A facelift for the BMW i8 at first seems about as necessary as a 15-year-old getting Botox. The Bavarian UFO may have been on the market for four years, but it still looks like it just landed on our planet from a very distant, very sophisticated galaxy. Battery technology, however, is developing rapidly, and BMW is kind enough to share its new energy-storage knowledge with i8 customers. That means slightly more power and noticeably more electric range. The big news, however, is this: BMW has cut the roof off the hybrid sports car. The result is the new i8 Roadster, which adds an extra dose science fiction to the i8 package.
Is it the better, more contemporary alternative to the likes of the Audi R8 Spyder, Porsche 911 Cabriolet, and other topless supercars? Wait, not so fast. We do not want to make the same mistake twice. When the i8 coupe hit the market, its handling wasn’t dynamic enough for many, not a real super athlete. But then again, maybe it shouldn’t be: BMW has positioned this car in a completely different way. Not as an uncompromising racetrack weapon, but as a sporting statement for enthusiastic (and very rich) eco-thinkers. Of course, with a BMW i8 you could always be very dedicated and have a lot of fun, but if you thought of it as a genuine supercar, an unconditional cornering monster, you would be disappointed – even though the i8 damned well looked like one.
The basic design has not changed with the i8 facelift – and of course this also applies to the new i8 Roadster. However, the engineers have taken quite a few criticisms to heart, for instance revising the steering weight. In addition, there are new 20-inch wheels, which are now one kilo (2.2 pounds) lighter per piece than before. And the front end has been slightly modified in the bumper area so that it can better handle the air around the wheel arch. Optically, nothing else was needed; the i8 still looks like a 2025 model, as if it had fled the future. And people seem to like it: If it goes purely by the number of views and thumbs raised during my test day in Germany, the quiet hybrid athlete can easily keep up, curb appeal-wise, with the classic posterboys of Ferrari, Lamborghini, or McLaren.
As to the new i8 Roadster specifically, it has a power soft top. It's made of a fabric that looks a bit like thicker denim and skilfully disappears behind the front seats within 15 seconds (at speeds up to 31 miles per hour). In addition, the aluminum components of the roof mechanism are 3D-printed and look like artwork. Nerd factor: 5,000. Stiffeners were mainly added around the windshield frame – which, like the majority of the body, is made from carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP). Overall, the Roadster is 132 pounds heavier than the coupe, at 3,513 pounds. Of course (and unfortunately), the soft-top conversion eliminates the quite usable back seat of the regular i8 coupe. However, BMW has found behind the seats at least 3.5 cubic feet of storage space, which complement the somewhat miserable 3.1 cubic feet of the "trunk.”
Do You Notice The Extra Power?
Well, the performance increase in the facelifted i8 is not exactly revolutionary. And it comes completely from the increased performance of the new lithium-ion batteries. Their cells are much more powerful than before. The capacity increases from 20 to 34 amp-hours, the energy content from 7.1 to 11.4 kilowatt-hours. That's an improvement of 70 percent. Because more energy is there, the i8’s electric motor can work harder than before than before. Its performance increases by 12 to 141 horsepower. The wonderfully charismatic turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine still delivers a whopping 228 hp and 228 pound-feet of torque, but now has an emissions particulate filter. The i8 Roadster accelerates to 62 mph in 4.6 seconds (the Coupe needs just 4.4 seconds). And to answer the question asked at the beginning: Yes, you notice the extra power. It’s very noticeable, just not in the traditional sense.
You just have to love the unusual combo of the electric motor up front and the three-cylinder engine in the back. With the massive punch from a stop and the unusually powerful mid-range from 2,500 to 4,000 rpm, it really burns like tinder. How frenetically the i8 hangs on the power at all times, how rough and rebellious the engine sounds (despite obvious sound amplification, the noise of this car is still a great joy). Sure, BMW's plug-in hybrid roadster is not nearly as quick as other exotics in its price range. But it’s more than fast enough and delivers its performance in a very exciting, engaging way. In addition, it can inspire with so many other skills: Skuling along completely silently in a convertible sports car and then, at the touch of a button, frightening unsuspecting cyclists when overtaking with full power. The nice thing is (and now I finally get to the point): With the new battery you can do all that not really any faster, but for much longer than before.
How Much Longer?
Well, BMW promises 18 miles of electric range from the i8 Roadster in the U.S., up from 15 miles before. And in all-electric driving, the range estimates seemed accurate; I didn’t have the feeling – as with so many other plug-in hybrids – that three kilometers of range disappear from the display for every kilometer driven. Even in the hybrid modes, "Comfort" and "Sport," it’s more efficient. After around 93 miles of driving, some highway, lots of mountain roads, I saw average consumption figures equivalent to 28-36 miles per gallon With a "normal" sports car on those roads, I would have consumed at least twice as much fuel.
Is It Still Fun?
Yes, absolutely. Once you have adapted your driving style to this very special genre of a mid-engined roadster, the i8 delivers plenty of driving pleasure. Just don’t expect a scalpel-like, laser-fast asphalt-destroying like the McLaren 570S or the R8 Spyder. The BMW may look like the most extreme supercar, but its soul is green. Even after the facelift, the front tires are still a limiting factory. In the fight for every gram of CO2 and every meter of range, BMW put skinny 195-section-width tires up front. And even with the optional 215-width rubbers, traction at corner entry vanishes just a bit too early, which leads to understeer, especially in narrower corners. This is not terribly tragic, but a pity, because in itself the i8 is a highly talented machine. It has excellent balance, terrific steering, striking looks, and it’s full of energy. And powering out of corners, it takes full advantage of its hybrid all-wheel-drive grip.
Yet the average BMW i8 driver probably doesn’t care all that much about it. It’s more about enjoying the ingenious technology; taking wide, fast corners; using the unrestrained power and hearing the rumble of the three-cylinder in the back; ogling the futuristic flanks in the side-view mirrors. And then slipping silently into the next village. Without a roof, the i8 Roadster is even quieter when motoring engine-off. Nobody stares at you, affronted, because you disturbed them with the noise and pollution of a V8; instead they’re appreciative that you spent a lot of money to spare their environment.
The i8 Roadster may not as extreme a performer as its traditional competitors, but it can do so much that others can not. It’s a completely new kind of sports car: technically fascinating, very contemporary, and all without a guilty conscience. And so for this very modern kind of driving, the airier, more flamboyant Roadster actually seems more suitable than the coupe.
Weaknesses? The A-pillars are still far too thick, which hurts visibility around corners. In addition, the otherwise perfectly positioned seats could give use quite a bit more lumbar support. You also won’t find the usual semi-autonomous driving aids (besides a backup camera and parking sensors), which seems rather strange for a technical innovator like this. And, of course, it’s expensive, from $163,300 in the U.S.
Ultimately, the 2019 BMW i8 Roadster looks absolutely stunning in its very own science-fiction style. Thanks to the retuned steering, it now drives a little more emotionally and lustfully. Otherwise, it drives like an i8 always drove – and that's a good thing. Even though it doesn’t carve corners like a true supercar, it still delivers a lot of fun, albeit in a different, very modern, and very sustainable way.
Gallery: 2019 BMW i8 Roadster: First Drive
2019 BMW i8 Roadster