As the final stragglers emerge from the city's hottest of nightclub hotspots into the pre-dawn gloaming, the new BMW i8 Roadster slides silently by. I'm heading for the hills above Valencia, hoping to make the most of the beautiful morning light and the cooler air before the whole place turns into an oven. But before we get to the twisting delights of the CV-25, there is a metropolis to traverse. And, in many ways, this is where BMW's hybrid sports car feels most at home.
We frequently bemoan the rise of the urban sports car but we cannot deny its existence. You know the sort of thing -- the 911 or Huracan that spends its whole life within some city's limits. Hundreds of horsepower used to accelerate up to no more than 40 or perhaps 50 miles per hour for month after month. Finely tuned suspension that sees no more cornering duress than a swiftly taken roundabout. These are cars bought purely for their style and status. As long as the car conveys glamour and wealth then the owner is happy.
Should you want it to, the i8 Roadster slips into this role perfectly. Its shape has changed little since it was launched and yet its air of futuristic glamour hasn't waned one bit. If anything, the removal of the roof has only improved the looks, with those striking open channels flowing down the haunches more dramatically. Like McLaren's 570S Spider or the Ferrari 488 Spider, the buttresses that remain prominent behind the driver and passenger's heads give the i8 Roadster something of a Targa vibe, and to my eyes that's no bad thing. The dramatic butterfly doors also remain, and with the roof removed it's much easier to get across the high sill of the carbon passenger cell and into the driver's seat. The new E-copper color paint is eye-catching, too, and overall, the i8 Roadster's design is every bit as sleekly sensational as any Italian supercar but with an added hint of the futuristic thrown into the aesthetic.
The lack of a shouty engine is perhaps the only fly in the ointment for the look-at-me crowd, but I think the city silence is rather wonderful and has its own air of chic. I remember thinking how lovely it was to be able to sneak out of a hotel parking lot early in the morning in a 918 Spyder running solely on electric, and the i8 is just the same. In fact it feels much easier to drive under electric power alone, with its new 34-Ah, 11.6-kWh battery (up from 20 Ah and 7.1 kWh) and Comfort mode refusing to wake the three-cylinder internal combustion engine unless thoroughly provoked. Battery range has also increased usefully from 20 to 33 miles and it's now possible to reach 75 mph using just the electric motors, meaning a swift -- as well as a stealthy -- getaway is now achievable.
So, if you want a modern, metropolitan mode of transport that also acts as a social media magnet, then the i8 Roadster must surely be up at the top of the list. But what if you want a sports car? Should the i8 Roadster be at the top of your list for an early morning blast in the hills? As I climb away from civilization and the road goes from meandering to tortuously twisting, the i8 initially feels rather fun. The steering is clean and fluid and the responses are pleasingly quick.
There is now an extra 12 horsepower from the electric motor driving the front wheels, meaning that when you add in the three-cylinder turbocharged gasoline engine that is mounted amidships, you have total outputs of 364 horsepower and 420 pound-feet. Weighing only 132 pounds more than the coupe (for a curb weight of 3,517 pounds) means a 0-62 mph time of 4.6 seconds, which is just 0.2 seconds slower than its enclosed sibling. All of this adds up to straight-line performance that is enjoyable without being startling. It's a bit like the three-cylinder soundtrack to that extent.
The i8 only really hits the buffers at that point in the journey, a few miles into the twists and turns, where you've become comfortable with how the car is responding and you want to explore the deeper dynamic qualities of the chassis. This is the point when you realize that the i8 has no more to give. Scratch the surface and you've dug as deep as you can go.
That doesn't make it a bad, slow or unenjoyable car -- far from it. It just means that there isn't the sort of adjustability and involvement that you would expect from a BMW (a brand that purports to produce "The Ultimate Driving Machine") that looks like the i8 does. It's not a car that you are going to have many happy years exploring the dynamic wiles of. The steering is accurate but has no real feel. And, although there is plenty of grip from the 20-inch wheels wrapped in Bridgestone rubber, when you lean hard on the tires you simply run into protesting squeal from the outside front.
I suspect that the $163,300 price of the i8 Roadster means that BMW thought it needed grip levels akin to an Audi R8 or 911 Turbo or, even more pertinently, an Acura NSX. But, given that it can't match those cars in a straight line anyway, how much nicer would it be if the philosophy in the corners was more in line with something like the Alpine A110? Progression, roll and adjustability at more manageable speeds.
After a morning up in the hills it's clear that the i8 Roadster can't quite deliver the ultimate driving enjoyment that its propeller badge and dramatic looks promise. Will most owners care? Probably not, because of course what you're really paying for and buying into with the i8 is the drivetrain, and thankfully that has been much improved in this latest iteration. The ability to now drive further and faster on electric power really adds to its allure. As it stands then, the i8 Roadster feels like the ultimate urban sports car that you wouldn't feel guilty keeping within the city limits for most of its life.
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