Buyers of fast cars in the UAE are perhaps guiltier than most of their infatuation with all things new. A four-year-old design is ancient history, right? Except perhaps when you’re talking about the BMW i8, the German company’s innovative hybrid sports car that first came to light in 2014. It looks as fresh and ground-breaking today as it did back then and there’s no sign of anything remotely similar for the money arriving from a rival car maker any time soon, so what could BMW do to give sales a mid-life kick-start? Chop the roof off, of course…
BMW claims to have taken the rather unscientific approach to checking how strong the carbon fibre structure of the i8 would be without a roof by literally taking an angle grinder to an example of the coupe. Naturally the engineers say they were pleasantly surprised, though in the next breath they’ll admit to beefing up the carbon chassis and aluminium rear sub-frame. Nonetheless, the weight increase for the i8 Roadster is only 60kg, which isn’t a lot, relatively speaking. That includes the folding roof and its mechanism, of course. The piece of fabric over the occupants is small enough, and it folds behind stunning new buttressed bodywork to the rear.
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This takes just 15 seconds and can be done at speeds of up to 50kph. Apparently BMW discovered that hot air (as high as 70 degrees Celsius) exiting the bonnet vent was making its way into the open cabin, causing it to redesign the airflow management for both Roadster and Coupe, so if you want air that hot, you’ll have to drive out into the desert with the (excellent) air conditioning switched off… Otherwise, the interior of the i8 Roadster is a comfortable place to be with the roof down, even for relatively tall people. For the full effect, you need to drop the side glass and the new retractable rear window. Once speeds top 120kph it can get blustery, but that rear glass acts as an effective windbreak.
The rest of the interior is pretty much as it is in the i8 Coupe, save for the deletion of the rear ‘seats.’ For the new model year, there are snazzy new interior trim options and the latest generation iDrive infotainment system. That includes BMW’s ‘tile’ display menu on a higher resolution screen. For the record, it’s now also a touch-sensitive display, but its location is unchanged so it’s not within easy reach. Regardless, we prefer to use the tactile rotary controller on the centre console. Next to that are switches for all the driving modes, and they’re key to the appeal of the i8, as before. BMW tells us that existing owners wanted more of everything in the update, specifically more pure-electric capability while preserving the distinctly sporty alter-ego when you shift the gear selector to the left into Sport mode.
So, on one hand, the power steering and engine noise (still a three-cylinder turbo, mounted behind) have been enhanced when in the Sport setting, while BMW has significantly upgraded the i8’s electric vehicle (EV) credentials. That’s thanks to a new battery pack of higher energy density, enabling the i8 to travel for further on a full charge (up to 53 kilometres for the Roadster), and faster (up to 120kph) thanks to a more powerful electric motor driving the front wheels. The Roadster seems particularly eerie in EV mode with the roof down around the city, as all other noises are seemingly amplified by the absence of an engine sound. It’s no slouch in the eDrive setting, but the i8 feels far more responsive when in Sport mode.
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And actually, the updated i8 is also far more satisfying to drive down a twisty road than the old one. The steering is as direct as ever, but the nose of the i8 seems to have more connection with the road than before, giving you confidence to push on and discover where its limits are. The quick-thinking stability control system makes this a safe exercise, but even when you turn it off, there’s no fear of the i8’s 369hp total output. If you try hard and the road is tight, you can get a few degrees of slip at the rear before the electric motor up front pulls the i8 out of the corner, so it’s never going to thrill in the same way a BMW M car will, but it’s considerably more fun than it was. That’s down to alterations in the two-mode damping system, the power steering calibration and the overall chassis stiffness.
This all means that the i8, Roadster or Coupe, will appeal to more than just the stereotypical set of buyers that such a shiny new trinket might be expected to appeal to.