Put the spec panels away. On paper, you cannot compare the BMW i8 roadster plug-in hybrid with any other sporting automobile. By numbers alone, it can’t keep up. It’s not the fastest, the most economical, the longest of range, or, at a starting price of $164,295, anywhere close to being the most affordable. But never mind those pesky numbers. Because what the i8 roadster offers is a driving experience unlike almost anything else on the road, a sublime mixture of luxury, performance, and 21st-century green tech—all wrapped in a package that swivels heads and shocks the senses like a Blue Angels jet making a sneak pass.
The big news for 2019 is a slight increase in total powertrain output—to 369 horsepower—and the availability of that can’t-miss power-folding soft top. The fabric roof whirs away into the void where the coupe version offers two jump seats, but in practice the i8 has always been a two-seater. Still, the convertible version dispenses with what little practicality the coupe offers; there’s a very small cargo bin behind the mid-mounted engine, but now the luggage space afforded by the “rear seats” is gone. Frankly, I doubt anyone interested in a car like this will care. The pleasures of driving in the open air far outweigh the loss of a little storage room.
Lowering the lid requires nothing more than activating a switch in the center console; the roof hides away under its bonnet in about 15 seconds. The side windows don’t retract fully—due to the design constraints of the edgy, wing-like doors, a small curve of glass peeks out—but it’s not something you notice from behind the wheel. Instead, the sun floods in, the passing air tugs at your sunglasses, the hybrid powertrain’s sounds amplify. Wind buffeting, even at speed, is minimal. The i8 feels made to be a convertible.
What I’ve always loved most about the i8 are its multiple personalities. In its Comfort or Eco Pro modes (selectable via a switch to the left of the gear lever), the i8 operates by combining electric and gas power as needed. If the battery is sufficiently charged, the car will run mostly on electricity only, starting the gas engine only when charging is required or when driving at highway speeds for a while. Press the eDrive button, though, and now you’re piloting a full-on electric car (the gas engine will light only if you mat the accelerator pedal to the floor). With a full charge, the i8 roadster will glide along this way for 15 to 18 miles or so—not especially impressive given the 200-plus-mile range of many of today’s EVs, but plenty if you’re just scooting around the city for a day running errands. It’s my favorite way to operate the car, as it’s so quiet, so silken, and possessed of so much effortless torque. It’s your own magic carpet. When the time comes, using the industry-standard J1772 plug at any charge station, the i8 can be fully recharged in as little as three hours.
But there’s yet another driving option. Move the shift lever to the left and into Sport mode, and the gas engine never turns off. Not only does this improve acceleration (BMW claims a zero-to-60-mph time of 4.4 seconds for the roadster), it also quickly recharges the battery. Move the lever again into manual-shift mode, and now you’re driving the i8 at its sportiest. The head-up display fills with a large tachometer, the gearbox changes gears only at your bidding via the paddles or lever, and the powertrain charges along with a brio you simply wouldn’t expect given the “mere” 1.5-liter turbo three-cylinder at its heart. All four wheels are being supplied with torque, so the i8 never wants for traction; it slingshots forward, perhaps not like a Lamborghini Huracán, but with plenty of pace nonetheless.
I hurled the i8 roadster through the mountains around Malibu, enjoying the car’s excellent handling poise and the responsive (if light) steering feel. Then a blanket of fog crept in and cut the forward view to maybe 10 yards, at which point I simply turned around at the top of the hill and conducted a little experiment. The battery showed one mile of range. Without touching the accelerator, I let the i8 coast all the way down to the Pacific Coast Highway—braking only occasionally, but always letting the regen system do its thing. At the bottom of the hill, I now had five miles of range on the battery. I slipped into eDrive and flew along the foggy coast as quietly as the clouds around me, the ride supple and smooth.
You lack for nothing in the i8 Roadster. Standard equipment includes heated and ventilated leather seats, carbon-fiber trim, 20-inch wheels, a great Harman/Kardon premium audio system, an 8.8-inch high-resolution touchscreen connected to BMW’s latest iDrive 6.0 interface, and on and on. The car is supremely comfortable and stylish as hell. At night, the blue accent lighting makes you feel like you’ve just stepped into a hip nightclub—or landed on the pad from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The i8’s singular appeal is that it can be the sports car you want it to be at the flick of a switch, and now with the flick of another switch, you can drive an open-air droptop, too. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if the replacement for the i8—which will be a more powerful, expensive, and exclusive supercar—changes color on demand.
2019 BMW i8 Roadster Specifications
|BASE PRICE||$164,295/$166,795 (base/as-tested)|
|POWERTRAIN||1.5L turbocharged DOHC 12-valve inline-3, 228 hp, 236 lb-ft; AC synchronous electric motors, 141 hp 184 lb-ft; combined output, 369 hp, 420 lb-ft|
|TRANSMISSIONS||2-speed automatic (electric motor), 6-speed automatic (inline-3)|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 2-passenger, mid-engine, front- and mid-motor, AWD convertible|
|EPA MILEAGE||27 mpg (combined, gas-only); 69 MPGe (combined, gas-electric)|
|L x W x H||184.9 x 76.5 x 50.7 in|
|0–60 MPH||4.4 sec|
|TOP SPEED||155 mph|