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First drive: Roadster to boost BMW i8 sales

Electric dreams: BMW development chief Klaus Froehlich is hopeful of a BMW supercar, with i8 DNA.

BMW’s refreshed i8 Roadster will drive further on electricity, but is no quicker

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BMW logo30 Apr 2018

BMW’S ‘i’ electrified vehicle arm says that its new i8 Roadster will become more popular than the i8 Coupe, as the company ushers in a facelift for the sporty pair that has focused primarily on boosting electric-only driving range.

Global sales have tapered off for the four-year-old BMW i8, with the Leipzig plant in Germany having produced 13,600 vehicles since 2014. In Australia, BMW has sold 128 examples of the i8 since its October 2014 local launch.

The updated version, including the new Roadster that was revealed at last year’s Los Angeles motor show, will hit Australian dealerships this July.

However with BMW’s i Division having boosted battery size by 70 per cent and electric-only driving range by 50 per cent, BMW i media relations manager Paloma Brunckhorst said that the i8 facelift – dubbed Life-Cycle Impulse (LCI) in BMW speak – can reverse the slide and will help increase i8 production.

“We produced a little bit less (of the i8 Coupe) and now it’s going back (up) again,” Ms Brunckhost told GoAuto at the international media launch of the i8 Roadster in Majorca, Spain, last week. “It’s a totally normal lifecycle (trend). For the i8 we now think it’s getting more, but … it’s going to be much more Roadster now.”

Asked whether sales of the i8 Coupe had been in line with the expectations of the BMW Group since it launched in 2014, Ms Brunckhorst replied: “Yes.

“I think we’re getting customers from Ferrari, from Lamborghini, from sports cars that are there for years and years. I think our customer is very special, they want something very special but very futuristic.”

BMW i declined to nominate a specific target market or average buyer for the i8, claiming that the base had been a mix of young individuals with a technology background all the way to traditional loyalists of the brand and other sportscars.

BMW has not included a significant performance boost as part of the i8 update, compared with the outgoing version, despite acknowledging that Tesla continues to offer faster electrified models.

The 1.5-litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine continues with 170kW/320Nm while the electric motor has increased by 9kW to 105kW (plus an unchanged 250Nm of torque) for a 275kW total.

Driving through an eight-speed automatic to the rear wheels, plus a two-speed automatic for the electric motor to the front wheels, the 1535kg Coupe claims a 4.4-second 0-100km/h time, two-tenths quicker than the 60kg-heavier Roadster.

While this continues to be a half-second off the pace of $300K petrol-engined sportscar rivals, Ms Brunckhorst insisted that buyers were satisfied with the level of performance offered and a larger petrol engine was not considered.

“(For buyers) I think it’s not important if it’s a three- or four-cylinder for example,” she said.

“Right now the technology with the three-cylinder is so good and the electric engine we have with our battery pack with 70 per cent more (capacity). I think right now the customers are really happy.”

The position was further defended by BMW i powertrain sub-project manager Ingo Tassinger, who confirmed that increasing the battery capacity from 7.1 to 11.6 kilowatt hours enabled the electric-only driving range to be boosted from 37 kilometres to either 53km (Roadster) or 55km (Coupe).

“The combustion engine we have is really brilliant because it has also won several prizes, and we see that is really on top technical level at the moment,” Mr Tassinger told GoAuto.

“So (there) was more to focus on the electric system here. What we did was the electric range and we also increased the power of the electric motor on the front (and) I think this is the right combination of engine power and electric power.”

Combined-cycle fuel consumption is rated at 1.8 litres per 100 kilometres (Coupe) or 2.0L/100km (Roadster), down from 2.1L/100km, with the i8 delivering a 440km total driving range with a 30L tank or 600km with the optional 42L tank.

At a household powerpoint, both BMWs can be recharged in four-and-a-half hours, with that time being reduced to less than three hours at a fast-charge site or with a 3.6kW BMW i Wallbox household installation.

Mr Tassinger said that the i8’s carbon-fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) chassis suited the opening of the fabric roof – it can lower in 15 seconds at 50km/h – and that there was little loss in body rigidity.

An extra mounting point has been added to the rear suspension of the i8 Roadster to increase stiffness, and the bonnet air duct – which had been found as a cause of flicking warm air up into the cabin – has been covered and re-routed through the wheelarches.

While full LED headlights with laserlight automatic-adaptive high-beam remain as standard, active cruise control still has not been added due to mounting issues with a front radar. Only low-speed autonomous emergency braking (AEB) is standard, with lane-keep assistance and blind-spot monitoring also omitted.

BMW used aluminium beneath the fabric roof of the i8 Roadster to enhance strength while remaining light, and although it has lost the twin rear seats of the i8 Coupe due to the roof mechanism, as well as reducing boot space from 154 litres to 88L, it has added around 100L of storage space behind the front seats.

The i8 Roadster also has a more sloping rear roofline than the i8 Coupe, complete with unique silver-accented rear three-quarter flanks and specific scissor-door mounting points. Both hybrid sportscar body styles also come with a new BMW Display Key borrowed from the 5 Series and 7 Series.

Inside there are new sports seats and trim (including raw-carbon-fibre dashboard inserts), an 8.8-inch monitor now with touchscreen functionality and the latest iDrive6, plus a head-up display with a BMW M-derived tachometer.

However, while entry to the low and stunning-looking i8 Roadster will be familiar to any sportscar owner, the driving experience feels different to rivals.

BMW Australia has not confirmed whether the updated i8, which lands locally in July, will take a price cut from the existing two-door’s $303,300 plus on-road costs pricetag. Nor has the premium for the drop-top yet been announced.

Should it not move down from this position, it will only further emphasise the lead of the Audi R8 RWS, Jaguar F-Type SVR, McLaren 540C, Mercedes-AMG GT C, and Porsche 911 Carrera GTS in terms of performance.

Indeed this BMW hybrid sportscar cannot match the feel and feedback, the visceral noise or fierce performance of such price-point rivals. The steering feels artificial on-centre, and the narrow and aerodynamics-obsessed 215mm-wide 20-inch front tyres start to teeter on the edge of grip early through corners.

Yet with such deficits out of the way, there is still such intrinsic brilliance in the i8 Roadster that carries over in a facsimile from the i8 Coupe,as we discovered during the first international drive around the island of Majorca last week.

The carbon-fibre construction helps make this BMW i product feel incredibly strong, yet startlingly light and agile. That also helps the single-setting adaptive suspension deliver superb ride quality that lends only the slightest emphasis on control over comfort. That featherweight feel is not betrayed by the premium interior, either, although the monochromatic climate display needs a refresh.

Meanwhile the steering improves at speed and the way a driver can delicately thread such a potent sportscar through bends is superb. It rewards smooth inputs, with light fingers dancing behind the three-spoke wheel.

With the petrol engine driving the rear wheels trumping outputs compared with the electric motor on the fronts, the i8 Roadster also feels delightfully rear-wheel driven in a classic BMW way.

If only the electronic stability control (ESC) was not panicked by attempting to balance the lack of front-end grip with a smooth application of throttle on corner exit. The i8 Roadster has brilliant balance and it desperately wants to smoothly move between its axles – no lairy oversteer, mind – but the system intrudes.

Other sportscars – such as the F-Type and 911 – work with, not against, drivers.

Particularly when using the steering wheel-mounted paddle-shifters at speed, though, there is instant powertrain response and shove, even if it is not nearly as sustained as any petrol-engined rival. For the price, it just should feel quicker.

Despite this, though, this powertrain’s efficiency is stunning. We started with a 561km range showing and full battery. Following a spirited 170km drive, 221km of range remained – with a 391km total range still being decent for a hard drive.

We had used 4.8kWh per 100 kilometres and 8.0 litres per 100 kilometres, a far cry from the 2.0L/100km claim but a figure few 4.6s 0-100km/h sportscars could match.

With the battery full in eDrive mode, it is possible to briskly power up to 120km/h without engaging the petrol engine. At the other end of the scale, in urban conditions, braking or travelling downhill actually feeds range into the electric motor and it does so quickly and effortlessly.

Especially with al fresco driving around town, the rockstar looks of the i8 combine with silent running that leaves people breathing easy – and in cities such as Los Angeles and Beijing, air quality is more important than ever.

For closer to $200K than $300K, the i8 Roadster would be fantastic. Or, for the price, greater performance is expected. And in any case greater front-end grip and calmer electronics must be on the ‘to do’ list for this driver’s car brand.

It certainly deserves it because with gorgeous chassis balance, and that light and strong body, the i8 Roadster would leave any Tesla blushing despite being slower in a straight line.

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