Remember those old 1970s science fiction TV shows like Gerry Anderson’s UFO which featured what they thought futuristic electric cars in the 21st century would or should look like?
Well decades later German car giant BMW has gone and built one for real. And I’ve just been driving it.
BMW has sliced the top off the existing plug in petrol-electric hybrid i8 Coupe to produce a dramatic 155mph top-down, wind-in-the-hair sports car that can accelerate from rest to 62mph in 4.6 seconds – and turns heads until they risk swivelling off.
Hybrid and mighty: The BMW i8 Roadster is BMW’s new eco-friendly £140,000 supercar
It looks like nothing else on the planet, has impeccable environmentally-friendly credentials, and looks astonishing –even more so on the road in the wake of its unveiling at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November, after a development period of just 22 months from getting the official green-light to go ahead.
It’s fascinating to watch the i8’s gull-wing, or butterfly, doors swing up and out to allow you to get inside – an engineering feat in itself to keep the solid integrity of the car without compromising handling or safety given that there’s no upper support.
I drove the new drop-top around the tight and narrow mountain roads on the Spanish Mediterranean island of Majorca, as well as along its only real stretch of motorway to put it through its paces.
In performance terms the i8 may not match a full-blooded Ferrari, but for an owner with the £124,000 price tag to splash (a £12,000 premium on the Coupe) it’s a very good mix of sporting and luxury prowess with green aspirations.
And expect that price to rise to nearer £140,000 by the time customers have loaded on extras.
Despite the UK’s generally mixed weather, Britain is the biggest market in Europe for open-topped cars. Yet ironically on the day I drove it, Britain was actually hotter than Majorca, but there was still plenty of sunshine to enjoy.
Ray Massey takes to the streets of Majorca at the car’s world debut
On the day of the test drive it was hotter in England than it was on the Balearic Island
The butterfly doors are an engineering feat. Especially because they don’t compromise handling or safety given that there’s no upper support
The aerodynamic styling is futuristic – and also very functional to keep turbulence and wind noise to a minimum.
The word Roadster is proudly emblazoned on the rear pillar and its back end. But the kidney grilles, headlamps and blue and white propeller badge mean it’s clearly a BMW.
Getting in requires some balletic moves, mind you.
There’s a chunky lower door step to negotiate your legs over before you slide into the stylish sports seat.
And getting out gives you a good work out of your ‘abs’ which is probably only for the good.
Those old-style finishing school deportment classes of yesteryear, which taught well-mannered young ladies how to elegantly get in and out of a sports car, would not go amiss for today’s male and female drivers of the i8 Roadster.
Once settled inside, however, it’s playtime.
The aerodynamic styling is futuristic – and also very functional to keep turbulence and wind noise to a minimum
The i8 Roadster can accelerate from rest to 62mph in 4.6 seconds and with combined power roar on to a limited top speed of 155mph
Even with the gull-wing doors, getting in requires some balletic moves. Getting out isn’t much easier
BMW says the car is aimed at high-powered executives and entrepreneurs who may drive from home to their inner-city office on electric power – giving it a charge at both ends for the maximum 33 mile electric-only range it will allow and preparing them for a time when cities across the world ban all but zero-emissions vehicles.
But come the weekend, I think owners will want to go out and play –using the full effect of the total 374 horse-power from the lean but turbocharged 231 horse-power 1.5 litre three-cylinder engine – a variant of the plug in engine used in the Mini Countryman – and the 143 horse-power electric motor.
Though only a two-seater, this is a big car. And wide. So navigating hundreds of cyclists on narrow mountain roads and trying not to get scraped by massive tourist coaches on hair-pin bends was a challenge.
But once unleashed it’s a wonderfully keen and green sports car.
Running on 20-inch tyres, the plug-in hybrid’s all-wheel drive petrol engine sends power to rear wheels while the electric motor sends power to front wheels.
Acceleration from 0 to 62mph is just 0.2 seconds slower than coupe and the top speed is electronically limited to 155mph.
Using the near silent electric power only mode, the i8 will swish along to a top speed of 65mph without the need for the petrol engine to kick in, or to an even higher 75mph of you press the all-electric eDrive button.
Using the near silent electric power only mode, the i8 will swish along to a top speed of 65mph without the need for the petrol engine to kick in
The front pillars are quite thick and can obscure some of the view, particularly when negotiating tight bends, Ray said
The interior is clean and hi-tech with an easy to navigate electronic dashboard screen, and optional head-up display and plenty of connectivity for your phone and apps
There’s more fun to be had if you switch out of automatic mode and play manually with the paddles on the steering wheel.
The front pillars are quite thick and can obscure some of the view, particularly when negotiating tight bends.
The car is packed with clever touches and detail. Behind the two seats, for example are better coat hooks than you will find on a business class airline so you can hang your jacket while you drive.
Will it fit in my garage? New BMW i8 Roadster
On sale: now
Price: From £124,000
Type: Plug-in petrol-electric hybrid
Doors: 2 (‘butterfly’ or ‘gull-wing’, opening up and out)
Length: 4689mm Width: 1942mm Height: 1291mm
Weight: 1595kg (unladen)
Power: Hybrid all-wheel drive petrol engine sends power to rear wheels. Electric motor sends power to front wheels
Top speed: 155mph (electronically limited. Same as Coupe).
Top speed electric power only: 75mph (with eDrive button pressed). 65mph in standard mode.
Acceleration 0 to 62mph: 4.6 seconds ( 0.2 seconds slower than coupe)
Fabric top: opens or closes in 15 seconds up to speeds of 31mph, using Z-shaped folding technique.
Total power: 374 horse-power (HP):
Petrol engine: Turbocharged 1.5 litre 3 cylinder engine. 231 horse-power.
Electric motor: 143 horse-power
Petrol engine: 6-speed automatic
Electric motor: 2-speed automatic
Total range: 273 miles (372 miles with optional 42-litre tank)
Electric-only ‘zero-emissions’ range: 33 miles
Average CO2 emissions: 46g/km
Battery: 355 Volt Lithium ion
4.5 hours from a domestic socket
3 hours from a fast charger
80% charge: 2 hours from a fast charger
Removing the two seats which exist on the coupe version liberates an extra 100 litres of luggage space in which you can stow a bag, a coat or any other smaller items behind you. There’s also room for a small bag in the boot and a little more space under the bonnet.
The fabric top with acoustic insulation opens and closes almost silently in 15 seconds at speeds of up to 31mph and retracts in a Z-shaped fashion so it can be stowed efficiently in the back behind the driver and passenger.
The car I drove had a particularly fetching metallic copper exterior, with a range of silver and frozen grey shades also available.
There’s even special noise-cancelling technology to reduce and remove any hiss or rumble caused by airstream.
Two microphones in the vehicle identify undesirable ambient noise and, with the use of software called ‘disruptive interference’, treat it and broadcast it back through the loudspeakers in away that cancels it out.
With the top down, the rear glass window stays retracted at just over an inch as this provides the optimum level to reduce wind turbulence.
BMW said: ’This allows it to mimic the effect of a conventional draught stop in reducing air turbulence inside the cabin and ensuring those on board can enjoy the pleasure of open-top driving in comfort.’
The petrol engine is linked to a six-speed automatic gearbox, with two-speed automatic available in pure electric mode.
There are five driving modes from hybrid-drive in Comfort, Sport or EcoPro, plus Comfort and EcoPro in all-electric mode. But it’s the Sport drive that adds to the excitement, sets the pulse racing and delivers the most intense driving pleasure by meshing the full power of petrol and electric drive.
BMW claims a total range for the i8 Roadster of 273 miles with the standard 30-litre fuel tank, rising to 372 miles with optional 42-litre tank, with average CO2 emissions of just 46g/km.
The interior is clean and hi-tech with an easy to navigate electronic dashboard screen, and optional head-up display and plenty of connectivity for your phone and apps.
There’s extensive use of lightweight but super-strong carbon fibre to keep down weight but maintain structural integrity.
That carbon fibre link continues to BMW’s sponsorship of the Malizia catamaran racing team which also uses the technology in its high-speed sea craft which I also had a chance to experience.
With the top down, the rear glass window stays retracted at just over an inch as this provides the optimum level to reduce wind turbulence
BMW says the i8’s 355-volt lithium ion battery pack can be charged in four and a half hours from a domestic socket or three hours from a fast charger, with 80 per cent charge achievable in two hours
There are five driving modes from hybrid-drive in Comfort, Sport or EcoPro, plus Comfort and EcoPro in all-electric mode
BMW says the i8’s 355-volt lithium ion battery pack can be charged in four and a half hours from a domestic socket or three hours from a fast charger, with 80 per cent charge achievable in two hours.
Bravely, BMW’s i8 project director Rainer Rump has produced for new owners a special commemorative booklet chronicling the challenges they had to overcome to get the car just right.
That’s everything from re-engineering the aerodynamics to creating with a 3D printer a special lightweight but super strong widget that allows the roof to retract.
And even the unfortunate incident where an engineer left the rear window open during a rainstorm and returned to found the car flooded.
But they are proud of what they’ve achieved, and rightly so.
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