Stories & Features

BMW's i8 Roadster: a sign of things to come?

Image of a BMW i8 with the doors open on a Canadian winter day
A BMW i8 Roadster strikes a glorious pose with its scissor doors on a rural road last winter.

BMW's astonishing two-seater rekindles joy of driving for a practical dad

Rob Klovance
For bchydro.com

This is what happens when you grow up working class and practical.

You learn to use a clutch and manual transmission in the lane behind your East Van home on a three-on-the-tree Vauxhall with your friends laughing at the fits, starts and stalls. You are briefly unleashed by dad's upgrade to a 4-barrel carburetor in his fourth straight Ford pickup, but your first car is the one Dad the Ford Man helps you buy – a red Pinto with a manual tranny and his one concession, mag wheels and wide tires.

Years later, you finally discover what it's like to drive a car that actually enjoys the road, a 1987 Honda Accord that accelerates so smoothly to 130 km/h that you lose your licence briefly for racking up too many speeding tickets. Before you serve your sentence, you drive from Vancouver to Kamloops in under three hours, an hour quicker than you drive it today.

Then you grow up, get married and get sensible. Years later, you start writing about plug-in electric cars, but don't have a charging option in your building. So you say good-bye to your 2004 Subaru and hello to a Mazda CX-5 that's fun and gives you about 150 km more per tank than the Subaru.

And then – out of the blue – you get a chance to drive a BMW i8 Roadster.

I have friends who talk about cars like I talk about punk bands, and now I understand why. Driving the i8 Roadster is a little like discovering that Chinese food goes interstellar when you move past deep fried prawns, egg rolls, and sweet and sour chicken. And thanks to the i8's blend of electric motor and economical three-cylinder gas engine, getting behind the wheel of the i8 also makes you feel at least a bit responsible in this era of climate change.

My Batman wallet will never be fat enough to afford this car. But for a week, I had my Batmobile. I'll never look at cars quite the same way again, because the bar on what I crave in a vehicle just got raised.

Image of a BMW i8 on a seaside road
The i8 goes top down in 16 seconds with the push of a button, ideal for a coastal drive on a warm day. (Photo courtesy BMW)

Fast, fun, and a dream to drive

By the time I reluctantly pulled in to the BMW dealer to hand back the keys to the i8, I was already missing it. It was everything I would want in a roadster – more than fast enough to provoke an adrenaline rush, with the finest interior and most comfortable seats I've ever experienced, a drop-top that transforms to top-down in 16 seconds, and sensational cornering. It does all this and – depending how much you drive around town in fully electric mode – produces fewer carbon emissions than even the most economical gas-powered car.

The i8 gave BMW's designers a chance to experiment with hybrid technology, and they pulled out all the stops. A turbocharged 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine is mounted just behind the seats, drives the rear wheels and also recharges the i8's battery pack. And this is where the technology kicks in. Depending on the driving mode you choose, you can be driving fully electric for up to 40 or 50 km, or use a blend of electric motor power to the front wheels and gas power to the rear. It makes for get-up-and-go (the electric motor kicking in for a power boost) and remarkable stability while cornering. You can also crank up the driving experience with a switch from automatic to manual via the i8's paddle shifters.

The i8 growls when in anything other than full electric E-Drive mode, and gets angrier when you choose sport mode, at which point the all-digital instrumentation morphs from blue to a kind of volcanic red-orange. Supercar geeks may not be keen on the i8's synthetic growl –manufactured by BMW's sound engineers, not by that little three-cylinder engine – but it suits the stunning look and power of the i8. And it's not so loud that it kills the conversation for the couple on the roadside patio, at least until they stop to gawk at the sleek, carbon-fibre roadster.

Ideally, the owner of an i8 will install a Level 2 charger in their garage or in their designated parkade spot, something that just got easier with the B.C.'s EV charger rebate program for homes, stratas and workplaces. In the BMW's E-Drive mode, you'll be an all-electric eco warrior for short trips around town. The i8 isn't compatible with DC fast chargers, but doesn't need that option – you can go from zero to fully charged at a Level 2 in less than three hours.

Yes, it's impractical, unless you have lotsa money (and another car to get you to hockey)

Time for a few negatives. Already wide, the i8's eye-popping scissor doors require a couple more feet of clearance to open, so if you're in a tight parking spot, there's usually only room for the driver of this two-seater to enter. That makes parking strategic, as is getting in and out of the vehicle. The best tactic on entry is to drop your butt into the seat, then swing your knees inside. Exit is more challenging, kind of like trying to climb out of a reclined La-Z Boy.

Other knocks on the car include the shortage of cargo space – there's room for a briefcase or small overnight bag in the pop-up rear hatch, and for another briefcase or small bag back of the seats, but there's notably no easy place within reach to put larger items like a sunglasses case, unless you use the one cupholder. Driving the car to my weekly hockey game would be out of the question, short of plopping my stinky bag on the fine leather of the passenger seat (that would just be wrong), or doing the full ridiculous: wearing my gear and putting my skates in that tiny back hatch.

After learning to rely on my Mazda's blind-spot monitoring, I was forced to do a lot of shoulder checks while doing lane changes in the i8. I didn't find the blind spots as bad as have some reviewers – the combo of side mirrors and small rear window do a reasonable job. But it requires some head swivelling.

And then there's the price. Much has been written about the fact there are far faster cars out there for less money, and the i8 Roadster as spec'd for my week of driving was over $170,000. That's more than twice what I paid for my first townhouse in Kamloops, but this car wasn't built for me. It's for the person who has kicked butt financially, cares at least a bit about sustainability, and feels they deserve something special. And that it is.

Image showing the interior of the BMW i8 roadster
Controls on the i8 are relatively easy to use and comfortably within reach of the driver, while the seats are a dream, other than getting in and out of them. (Photo courtesy BMW)

i8 Roadster at its best on a winding road

Much to his delight, I took my teenage son on i8 roadster adventure beyond city traffic, on a scenic stretch of winding highway that included a hilly hairpin turn. After we drove the hairpin once, my son couldn't resist camping out roadside with his smartphone to capture some video of my repeat trip – which he sped up considerably for maximum effect – for a TikTok post. No speeding required, just smooth arcs around corners that would have put my Mazda into a lean and skid.

On that twisty road, on the highway, or on city streets, the i8's marriage of state-of-the-art interior design, power and handling make it a constant joy. And the thing that floors me is just how comfortable and confident I feel behind the wheel. The car may look super cool and intimidating, but its design and technology make it safe and easy to drive. And the teen-directed hip-hop on the i8's sweet Harman Kardon speakers just added to the magic.

I can only imagine the thrill of driving the i8 on a closed track or on the Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver to Whistler.

The 369 combined horsepower of the i8 translates into a 0-to-60 time of 4.4 seconds that, while plenty fast for most of us, lags well behind many cars that cost less, including the Mercedes-AMG GT, the Jaguar F-Type, the Nissan GT-R, the Porsche 911 turbo, and the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1. But those all guzzle gas, so the i8's fuel economy of 6.7 litres/100 km and low carbon emissions make those rivals look like yesterday's answer to fun on the road.

Driven wisely, you'll get in the vicinity of 500 combined km range in the i8. And you'll be producing at least 25% fewer carbon emissions than a Honda Civic, and about a third the emissions of the Mercedes-AMG GT roadster.

If you want Raw Power, listen to Iggy and the Stooges. If you're all about fighting climate change (and have the money), the fully electric Tesla Model S and its sub-three-second 0-to-60 times and great range is going to be hard to resist. But the i8 is a seductive gas-electric hybrid alternative, a dazzling grand touring machine with supercar looks the Tesla can't match.

The i8 was an experiment that officially ended with the last roadster – in an electric blue – rolling off BMW's Leipzig, Germany assembly line this past June. On a personal level, I'd like to see BMW apply some of the things that are great about the i8 to more affordable hybrids down the road. BMW's i3 electric is small, likeable and about a third of the price of the i8, but its gas-powered range extender still doesn't add up to enough range (about 240 km according to the EPA) to satisfy most drivers. And from what we've seen of BMW's Vision M Next Concept, a production version of that hybrid beast would be considerably faster than the i8, and way out of the price range of mere mortals.

The mix of gas and electric will remain a more comfortable choice for drivers for years to come, especially in places that lag behind in charging infrastructure. But hybrids might make a more difficult sell in B.C., where going full electric has become significantly easier with increases in battery range, the abundance of BC Hydro and other fast-charging stations, and rebates for the purchase and installation of home chargers.

But for those not ready to go full battery, the i8 proves that curbing carbon emissions doesn't have to come at the expense of fun.