Johannesburg - At 1595kg, BMW’s new i8 Roadster is hardly a lightweight in the realm of sports cars. But, take a look under its hot body and you will see that it is packed with more technology than NASA fitted to its shuttles.

Batteries, electric motors (for the wheels and the roof), and a petrol-turbo engine; lined in sumptuous leather and brimming with connectivity technologies. At 1595kg then, it is remarkably lightweight for what it is.

You can feel this lightness in the car from pull-away. It almost has a sensation that it is gliding along the tarmac, suspended by a beam of energy.

I always liked the idea of the i8. A petrol, turbocharged engine behind the driver, electric motor up front, a proper automatic gearbox for shifting cogs and, in the case of the Roadster, the ability to stow the roof away.

It is a wonderful recipe for cars of the future and BMW has done a great job of making the i8 Roadster drive and feel like a ‘normal’ car in many ways.

Leaving the office for the first time during my test cycle, I left the car in eDrive mode, merging with slow-moving traffic on Pixley Seme street in Johannesburg’s CBD. Because of the i8, traffic slowed further, and pedestrians cheered. Camera phones were whipped out; people were scurrying to catch a glimpse of the silent, insect-like car weaving its way through town.

It is a looker for sure, and wherever I took the car during its test period, it attracted more stares than any other car I have tested in the past 10 years (Merc SLS included).

To create the Roadster, BMW cut a section of the roof and 3D-printed the folding mechanism to enable it to be as compact and lightweight as possible. The result is an awesome 911/MX-5 RF targa-style folding roof that folds quickly behind driver and passenger.

Unfortunately, you lose the 2+2 seating setup of the i8 coupé in the soft-top version, which is only a two-person car.

The roof folds away quickly at the touch of a button, and there is no faffing about with hinges or clips near the windscreen. You also get a cool, vertical rear glass screen that can be rolled up or down.

The cabin of the test car was outfitted in leather and soft-touch material, with additional carbon fibre elements thrown into the mix. BMW calls the colour of the leather e-Copper, the same with the paint, which looks really cool at sunset or sunrise. It is a mission to keep clean though, especially the piano-black bits and pieces.

Back to the first drive home, I kept the car in eDrive mode to see how it would perform on the M1 north toward Pretoria. Traffic was slow moving at first, so the car comfortably merged and kept pace with traffic. Then, I saw an opportunity to accelerate a bit, sticking the gear lever left into Sport mode and firing up the 1.5-litre Mini-derived three-cylinder engine. For a moment, a tingle overwhelmed me as I heard the diminutive motor spring into life.

‘It’s a V8 for sure’, I thought. But, no. It is a well-tuned engine note combined with a throaty exhaust and induction sound that gives this sensation that you are pushing on in a car with a much larger engine. However, you don’t need a larger engine really, as the electric-hybrid drive system in the i8 Roadster is superb.

As in the coupé, the 1.5-litre petrol engine drives the rear wheels and the electric motor powers the front wheels. Updated lithium-ion batteries and a new electric motor bring more power to the table, with the total system output swelling from 266kW to 275kW.

It’ll do 0-100km/h in 4.6 seconds and is electronically limited to a top speed of 250km/h.

Now, 275kW might not sound like a lot of power, but the torque delivery in the car thanks to the electric technology makes it gallop faster than a Mustang GT. I know this because I had to make a quick trip to Time Square in Menlyn. On the way there, traffic sucked. I stuck the car in Comfort mode and enjoyed the thumping audio system.

On the way back, I encountered Mr Mustang. We didn’t get up to crazy speeds or antics (public road and traffic), but we did try a few roll-ons and between 60km/h and 120km/h the ‘5.0’ was left for dead each time. The i8’s instantaneous shunt thanks to the torque provided by the electric motor gives it an urgency that even the Mustang can’t match for pace. It is probably a different story at the coast, but up in Gauteng I can definitely see the merits of an electrified drivetrain.

On the subject of the drivetrain, BMW claim 2.1l/100km when it comes to unleaded fuel consumption. This is thanks to the electric motor’s ability to carry the i8 Roadster up to speeds of 120km/h in eDrive mode and the battery pack’s ability to hold enough charge to drive at least 50km on electricity alone.

In the real world, though, I kept switching between eDrive and Sport modes, which meant average fuel consumption hovering in the region of 8.5l/100km for the week.

I also made good use of the charger provided in the boot, siphoning energy from my in-laws’ house and Time Square. I did not get a chance to plug the car into one of the BMW quick-charging stations in Melrose Arch.

VERDICT

As a new-generation sports car, the BMW i8 Roadster is certainly fascinating. It’s entertaining to drive, its carbon tub and aluminium chassis resonates with noise, and its engine rumbles the body in a sports car kind of way.

But, switch it to electric mode and you can creep up and down the streets like you were in a golf cart.

It is a highly-persuasive car in that after driving it, it leaves a lasting impression of solidity and technological advancement. It is a nod to the future that shows us that despite the fact that petrol engines are becoming smaller and smaller, electrification of cars is actually a good thing. Prices start at a shade over R2.3 million for the i8 Roadster, and that includes BMW’s five-year/100 000km Motorplan.

Drive360