscreen device.

What was the rear seat space has been slashed by the roof, but there’s still a large cubby that will swallow 92 litres of luggage. Combined with the tiny 88-litre boot, that provides enough for a couple of squashy bags but nothing else. By way of comparison, a Ford Focus swallows 375 litres of belongings.

BMW i8 Roadster interior

It’s also loaded with equipment, including LED headlights with automatic high-beam, an audio system that includes a 20Gb hard drive to store music on, digital DAB radio, satellite navigation and a Harmon/Kardon speaker system. It’s all swathed in leather, with optional carbon fibre and ceramic highlights.

It’s how it drives that matters though, so close the dihedral doors (they’re not scissor doors, so BMW tells me) and fire up the car and, well, nothing happens. The electric motors do what they’re meant to do and I pull away silently. It’ll do this for 32 miles, if driven gently. Prod the throttle a little harder and the three-cylinder petrol engine fires up, allowing you to unleash the cars full capabilities. I wasn’t blown away by the BMW i8 Coupe when it first came out, but the changes made to the latest model, including the Roadster here, have had a very positive effect.

BMW i8 Roadster in Wetherby
Our drive of the BMW i8 Roadster took us to Wetherby

It’s quick, and feels seriously rapid once above about 30mph. It’ll hit 62mph in 4.6 seconds but feels like it’s just getting into its stride as you hit that magic number. Left untamed, it’ll go on until it hits the 155mph speed limiter. It turns in sharply, the nose heading straight for the apex and the car obediently following. The whole experience is more satisfying than earlier iterations of the car, and having a surprisingly meaty exhaust note audible in the car adds an extra emotional element.

Without a closed road, it’s difficult to know how it will react at the upper limits of its capabilities, but the i8 is only partly about performance. Style plays an equal part, with the Roadster drawing attention along every road and through every village. It’s a statement, even if I’m not entirely sure what the statement is.

It’s not that you’re driving the ultimate driving machine as, frankly, other cars are quicker and cost less. It’s not that you’re an environmentalist keen on saving the planet, as no sports car could ever make sense in that situation. You can’t claim it’s tax benefit either, as the £127,105 asking price far outweighs any company car tax savings the hybrid powerplant provides.

It might just be sticking two fingers up to the government, saying that we’ll learn to have fun whatever restrictions are placed on vehicles. If this is what happens when we’re no longer allowed to buy traditionally fuelled cars, then bring on the future.

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Phil Huff

Phil Huff has been writing for national newspapers, magazines, regional titles and countless websites since 2003. Specialising in travel and the automotive world, Phil is happiest when exploring foreign lands in foreign cars.